Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Gedolim And How They Relate To The Common Person

Last week, Yossi Ginzberg wrote an excellent guest post for this blog on why gedolim fail. His basic thesis is that due to the global nature of communications today, gedolim are more accessible than ever before in the past, the gedolim have to be available to more and more people, leaving them less time to attend to strictly communal matters.

Yossi has some excellent points in his post and I don't want to seem like I am contradicting him. A lot of what he says is true. And yet, in some ways, I think that part of the problem is the fact that the gedolim aren't accessible enough to and don't relate to us (the common person).

There are several issues to be addressed here:

1. The gedolim aren't accountable to the people they are leading.

I know that this may sound like heresy, but if the gedolim want the respect of the people they are leading, they have to be accountable too. The problem isn't that gedolim issue bans - the problem is that no one clearly knows *why* things are banned and no one knows the thought process and decisions that go into those bans.

For example, consider the latest ban on the "Big Event" concert, which caused one of the performers to back out. When the ban came out, it was unclear whether or not the ban applied to this concert only, or to all concerts. Why this concert? Why not the HASC concerts or any of the other concerts that go on around the country. Is there any official explanation to this? Have any of the gedolim issued a follow up statement explaining why *this* concert is bad but others are okay?

Here's an even better question -- why was the concert banned? Look at the banning document (from Life Of Rubin): okay, there's something there about the singers and kalus rosh (frivolity) but (unless I missed something), I didn't see a single reason listed -- it basically boils down to "because I said so."

Of course, for some people, that's good enough. Some people will follow a gadol blindly no matter what he says. He'll just assume that the gadol's decree comes straight from Heaven and follow it no matter what. Well, if that's the way you want to live your life, then fine... if it works for you, gezunt. However, it doesn't work that way for all of us. Heck, it doesn't even work that way for most of us. If something is assur, I'd like to know why. Call it a lack of emunah on my part, if you want -- it doesn't matter. Some may scream that "Gadol X doesn't owe you an explanation!" You're right, he doesn't "owe" me an explanation... but if he wants me to follow his words, he should provide one. The world of old doesn't exist anymore... gedolim cannot continue with a "because I said so" approach. It may have worked a hundred years ago, but it is falling out of favor with an ever-increasing portion of the frum community.

And lest anyone think that it's beneath his dignity to have to explain his reasoning to the common man, let him feel free to open up an Igros Moshe, where R. Feinstein zt"l didn't just say "assur" or "muttar," but oftentimes went to painful lengths to explain his reasoning.

2. The gedolim live in ivory towers.

In the past, gedolim used to do first-hand research to discover the facts of a situation before they ruled on it. Yes, there were times that they got it right and there were times they got the facts wrong... but at least they tried to get them.

Today, however, it seems that gedolim simply take their cues from neighborhood zealots. They are fed misinformation about a situation causing them to rule on cases that do not exist. I can think of two examples off the top of my head:

a. The concert ban at hand. Chaim, at Life of Rubin, shows how gedolim are fed misinformation to get them to sign onto bans. One person signed only after he told that there would be mixed seating, when, in fact, the concert is separate seating.

b. The ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books. His books were banned by rabannim who, for the most part, had not even read the books. Even three years later, some of his opponents are still seeking to continue the ban (warning: PDF) based on misinformation and distortions of what he said.

We're all familiar the idea of GIGO -- garbage in, garbage out. In order for a posek to make a ruling on an issue, he has to have first-hand knowledge of the facts of the issue. If you're going to ban the circumstances of a concert, at least make sure that the facts are as they've been presented. If you're going to ban a book, at least make sure that the book actually states what you think it states.

3. The gedolim take a heavy-handed approach

It seems of late that the gedolim have taken a "my way or the highway" approach to rulings. For example, it is my understanding (and if I'm wrong, please feel free to correct me) that before there was no effort to contact the concert's organizers and address the objections before the ban. Not one of the gedolim reached out (or had their representatives reach out) and see if the concert could be changed to accomodate them. It was simply "no, don't have it," and that's it.

The same thing occurred with Rabbi Slifkin and his works. He was simply told "retract," without being a chance to explain or justify his works. None of them contacted him privately beforehand to say something to the effect of "Reb Nosson, we've been hearing some very disturbing things about some of the books that you've published. Is it true that you said X? Do you really hold of Y? Do you think we can allow a book that says Z to be owned and read by members of our community?" From my understanding (again, if I'm wrong, please feel free to correct me), that did not happen. Rabbi Slifkin was basically given an order to cease and desist without any opportunity to discuss the matter.

It seems that there is no desire on the part of the gedolim to privately fix whatever they perceive to be the problems in the community before going public with a massive ban. While some problems can be fixed with diplomacy, they seem to be fixated on using a bazooka to kill every roach.

