Saturday, January 07, 2006

Gedolim, Labels, and Idol-Worship

"My students are my products as far as lomdus is concerned. They follow my method of learning. However, somehow there is a reservation in their minds regarding my philosophical viewpoint. They consider me excellent in lomdus. However, when it comes to my philosphical experiential viewpoint, I am somehow persona non grata. My ideas are too radical for them. If they could find another one it would be alright. However, the substitutions are completely infantile. This is a tremendous problem in America. This is the main problem we have to cope with, and I do not know how. All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist. He uses his heart and his mind in a normal fashion. I am not so interested in finding the cause of this problem but rather in its therapy. What is the proper therapeutic viewpoint? How can we change it? I do not know."

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, quoted in 'The Rav: The World of Joseph B. Soloveitchik' by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, under the section 'Religious Immaturity,' page 240

The Gedolim.

How much is expressed in those two words! There are so many different meanings for so many different people. What I want to express, however, is the view that the teachers/ principal at Templars take of the Gedolim.

The Gedolim are, to put it bluntly, gods.

We have entered a new age of idolatry. And whom do we worship? Not God. Not nature. Not even science.

But human beings, very mortal human beings, frail and privy to all the emotions and thoughts that tumble through the human mind. Granted, extremely learned human beings. Men who specialize in certain areas of religion, in, specifically, their learning. Men who understand halakha thoroughly, who can quote directly from the Gemara, who are, in that area, extremely wise.

But men all the same.

Men, flawed as all of us are, privy to the emotions that we all feel, able to feel everything from jealousy and lust to understanding and love.


The teachers at Templars do not take this view of them. A Gadol (who is almost always an old man in a black coat, with a long white beard, wearing glasses, and presented as unable to relate to the human race) is one above. He has been appointed. By whom? We do not know. Perhaps it is his lineage, a hereditary title and/or position. Saintly blood runs through his veins. We puny people cannot possibly compare ourselves to him. He understands all. He is omniscient. What he says is the law.

We do not have the knowledge or the spiritual level to compete with him.

Above all, a Gadol is separate. Separate from this world, often presented as living in austere surroundings, with the bare necessities, spending each moment immersed in the holy Torah. He is on a madreigah (spiritual level) we cannot compete with. For that matter, so is everyone and everybody who lived before us. We are not on the level of the Jews in the desert, of the prophets, of the Jews during the Judges' time who worshipped idols- no, we are simply not on the level of anyone. We stare, awed, at a Gadol, the icon, the man who is to be served.

I think if the Gadol knew this was how he is portrayed to the students he would faint.

Because it is not the Gedolim who boast of their accomplishments and meritorious deeds. It is others who pick up these tales and their words, spreading them everywhere, speaking of the greatnes that accompanies his holy actions as he eats a meal, his holy thought as he lies sleeping, his holy beard, and so on and so forth.

Why do they do this? When did this institution come about?

Leaders like Moshe I understand. Prophets I understand. Scholars I understand. Rabbis, too, I understand.

But Gedolim?

What are they? Where do they come from? Who appoints this man as a holy sage, to be revered and feared by all? Who states that all their ideas and decisions are perfect? Who is it that accords them this position of rulership?

We might be able to figure out some of this, but unfortunately The Making of a Godol was banned. Why? Oh, because it portrayed the gedolim as real men. Real human beings. It showed that one had read Pushkin, the other had loved his wife. It spoke of the challenges these men faced.

Why is the Orthodox world so concerned with the idea that the Gedolim could never have sinned? They could not have felt human emotion? It is impossible that they could have faced internal conflict?

The entire Torah describes places in which our ancestors were tempted! Was not Joseph tempted by Potiphar's wife? At one point, wasn't he going to succumb to her? But that was when he saw the image of his father, and it was that that saved him.

Or think of Moshe, Moshe who calls his nation "rebels" and strikes rather than speaks to the rock- and is not let into the Land of Israel.

What of Nadav and Avihu, who drank wine and desired to offer up the holy incense in that state? Or of their previous error, where they ascended too far on Mount Sinai and were described as "eating and drinking," (of course, many different explanations of what that means are offered.)

Or Miriam, who asked why her brother Moshe had separated from his wife, the Cushite? Who implied that his actions were wrong, that she and Aharon were also prophets, and if they did not need to separate from their spouses, why did Moshe need to do so? And of course, Miriam was stuck by tzara'as (closely translated as leprosy) for this sin.

