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.