4. There has to be a better way for the gedolim to communicate with the community

I find it bizarre that in this day and age, the medium of choice for the word of the gedolim is the broadsheet. I understand that they don't want to get involved in television, radio or the Internet. But there are definitely better ways for gedolim to be able to verify that they have, indeed, signed onto a banning document.

Consider what happened when the concert ban occured. At first, no one knew if the document was real or not. Some figured that it was a Photoshop job of an earlier ban. The next day, a (forged) pashkiville came out stating that the first one was a forgery. In the end, it was verified that most (if not all) of the signatories actually did sign... but there has to be a better way. I can even suggest one.

I live in New York. The climate here is usually pleasant, but on occasion, we get blizzards and lots of snow. When this happens, the schools sometimes close. But I don't have to speak to the administrator of the school to find out if the school is closed on any given day. I have a number that I can call and hear a recording. The recording tells me whether or not I need to bring one of the Freds into school that day. No direct human contact is needed. The same could be done here. How hard would it be for a gadol to pick up a phone and record a three minute message: Hello, this is gadol X. Yes, I did sign on the ban for the concert. It is my opinion that it is wrong to attend this concert because...?" Last time I checked, no one "assur"ed the telephone, answering machine or recording device.

I don't want it to seem like I'm bashing the gedolim here... that's not my purpose or my intent. I can (and do) hold the gedolim and their Torah learning in high respect even if I disagree with the way they choose to communicate with us or the way they investigate situations before they issue bans. But sometimes it seems like they are completely out of step with all except the "we'll follow blindly" portions of our community.

The Wolf


-suitepotato- said...

Bravo! Way to go! Excellent!

Measured, even handed, very well thought out.

Seriously, you covered all the points without deviating from being fair to the premise that the gedolim may or may not be responsible for how things are going but that something nonetheless is wrong and you gave softball pitches of possible ways to improve.

Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Somebody should print this post and mail a copy to each of the signators on the pashkevil.

Jersey said...

I don't think I need to repeat the fact that this post is excellent, but I will anyway. Props.

Speaks truth said...

That was extraordinary.

Zach Kessin said...

Well said, one more thing that concerns me is this. I would expect many Roshi Yesheva and the like spend most of their time around the inter circle which is the best students. How much contact to they have with the guy in the back corner who is having trouble keeping up or who is holding on the derech by his finger tips?

I suspect that they have very little idea what is going on with that population of our community. Never mind people like me who have never even been to a yeshiva

SephardiLady said...

Agreed that there has to be a better way to communicate. If the internet weren't an issue, I would say they should start their own blog.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Yeshiva 20 years ago, the Yeshiva made a decree about something and the Rosh explained it like this:
"To reason is so Pashut that to explain it would detract from the Chashivus of the dovor".

ProfK said...

It used to be said of gedolim that one was a "godol b'yisroel." The "b'yisroel" is what is missing today. There is no "in." For the reasons you mentioned and others the gedolim are separated from the people. How does one lead if there is no personal connection? In the US we say it this way: "of the people, by the people, for the people." One doesn't see the "of," "by," or the "for" in the actions of the gedolim, and certainly not in the actions of those the gedolim have surrounded themselves with.

Y-Love said...

This article is right on the money -- but leaves out the pink elephant in the room: gabbaim.

They are the ones who go to the gedolim to say "Rebbe, Mr. X wants to speak with you about Y and Z." These people should be a little more accountable for what they say and for who gets into see the gedolim.

David said...

You're too kind to the so-called "gedolim." Growing up, I always believed that Judaism was special because of its intellectual appeal; this cult of the gedolim is about on the level of radical Islam in its unthinking-- and borderline unhinged-- view on the world.

Still Wonderin' said...

I agree with David. The people who are given and abuse the title "Gadol", destroy the regular Jews who took pride in who they were, until the day they realized that "who they are" was linked to the types of Jews they would never want to be.

Anonymous said...

Another way of looking at it might be that now, more than ever, rulers rule with the consent of the ruled. The daas torah model runs on "the gadol" being the final word on all issues. Since following the word is viewed as the apex of avodat hashem, why wouldn't everyone seek the highest daas torah authority they could in any legal way they can?


Anonymous said...

"The reason is so Pashut that to explain it would detract from the Chashivus of the dovor."

What a beautiful example of yeshivish! Though he could have said, "The taam is so poshut that to explain it would be poigem in the chashivus of the dovor."

Anonymous said...

It actually was "The reason is so Pashut that to embellish it with explanations would detract from the Chashivus of the dovor".

Mike S. said...