What of Miriam's father, Amram, who separated from his wife (due to Pharoah's statement that all baby boys were to be thrown into the Nile) and was told by his daughter that we was "crueler than Pharoah, for Pharoah at least permitted the girls to live," but Amram (and the people who followed him in this separation, as he was their leader) forbade even that?

What of Korach and his assembly? Korach was not a simple criminal, a villain without knowledge! He was a brilliant scholar, and his actions are described by Rabbi Soloveitchik as the 'Common-Sense Rebellion.' He, even in his brilliance, erred, and was swallowed up by the ground.

What of David and Bath-Sheba (I know I tread on complicated ground here.) However, at least according to the literal meaning, David's deliberately placing Uriah at the front lines, where he would definitely be killed, would be considered a mistake.

What of Solomon, of whom Scripture writes that he "went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians...and he did what was evil in the eyes of God?"

The Torah gives a fair portrait of each of our ancestors, matriarchs and patriarchs. People are not wholly good. They struggle with temptation, with the desire to sin or err, and sometimes they do so. The Torah does not gloss over these errors. It relates them, and why? So that we may learn! So that we may understand! So that we may respect them even more.

For how could we respect someone who is unnaturally good, untried, untested, someone who has never erred? How could we relate to them? Such a person is not human, he is an angel, obedient to the very law of God, unable to exercise his free will!

Why is it, then, that my teachers fear to say this? That they cannot speak it? That everything that a Gadol says, even if it is about matters that don't pertain to halakha, is the law?

What is more, what if a Gadol is misquoted? What if his decision was offered in a very specific, or case-specific situation, and it is taken out of context, used elsewhere- and hence understood incorrectly, or worse yet, in a manner that is totally antithetical to his intent?

So many people are willing to speak for the Gedolim and their ideas on hearsay, on what they assume a Gadol would say. "He is a great person/ a holy man/ a good person....hence," they cry.

They try to make you feel guilty if you don't agree. They try to make you feel ashamed. They want you to feel dirty, unclean, simply wrong. They want to see you grovel. They raise their eyebrows, "You are contradicting a Gadol? You think that you are holier than a Gadol? you think you know more than a Gadol HaDor?!"

This is right about where the shouting matches, the spittle flying from the teeth of enraged teachers begin. Or, depending on the person, where the quiet desire for counseling sessions begins. Or, the attempt at reasoning.

"Chana, we're just not on that madreiga. They are on a high spiritual level, so high that we can't even imagine it. They are holy tzadikim. They are righteous. Surely you realize that we cannot reach their level; we're not on their level?"

But it does not follow.

There are three reasons this is so.

1. By worshipping them to the exclusion of personal thought, the worshipper excuses himself for his lack of achievement. For not reaching that level. For not attaining that ideal.

2. Just because you are a learned person when it comes to Talmud and Halakha does not mean that you are able to interact with society, with modernity, to understand the people and their questions. And if you cannot understand where someone is coming from, no learning in the world will help you.

3. Simply because you are a good person does not mean you are right. Your ideas have merit. Your state of being (good or evil) does not.

There is a classical Jewish source (which I cannot find at the moment, but I hope someone will provide to me) that states that every Jew has the power to be as good as Moses or as wicked as Jerobaoam.

Every Jew has that choice. We may all attain it through our use of free will. We have the power to equal Moshe or Yeravam in degrees of goodness and wickedness. We cannot attain Moshe's ability of prophecy, despite his desire that we could:

    כט וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם.
    29 And Moses said unto him: 'Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!'

    Bamidbar 11:29

Nor can we attain Yeravam's kingship.

But we can choose to be wicked or good, and not to the mere spiritual degree that my Templars teachers are under the impression we possess. We are compared to the two diametric opposites- Moses, who desired all of the Jewish people to prophecy, and Jeraboam, who turned down the World-to-Come:

    After this thing Jeroboam turned not from his evil way.40 What is meant by, after this thing? — R. Abba said: After the Holy One, blessed be He, had seized Jeroboam by his garment and urged him, 'Repent, then I, thou, and the son of Jesse [i.e.. David] will walk in the Garden of Eden.' 'And who shall be at the head?' inquired he. 'The son of Jesse shall be at the head.' 'If so,' [he replied] 'I do not desire [it].'

