Friday, February 22, 2008

Guest Post: Why Gedolim Fail

This guest post was sent to me by Yossi Ginzberg. It deals with how our relationship with our gedolim have changed over the years. I'll save my comments on it for later.

Aside from formatting, there was no editing done on my part.

Why Gedolim fail

The failure of the Gedolim is perhaps the most frequently complained about topic in Orthodox Jewish blogdom.

Their failure to protest issue X, behavior Y, their failure to support initiative Z. No better is when they do decide to act- The Indian hair isn’t really forbidden, the concert tickets were already sold so it’s too late, why attack that person while ignoring this worse one. All are ripe fodder not only for the small fearless media, but also for conversations across every community that isn’t totally black-hat territory, and even some that are.


Why do we do this to them- destroying the precious image of our leaders in our own minds and in the minds of our kids- and why do we do this to ourselves- torturing ourselves into a situation where we continue to obey those whom we have written off in our minds?

I’d venture to put forth that this is a huge issue and must be dealt with soon, because whatever the causes are, it can only get worse, and at some point there won’t be even be a minyan to accept more directions or Daas Torah.

I’ll offer my analysis, and let’s see if anyone agrees.

Our history books have drawn for us a fairly clear picture of the relationships between the people and the gedolim. There were, in every era, the occasional “big” issues, but for the most part each community had it’s own leader, it’s own accepted halachic decisor. The term “Marah D’Asrah” meant exactly, Master of that Place. Local rabbis ruled on all the day-to-day issues, and for everyone, that was enough. On the rare “big issue” occasions, the Rabbi himself would get together with other Rabbi’s, to make the larger decision for the area. Examples would be the Takanos Rabbenu Gershom, the Vaad Arba Haaratzos, the meeting called to discuss the issue of electricity on shabbos, and the like.

Chassidim would of course go to their Rebbe for visits and for a bracha, but did not have phone access to call for piskei halacha or the like; they too relied on the local rabbinate for their daily needs.

Every town had it’s own Rabbi, the larger cities of course having several different kehillos, but still, the same reality applied: With your rabbinic issues, whether shailos or advice, one went to his own local posek. No second opinions, no calling to the Gadol in Israel.

I have been privileged to spend a fair amount of time in the homes of various high-profile Rabbi’s, both pulpit rabbi’s and Roshei Yeshiva. The common denominator in both was that the phone rarely stopped ringing. Some ignored it, others had a tape giving a time when calls could be accepted, some had children answering to say call later, and so on.

Who are all these callers?

Few are congregants or talmidim.

They are Askanim who need to discuss an idea, they are tzedaka trustees needing a letter or an approval, they are a million people from anywhere in the world who have heard that Rabbi X is a gadol, and they want to pour out their hurt, or ask for help with a shidduch, or get his approval for their project, or find out something about someone. No one writes letters anymore, and since few rabbis are reachable by email, telephones are the way to go.

Unless they visit.

Anyone who ever was a talmid or a congregant now has carte blanche to visit whenever they want, whether they actually need the time or not. If they’re VIP’s, they need to return home saying that they met with rabbi so-and-so. If they’re askanim, they need another approval, another haskomo, another pat on the back and acknowledgement that they are very important to Judaism. (This is not to denigrate the real- but very rare- actual crisis that needs a meeting.)

Since even Rabbi’s and roshei yeshiva need to sometimes eat, sleep, and speak to their wives, the constant barrage of calls and visits creates a situation that rapidly becomes untenable. Given that even for them a day is 24 hours, what happens?

What happens is that they run themselves ragged, trying to satisfy all the various people that each demands a piece of him. Whether they put in extraordinary efforts to do that or not seems not to matter one whit- easier access just means that more people will try.

The fallout appears in many forms. For the reputed Gadol/ Rabbi, it will be a congregant with serious issues not being able to get through in a timely fashion to discuss or perhaps resolve them. I know of many cases of people whose Get was delayed months by inaccessible rabbi’s, and many others who needed advice on a shidduch or a yeshiva for a child and were on tenterhooks because it was hard to get. One cannot blame the rabbi, since his obligations are in fact to the community, but his income is frequently greatly enhanced by the out-of-area askers, so when it’s an issue between being with a newly-bereaved congregant and a more profitable get, too often being close loses because the rabbi too has a lot of expenses. The person who is neither a congregant nor a profit center- say someone calling to ask about a congregant for a shidduch- too often may be left hanging on a back burner.

(A personal note: I have been on the calling side: I had a very ill baby many years ago, and a well-meaning person suggested to a distraught mother that a bracha from the Ribnitzer Rebbe (a”h) would help. Unfortunately, he was in Miami and we weren’t. I spent many frustrated hours on the phone unsuccessfully trying to get to him, stymied by his circle of protectors. I cannot blame him, of course, and I’m sure he was totally unaware, but the tears of parents in pain fall to the account of whoever controlled that phone)

For a Rosh Yeshiva, priorities are different. Or at least they should be.