Actually, this seems to be a return to a much earlier model. If you look at many of the t'shuvot of the gaonim, they were often a sentence or two such as: "You asked if such and such is permitted on Shabbat. Yes [or no]." or "The proper nusach of the bracha is ...." This reflected that in their day a Gaon was not a title to be claimed by the followers of any Rabbi for their teacher, but was a position--the head of one of the two great yeshivot in Bavel. And they were the leading scholars by appointment; they didn't need to reinforce their authority by explaining their reasoning. Among the Rishonim, t'shuvot, at least the ones that have survived, tend to be relatively short, in part because the authors had international reputations in their lifetimes, and the t'shuvah was mostly a direct answer coupled with some instruction in how to read the relevant gemara. Among the Acharonim, t'shuvot tend to be much longer. This is partly because the Acharonim must deal with the Rishonim as well as the gemara. It is also partly because invention of printing means that not only the t'shuvot of the greatest scholars, whose authority is unquestioned, but also many lesser lights are available. But it is mostly because acceptance of a t'shuvahs ruling came about primarily because other Rabbinic scholars accepted the reasoning behind it, not because they accepted the authority of the writing scholar as being greater than the authority of the scholars who pasken'ed differently.

The current bans seem to be a return to the style of the Gaonim, except that the current Gedolim are not appointed by a Resh Galuta. The signers of the recent concert ban, at least the couple that I have either met or whose writings I have read, are indeed tremendous scholars, but there are many other tremendous scholars (in the Chareidi world, never mind the MO scholars) who did not sign the ban; why should the other scholars (or their talmidim) accept the ruling of the banners if their reason is not explained clearly (or at all)?
Perhaps that doesn't matter to the signatories, but it should. How is a well meaning Jew, or even Rov, supposed to tell which sets of scholars to follow, if they won't explain themselves.

Anonymous said...

Any sense of comparative level of knowledge of the laity in the time of the gaonim versus now?
Joel Rich

MIke S. said...


I am unaware of scientific data.
But if you look at questions sent to the Gaonim, it seems the laity are much better educated today. And certainly they have access to better reference material. I once read a t'shuvah of (IIRC) Sar Shalom Gaon, who was asked by the leaders of some town what b'rachot to make at a bris. Nowadays, even if there were a town where the mohel somehow forgot the brachot, they'd be able to open any Siddur to find the answer.

Most of the Tshuvot of the Rishonim and Early Acharonim that I have seen are addressed not to laymen, but to Rabbonim. They probably do not give a good an idea of the status of the laity, although occasionally you see mistaken assumptions in the shailot, that I think most modern high school graduates would get right.

If you wonder how that could be, I know that my grandfather grew up in a small town in Europe where what passed for Rabbinic authority was a fellow who had actually finished cheder (i.e. reached bar mitzvah) before going off to work. I am sure that if any issue arose at all he would have had to send to the Rav in the nearest sizable town, which may very well have been by letter. And it is not unlikely that the Rav would have had to straighten out the question before answering it. I am sure this type of isolation would have been even worse in earlier times.

Anonymous said...

That's what I would have guessed. If it's true, it's not surprising that an educated laity desires more than yes or no.

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

It does seem that a much larger percentage of the general population know how to learn and are more knoweledgeble than ever before. Not because we are better, but I would say that is because we have the luxury to get a full Yeshiva education.

Miriam said...

I think I've seen both sides of gadol-ness. lol

On the one hand, i've gone to a certain gadol and left with the dawning realization that he shouldn't be a gadol. He's practically held up by his 'people'.

On the other hand, I've gone to a certain gadol, who was the sweetest, kindest person. He would listen -listen- to what my problem was and ask questions and offer solutions. All this could happen when his "people" were not trying to discourage me from talking to him.

okay. I just realized I'm rambling so I'll stop here. sorry.

mlevin said...

Here's the story that bothered me for a long time and I think it (in a simple form) underlines the problem we're having today.

One person went to his Rav and asked if twist ties were allowed on Shabbos and Rav told him yes. Sometime later another person went to see the same Rav with the same question but was told that twist ties on shabbos were assur. Eventually, the two were talking and realized that they got two different answers to the same question. So, they both went to see that Rav to find out why the contradition, and Rav said, that while asking both were using hand motions to describe twist ties. One motioned tying twice and Rav said it was ok on Shabbos, the other motioned three times and Rav said that it's not ok on shabbos.

I see a few problems here:

1. Rav had no idea what twist ties were. Translation: he does not live on the same plane as people he "guides".

2. He did not ask to see it, feel it, use it. He did not study the situation and just made a halochik decision based on the person's hand motion.

3. When asked the same question a second time he gave a different answer without notifying the first person or explaining why, if or any other intricasies. (I guess he was hoping they will never discuss it).