    Sanhedrin 102b

One can turn down the World to Come or reach the pinnacle of leaders, the Prophet beyond all others.

And if you still do not believe me, look to the story of Rabbi Zusia.

    "They [the Heavenly Tribunal] will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.' They will say, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'"

We have an obligation to live up to our potential. To develop our talents as well as we can, to reach the heights of our abilites, to understand our religion, to be who we were meant to be. To stand in heaven and gaze upon the lofty figure we could have become- no disappointment is greater than to realize we could have attained that and yet we did not. We could have been that one, but we saw fit, instead, to excuse ourselves of that duty, to claim that we lacked the capability, we don't "have the spiritual level," we can't "reach the level of the Gedolim."

Well? And what of it? Even if you believe that (and I do not) can you truly say that you have reached the level of yourself? That you are done, completed, that you have achieved all that is possible for you to achieve?

Can you answer that question, when you ascend before God? Can I say "I am Chana; the Chana I could have been and the Chana that I am are one and the same?"

This is my goal. This is what I wish to accomplish. I want to attain myself, attain all that I can possibly be. I am, you may say, an idealist. And what if I am? I am an idealist with an odd twist of rationalism and realism; there may be things physically beyond my power, but spiritually? Mentally? How could you cripple yourself like that? How could you excuse yourself, bow and fall before this icon you have erected, this supposed Gadol, and claim your life is to be lived in strict obedience?

Do you think that in obeying the Gadol, you will attain yourself? Do you think that in saying they are "so much higher than me," whimpering about the fact that you do not have the spiritual level of past generations, will excuse you?

My teachers at Templars shirk their duty.

They do not think, they do not strive, they begin with failure. They believe they can never reach the heights of a Gadol, as it were, and therefore they never will. They think they are limited, caught in a web beyond their making. In short, they are pessimists. They do not think it can be done, and what is more, even to try requires effort.

Most of the time, they do not want to make that effort.

Because it is so much easier to simply have someone else give you orders. You don't have to think, you don't have to question, you simply have to obey. And you don't even have to face a guilty conscience, because you have persuaded yourself that it is a mitzvah to heed the Gedolim's words, to listen unthinkingly, bow and acquiesce.

And yet, it is you who will be held accountable to God- not them. Unless they deliberately caused you to sin, which much of the time, they do not. It is you who accept their yoke. Instead of taking a yoke of Torah, you take the yoke of mankind.

If you did so thinkingly, if you truly agreed with what they said, that would be one thing.

But you do not even consider the merits of what they say. It is enough that they have uttered it. That very fact makes it holy.

This brings me to point number three.

My eleventh-grade Mishlei teacher was one such adherent to the rules and laws of Gedolim or Rabbis. We had this discussion:

Mishlei teacher: There are certain publications, magazines, that are not good, unclean; it is a sin to look at them. There are girls who read these magazines and who are influenced by them...

Different Girl: (mutters) I read Seventeen, YM, what's the problem with that?

Chana: (raises hand)

Mishlei teacher: (smiles happily) Yes?

Chana: Forgive me for asking this, but have you ever actually read these magazines?

Mishlei teacher: Me? No!

Chana: Then- and please don't misunderstand me- how could you tell us not to read them? How do you know they are bad?

Mishlei teacher: Someone I respect, a Rabbi, passed on to me that these magazines are bad.

Chana: But how can you teach us that the magazines are bad if you haven't read them? You're passing on his opinion, not yours!

Mishlei teacher: What would you suggest? (open, sweet smile)

Chana: Wouldn't it be better if we read them- skimmed through them at least- and then actually formed an opinion of them? How can you have an opinion or know if something's good or bad if you haven't actually looked at it yourself?

Mishlei teacher: (frowns) But I can't read them because they're bad.

Chana: But that's exactly my point- you don't know they're bad until you read them yourself! You might accept this Rabbi knows about this magazine, but, not meaning disrespect, why would we listen to you if you haven't read them?

Mishlei teacher: (perplexed) Because I'm a good person.