One would think that a Rosh Yeshiva’s primary allegiance, timewise, would be first to his current talmidim and after that to the supporters of the yeshiva since, after all, someone must pay the bills.

Yet, it’s apparently too often not that way. Aside from the obvious aberrations, where Roshei Yeshiva are dragged into local political battles or domestic disputes, somehow the idea has evolved that if one ever learnt in any yeshiva, that Rosh Yeshiva owes him an audience at will.

More, Roshei Yeshiva have been conflated with poskim, not to imply that they aren’t capable. Still, it adds an unnecessary burden.

Worst of all is the daily invasion by askanim. These range from real communal activists to do-gooders, and from politically motivated to profiteers. Each feels that he is the most important meeting on the Rosh yeshiva’s agenda for the day, and has no compunction about making his feelings known.

An important fiber in this web of time-wasting for the Rabbi’s is this:

Borders have disappeared, thanks to air travel.

Every day, one hears of people flying to or from Israel for a haskama on something or other. If not a sefer, it’s for a new tzedaka idea. If not that, it’s so he can have a photo in the Orthodox paper, showing how important he is, that Rabbi XXX is taking time off to meet with the famous klal askan Rabbi YYY.

We’re no longer constrained by the old boundaries of travel. And the result is that well-known gedolim have not only their talmidim, former talmidim, and supporters to deal with, they have to meet every self-appointed askan in the world. Every visiting Rabbi, every wanna-be rabbi, and every person who, thanks to easy access, just wants a bracha.

One last causative factor: One of the coping mechanisms used by long-term yeshiva students is having inflated self-esteem. Where and when this started I have no idea, but it is in fact necessary, so as not to be jealous of classmates who went on to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. While this does very much aid long-term Torah study, it has negative side effects. This was been remarked upon extensively years ago in the book “The World of the Yeshiva”, and is the dissatisfaction created when, after years of intensive study, students cannot find the prestigious positions they feel entitled to. Add to that their continued study in the Daf Yomi programs, and the result is that in too many religious communities, the Rabbi is looked upon as a colleague rather than as an authority. As one wag put it, “What frum guy today hasn’t slept through shas at least twice?”

So, what’s to be done?

First, let’s stop treating the Gedolim as if they didn’t need to sleep. There’s no benefit to Klal Israel in parading them around like traveling exhibits.

Then, let’s stop the pressure on them to endorse every tzedaka project. If someone comes asking for tzedaka for orphans, it really makes no difference at all if the father was a first-tier talmid chachom or not- They’re just hungry kids, and you should give what you can irrelevant of the signatures on the letter. It doesn’t take the gadol hador to testify that the story is true. The same applies for Mosdos and other projects- anyone with enough money to donate can tell if it’s a worthwhile project easily.

Second, let’s get the askanim away from them. At least 90% of those meetings can be skipped without any difference to anyone. The same for haskomos- get one good letter from wherever you learned, there’s no reason for 20.

Third, let’s not treat them like some kind of magic amulets. Should you happen to see one I the street or at an event, fine, but don’t make a whole social call to ask for a bracha. It’s not that I don’t respect their powers, it’s that I respect their need for time more.

Fourth, realize that 99% of your questions and needs can be met by your local Rav. It is of course not as prestigious to say, “I showed my esrog to Rabbi Plony” as it is to say, “The Chazon Ish liked my esrog”, but that could be your donation to the future accomplishments of whatever gadol you restrained yourself from seeing. Local rabbi’s re quite competent, and the yeshiva’s are full of qualified candidates praying for positions, if you need more in your area.

The results will be excellent for all sides. You kids will be more inclined towards torah, because the Gedolim will deal will real issues, because they have less time-wasting calls and visits, and you won’t be frantically searching for brachos.

Win-win, it’s called.

What will the gedolim do with all this new-found time? Let’s hope they’ll deal with the problems we all talk too much about.


Anonymous said...

Hey, but if we follow Yossi's advice how will the Yated, Hamodia, Der Yid, etc., fill their centerfolds with 'gedolim pictures' ?

-suitepotato- said...

I took this from Wikipedia:

Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the American Hareidi organization Agudath Israel of America, explains the concept as follows:,

Da'at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters. What Da'at Torah means, simply put, those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews - just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice. [1]

I think the problem is as with other religions, those in charge, those looked up to, those in a position to make decisions, etc., need to keep the importance and sanctity of their task and responsibilities, the need for humility and reserved careful thought in mind.

I think that's how the recent sheitle mess and the concert ban and all that come about.

And you know those people remarked on who delayed getting through to the rabbi when needed? Many are precisely surrounded. With a veritable wall of veneration and respect that sometimes isn't questioning or skeptical enough.

No matter how saintly the person in question is, humility on their part would demand that they'd want their associates to double-check for them to help them stay on the right course and not become yes-men adoring anything that crossed their minds. After long enough of that, well, people forget the importance of choosing their decisions and battles very carefully.

Pesky Settler said...

I think part of the problem is the fact that so many have given up their right to think for themselves (or their children) without approval from some Rav.

