Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Being Human Does Not Preclude Greatness

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, ZTL (Wikipedia)
One of the things I have always tried to impress upon fellow observant Jews is the fallibility of rabbinic leaders. Even those that are legitimate Gedolim.  Gedolim can and do make mistakes. This is not a controversial statement. It is a hard fact. No one would dispute it. Not even the most right wing observant Jew.

The problem is that the words of our Gedolim are often treated as though they are coming straight from God. Which makes them infallible in practice if not in theory. Taken a step further, if a rabbinic leader is considered THE Gadol Hador, that is  the end of it. It is the showstopper. No dissenting opinion will matter. Who, it is argued – knows better than the greatest living human being on earth? How dare anyone say he made a mistake?! What about the fact that he is human and admittedly can make mistakes? That may be true. But since there is no way of knowing  for sure, what better avenue to truth is there? Hence – defacto infallibility.

Several years ago – in what has to be one of the most controversial decisions made by a Gadol in the 20th century - Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (who was at the time considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor) threw the Torah world a curve. He took what was a widely acceptable approach to reconciling apparent contradictions between Torah and science and called it Apikursus (heresy). That sent shock-waves throughout the Orthodox Jewish community. Until that time those reconciliations were considered legitimate. 

This approach was widely used by outreach groups (even those on the right) trying to appeal to college students that knew the science and wanted Jewish answers to the apparent contradictions they saw in the Torah. Even Lakewood considered it acceptable. Chicago’s Lakewood Kollel (The Chicago Community Kollel) had at the time recently hosted a speaker who cited some of those reconciliations.

As a believer in those reconciliations, I asked one of the Roshei Kollel about it at the time and he basically shrugged. He did not know what to say. Suddenly that avenue was cut off from them. The Gadol HaDor had spoken.

Why did Rav Elyashiv do this? You guessed it. His Askanim (activist religious zealots) convinced him. They had found books about that written by Rabbi Nosson (Natan) Slifkin which said things like the Universe is billions of years old… far more than the under 6000 years of age indicated in the Torah. When his Askanim told Rav Elyashiv this information, he banned those books and condemned their contents as Apikursus.

This was despite the fact that those books had the approbation of other rabbinic leaders. Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel was one of them. He flew to Israel to speak to R’ Elyashiv. Doing so to make sure that what he heard was true. He came back assuring everyone that it was. And then went about explaining why we must listen to him and reject what he formerly endorsed.

That split the Orthodox world apart. And it almost destroyed Rabbi Slifkin who - when trying to defend himself - was crucified by the ‘true believers’. Those that automatically give defacto infallibility to Rav Elyashiv. Those of us that believed that R’ Elyashiv erred - giving too much credibility to his Askanim were  basically thrown under the bus by them. How dare we criticize the Gadol HaDor and say he might have erred?!

What has not been discussed so much is the flip-side to this phenomenon. Which in my view is equally wrong.

Because of this event, Rav Elyashiv – and perhaps the entire concept of being a Gadol was diminished in the eyes of many. The respect once given to Rav Elyashiv and the entire institution of rabbinic leadership had turned into scorn.

Two wrongs do not make a right. What needs to be understood by both sides (the ‘true beleivers’ and the cynics) is that great people are human and make mistakes. But that does not take away from their greatness.

Rav Elyashiv was clearly a Gadol and deserved the respect of everyone. But that does not mean we have to agree with everything he said. Especially when there are facts that counter one of his opinions. Those of us for example that believe in an ancient universe have many facts (which are beyond the scope of this post) to back this up. 

But our respect for his greatness need not be diminished because of the human quality of occasionally erring. Especially when relying on ignorant, self important, self righteous, and self centered zealots for information. That Rav Elyashiv trusted people was based on what he perceived to be legitimate righteousness. That too made him human, but a Gadol no less. 

This point is amply demonstrated in a beautiful Cross Currents article by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. It should be read in its entirety. It was written in the context of a widely disseminated opinion by one rabbinic leader that supports the anti-vaxxers. That leader is clearly wrong. He is making a huge mistake. A serious one that if followed will have adverse effects on the health of the entire Jewish community and beyond. But that does not make him any less of a leader any more than it makes him less human. (I should add that most anti-vaxxers do not  generally rely on him for their views. They have arrived at their conspiracy theories all by themselves.)

I will end by citing Rabbi Adlerstein who sums it up this way: 
Gedolim need not be perfect. They never were, and they never will be… 
We don’t unseat gedolim for writing a “wrong” teshuvah, or taking an unpopular position. We should not withhold our esteem from those with whom we have to disagree at times, or in whom we find some flaw…
There are fatal flaws, but not every flaw is fatal. A talmid chacham who shows shallow thinking in one area should not be consulted in that area. It does not follow – and experience shows otherwise – that great people cannot be insightful and incisive in some areas, and not in others.
(And yes, there can be talmidei chachamim whose Torah depth is astounding, but they are simply not very good about offering advice about practical matters or public policy. Go to a different talmid chacham for those things.)
Understanding that your rebbi is not perfect is initially deflating, but ultimately liberating. You can stop making excuses for this or for that, and accept his greatness in all those other areas.
The exponential growth of the Torah community leaves us crucially short-staffed in inspirational leadership. We are making a bad situation worse by disqualifying some gems, one person at a time. A Torah community of blind followers of people they have no real access to, on the one hand, and cynics who look to one on the other, is not sustainable.