I then made use of the following argument, to no effect:

Let us suppose that a perfectly wonderful, sweet and good person tells me that the world is flat. Is the person nice? Yes. Has he ever killed a man? No. Is he what I would consider good? Yes. But is the world flat? No. To decide that the world is flat based on the fact that the person who is telling you this information is a ‘good’ person is to use a very poor line of logic. By the same token, let us suppose that someone unspeakably cruel and evil was to say that stealing is bad. Would we disbelieve him because he is a murderer? If so, it would be to our loss- for anyone can understand, on the elementary level at least, that stealing is bad. So to decide whether an idea is wrong or right based on the person who is relaying that idea to you is perfectly ludicrous. It is to accept something based on the person’s merit rather than on the merit that the actual opinion/ idea carries. But, according to my teacher, I should accept her opinion because she is a good person.

It is the idea that has value, not the person's character. While the person's character is important in terms of choosing whether or not to make them your friend, or trusting them in terms of personal matters, it is hardly the type of material you can use in order to prove your point/ teach a class.

However, people have been so confused by whether to respect the Gedolim for their knowledge or their character that they now think a person's character defines the merit of their words.

Ideas have merit. If someone tells me not to touch fire, because otherwise I will be burned, then no matter the source, it is the truth. Not so with reading magazines. That truly depends on the person. If a girl is reading a magazine, it depends on her depth of character, and how she, as a person, will be influenced by this magazine. It doesn't depend on the source.

Now, there is a certain element of trust that comes into play with Rabbis and Gedolim. Perhaps you would take this advice on trust because you do know the person's character, and do not think he/she would knowingly offer you bad advice.

But what reason do I really have to trust the Gedolim, or at least, the versions of what the Gedolim say that I have encountered at Templars? Do they know me? No. Can they relate to me? According to my Templars teachers, they live in another world, so how could they possibly relate to me? Are they learned? Yes. Are they learned in every single subject? No. How could you say that they deserve my trust, inspire my trust, etc- when they don't even know me?

I think it really depends on the matter at hand. If a great man or sage paskens on something that he truly understands, like the halakha of kashrus, that is one thing. If he extends his domain to something outside his field of knowledge, like the reasons for the tsunami/ hurricane in New Orleans/ Sharon's stroke or into a realm of modernity in which he does not invest (say, the Internet) why would I trust him?

I, too, need to know how to think. To make up my own mind. To understand what makes sense and what does not make sense. To know when to take someone's word for something, and when not to.

In other words, there is no such thing as blind obedience- even, or perhaps especially- to the Gedolei HaDor.

These people are not icons, shining with the hallowed light of another realm, saints to be worshiped. They are men, leaders, leaders who can give us guidance, but who are not gods. And hence, the attitude that states that I must obey them, may not question them, am not their equal and hence cannot disagree with them is flawed.

I do not say they are not great. Some may indeed be great.

But they are not gods.

And I think that there are many more in this world who deserve the title and the designation. Why is it that the portraits that line the halls of Templars are all of the Agudas Israel Gedolim? That no others may join them?

Why is it that Templars would not hang the portrait/ picture of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the wall? Of Nehama Liebowitz?

Because they do not fit the mold. These were wise people, great and learned people, but they do not wear the correct uniform, the black caftan, hat and so on and so forth.

Or is it more than that? Is it that a Gadol can only be one who safeguards a European tradition of learning? Any one who is more modern or progressive is not included in this, of course. ...Rabbi Soloveitchik's philosophy is too radical, even for his students. Nehama Liebowitz? A woman of wisdom? An impossibility!

And then there are the banned ones, such as Rabbi Natan/ Nosson Slifkin.

What is the institution of a Gadol? If we say it is a way to honor the wise among us, we lie, for there are many who are not respected as/ believed to be great ones, great sages who would deserve that title. If we say it is one we appoint over us, I question- who appoints him? Only the extremely religious? If we say he is one who is on a higher spiritual plane than ours, I ask you- and could we not attain that plane? Were they not born human? And are we not human?

I don't believe in the institution of Gedolim.

That sounds strange, doesn't it? You will ask me, "How can you decide whether or not to believe in them? They exist as point in fact; there is nothing you can do about it!"

I don't think so.

I believe there are wise people, learned people, understanding people, and simple people. There are kind people, wicked people, angry people. There are simply all kinds of people. But we are all united in the fact that we have the same potential to become greater, each as great as we can be. We need appoint no rulers over us. We need worship no one but God. We may listen to those who are knowledgeable, we may heed their words, but their word is not the ultimate law. And each one of us has something to add, each one of us has a knowledge that is uniquely our own, a talent in which we may specialize. Each of us could be labeled a Gadol, a great one, in our own right, for that particular talent.