The Orthodox religious-right have become so ingrained with allowing Rabbeim to dictate every aspect of their lives, is it any wonder they seek approval for any and all endeavors - from tzedakah to choosing a yeshivah for their child (whom this Rebbe has never met) or agreeing to a shidduch.

So rather than go to their own local Rabbi, they go for the big, Yichus names.

Yossi Ginzberg said...


I don't propose in any to abolish Gedolim. On the contrary, they'll be bigger, having more time to learn and to ponder their actions.
Of course, if they go to fewer events, there will be fewer photo ops...

Yossi Ginzberg

Ezzie said...

YG - Very good post. The model of Yisro was brilliant in so many ways, yet nobody seems interested in that - everyone likes to run straight to the top. The US legal system is structured better than our current Rabbinical one.

ProfK said...

Agree, a very good post. I see part of the problem as the consumerist attitude too pervasive in klal, a competition in "name brands." Why should one settle for a psak from Rabbi X when Rabbi Y's name has more cachet? No one insists that Bill Gates personally be the one to answer a question on how to use an aspect of Word. Not so when it comes to gedolim.

But if we are being perfectly open and honest, let's also admit that some of these "gedolim" have put themselves into the positions they now find untenable at times. More than a few have adopted the "all things to all people" attitude and if they find that they can't maintain this position, the refuah is in their hands. Say "no."

Commenter Abbi said...

Sorry, I'm an outsider (non-charedi), but what would be the problem if "there won’t be even be a minyan to accept more directions or Daas Torah." I think this "epidemic" of teens and young adults "going off the derech" is people actually waking up and thinking for themselves and realizing that DT has very little to no grounding in serious halachic thought. So, this statement actually seems like a good thing.

The rest just boils down to the same godol apologetics that get tossed around every time pple express opposing viewpoints to gedolim: It wasn't really THEIR fault, it's their protectors/assistants, etc.

Sorry, R' Eliyashiv knew/knows exactly what he was doing when he sought to take down the Israeli Chief Rabbinate but installing charedi lowlifes that no self respecting religious Zionist would listen to, hold no water with charedim and redouble their efforts to push away secular Israelis. Kol Hakavod for dividing Israeli even further! (And this scheme did not arise because R.E was too busy fending off a thousand questions to realize what was going on)

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The difference between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy in the last 60 years has been the very degree of autonomy mentioned in this excellent post. To wit, Chareidi leadership and authority has become extremely centralized amongst a limited number of Roshei Yeshivah and political figures, leaving local rabbonim with little to no authority to pasken. Why ask your local guy a shailoh when you can ask the Minchas Pinchas or some such?
The alternative is Modern Orthodoxy's emphasis on local autonomy. In theory, the local rabbi who knows his congregants is expected to handle their questions and issues, researching the liberature as needed to support his answers. Unfortunately, the fall out has been the Artscroll Effect. Why ask the rabbi when you can open up Rabbeinu Scroll's piece on the subject and find out the real answer in there? Total autonomy vs total centrality. Neither works.

Really, the system should be set up to resemble what happens in modern medicine. A patient first presents to the primary care physician, either the family doctor or the ER doctor. If that physician can handle the problem, he does. If not, he refers on to the specialist. Again, if it's too hard for the specialist, the sub-specialist gets it, and so on.

Imagine a system like that in Orthodoxy. Your rabbi handles the basic stuff and anything else he might have some expertise in, leaving the big talmidei chachamim to handle the complicated issues and the bigger hashkafic problems.

There is only one glitch to this proposal - have you ever met a Jew who was happy with what his family doctor told him? They always want to see a specialist!

Binyamin said...

What you have described is a good picture of an important aspect of the issue. I do not agree that this is the only issue, but it is definitely a big problem.

The root of the problem is the lack of bureaucratization (as first devoped by Max Weber). There is no organazational structure for filtering out the real needs from the fake, or for ranking the urgency, or for directing people to the rabbi who can help them the best.

I have a simple suggestion for creating a substitute for a bureaucracy. The big-name rabbis should not accept anyone without a letter from their personal/area rabbi. If the problem is so pressing that he cannot deal with it, let him send his congregant to someone better, otherwise, his congregant can suffice with his answer. (Hardly perfect, but I think its better than what we have now). For askanus issues, there should be a mid-level committee which reviews all ideas, and decides if (and to who) they should be forwarded.
Will good ideas and important needs be missed with such a system? Yes. But alot more are being missed now, and without even making an effort to make sure that the important issues will be addressed.

This will also give people a chance to evaluate their own rabbis better, and to get better feedback about the big names.

and so it shall be... said...

Wah!! Boo-Hoo! Our poor, poor 'gedolim' are pooped!

If they're so overbooked, why don't they wave their magic daas torah wand and tell their simpering stooges to use the brains god gave the jews and STOP CALLING.

... but that would be bad for business. Right?

Gedolim fail because they promote a system that elevates dependent nincompoops over productive achievers.