And since I believe labels- particularly the label Gadol- simply create more strife between people, more resentment among students, and an easy justification for people not to reach their own potential- I say we do away with them.

One may be respectful, one may believe in wisdom, and one may still say that this institution is not a good thing for the Jews.

We may need guidance, rabbinical leadership- but not kings, not rulers. Not those who we blindly obey.

    ה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה אַתָּה זָקַנְתָּ, וּבָנֶיךָ, לֹא הָלְכוּ בִּדְרָכֶיךָ; עַתָּה, שִׂימָה-לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ--כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם
    וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר, בְּעֵינֵי שְׁמוּאֵל, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמְרוּ, תְּנָה-לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל שְׁמוּאֵל, אֶל-יְהוָה. {פ}
    ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, שְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָעָם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ: כִּי לֹא אֹתְךָ מָאָסוּ, כִּי-אֹתִי מָאֲסוּ מִמְּלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם.

    5 And they said unto him: 'Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.'

    6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: 'Give us a king to judge us.' And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. {P}

    7 And the LORD said unto Samuel: 'Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.

    Samuel I: 8; 5-8

We need leaders, guidance, people to listen to and to understand, and thatis what the Gedolim are, if they are anything.

But they are not kings, and they are not gods.

To reject God in favor of the blind adherism and fanaticism that many subscribe to in the form of "listening to Gedolim" is an unhappily frequent occurence at the moment.

Rabbi Soloveitchik wanted to find a cure for the fanaticism, obscuranticism and other close-minded ideas that ailed the Jewish people. He did not know how to go about it.

I think that one of the most integral things to be understood is that a Gadol's word on non-practical matters, on non-Halakhic matters, beyond the realm of what he truly could be said to know, is not the law.

From there, we could move forward to thinking a bit more freely. Hopefully, to open-mindedness. To the point where there would be no need to ban books like 'Making of a Godol' because we wouldn't feel threatened by them. No one would say that it would be better to buy a crucifix than to buy that book.

But one thing at a time. First, we must move away from this adulation, adoration, emulation and idol-worshipping of Gedolim. Of quoting their opinions as opposed to finding some of our own, either gained by experience, looking into the Torah, or comparing and contrasting a few different ideas (even if they be those of different Gedolim.)

The ability to think with one's own mind...

It hurts me to say this-

But at Templars, what they are trying to do, in effect, is to brainwash us.

And brainwash themselves.

And there's no reason for it. It's pointless, stupid, it serves no purpose.

But how to stop it? Yet again, I don't know how.

Unless it be to speak out. To at least try to say something. To try to show where this is leading, and how crippled and handicapped we are if we allow it to persist. The fact that the school needs to allow freedom of thought, beyond that which others say or command. That the Gedolim are not gods, and would probably be horrified by the way their names are used to support any ridiculous idea that comes into a teacher's head. "I am certain such and such Gadol would not do this/ approve of this..." the teacher says. How does she know? She assumes.

In 'Ella Enchanted' Ella entertains Prince Char by telling him how Manners Mistress stated that anyone who rapped their knuckles on the table would be scorned by the king. Prince Char amusedly asks whether his father has three different spoons out of which to eat his blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, and Ella answers, "But of course!" Char cheerfully asks, "Why wasn't I informed of this?"

Manners Mistress' assumptions about the King are irritating, but overall they are harmless.

I wish I could say the same about the Templars teachers' assumptions about Gedolim.


Masmida said...

Oy vey, it does sound like you were taught by nineteen year olds post sem-girls.

correct response as I'm sure you know, is that the content as evidenced by the titles on the cover is likely to do great damage to one's self-image and consideration of materialism.

The idea you present sounds almost like the Chassidshe concept of the Tzaddik. I don't understand it and thus will not even attempt to justify it. But if you want to see where this attitude is coming from, look at the Chassidshe, particularly Chabad, literature.

Unfortunately the nature of my education somewhat impairs my ability to make the next statement.

The reason Gedolim are so critical though is they are the ones who teach us Torah. In their hands rest the Mesorah.

No one can paseken now without reference to the Shulchan Orech; No one can learn halacha straight from the gemara, each must follow a rishon and in turn touch on many of the achronim.

So the arguement, I heard this from so and so, is not so facietous. It is akin to quoting the mishnah. We have always attached names to halachot, every argument is prefaced by so and so says.....

not for lack of thought on the part of the one who quotes but rather to demonstrate in a single breathe what line of reasoning that person follows.

You're right this 'worship' of gedolim is part of insecurity, we are afraid of our own thoughts, afraid of our own corruption.

afraid to admit that a seventeen might have been tucked into our backpack at one point.

But the truth of gedolim's greatness is hidden in the stories so small, so very ordinary that they might even be true.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

The Gedolim have to be perfect, coz if we can start to question them, then we can question the mesorah and goodness knows where that leads, right?
Basic psychology teaches us the limits of being human and the rabbis are human too. So we should expect them to make the same mistakes we do. But I'm not at all sure how innocent this is.

You wrote: "I think if the Gadol knew this was how he is portrayed to the students he would faint."

I think they know, and don't mind too much either. The whole system rests of the 'gadol is perfect' equation. They grew up in it, they are aware of it. It's not that they don't care. but rather they like it.

and power corrupts...

CJ Srullowitz said...

In Torah Judaism, there is the concept of Gedolim, and the idea is that one should follow the Gadol even if one doesn't understand. That's part of Judaism.

Ironically, the quote from Rav Soloveitchik (the link doesn't work, by they way and I'm very curious as to the source of this quote) displays his disappointment at NOT being followed.

Anonymous said...

LOSE the Center spacing. It is terribly annoying.

FrumGirl said...

Chana, wow! And you still continue full speed ahead. Your posts are very thought out and well written. I like how your mind works... you are so alive and it is reflected in your work. Did I tell you how much I like your blog yet? :-)Can't wait to read what else you have in store for us!

With regards to this topic - I hear your frustration. You make a good arguement. It is something I grapple with too. Men, after all are only human. I may even take it a step further... and I know that I will be blasted for this, still I choose to speak my mind. I am not talking about 'Gedolim' actually is there really any Gadol left today? I am talking about rebbeim in general or even Bais Din. It is no secret that many are corrupt. It is written that this world is Olam Hasheker. That during Chevlei Moshiach everything will be topsy-turvey and the seemingly righteous will not really be so, etc. etc. So what does that say about our so-called leaders today? After all, we are in the last leg before Moshiach comes....

Anonymous said...

The difference between our leaders in the Torah and other religious icons is that our leaders are not perfect...and we are comfortable with that! Because you can only learn and grow by example. Example of a person who is like you and has the same struggles. As you say, it baffles the mind to think that gedolim are treated different than the likes of Moshe, Yosef and his brothers etc, all great men with their own problems.

Chana said...

In Torah Judaism, there is the concept of Gedolim, and the idea is that one should follow the Gadol even if one doesn't understand. That's part of Judaism.

But where does it come from? Where's the source? If I understood its origins/ when it became a part of Torah Judaism, I'd be better able to comprehend this entire issue.

Also, the link has been fixed. ;)

Ezzie said...

Incredible, incredible post... much more to comment later.

One, quick note - you implied that 'gedolim' get their positions somewhat undeservingly... Many in fact gain their respected positions of stature through incredible mastery of Torah and/or Halacha. The issue is when this mastery is portrayed as God-like or utilized to assume they therefore have mastered every other subject to the same extent.

Chana said...

Okay, due to my desire that there be no misunderstanding/ misconstruing of what I mean, and it may indeed be my fault for being unclear:

I did not mean to imply that the Gedolim are not learned people. In fact, I do believe they are learned. I think they are extremely wise. That's part of my problem, actually; it's because they are learned that people look up to them, sometimes to a disturbing extent.

Men who specialize in certain areas of religion, in, specifically, their learning. Men who understand halakha thoroughly, who can quote directly from the Gemara, who are, in that area, extremely wise.


2. Just because you are a learned person when it comes to Talmud and Halakha does not mean that you are able to interact with society, with modernity, to understand the people and their questions. And if you cannot understand where someone is coming from, no learning in the world will help you.


I think it really depends on the matter at hand. If a great man or sage paskens on something that he truly understands, like the halakha of kashrus, that is one thing. If he extends his domain to something outside his field of knowledge, like the reasons for the tsunami/ hurricane in New Orleans/ Sharon's stroke or into a realm of modernity in which he does not invest (say, the Internet) why would I trust him?

I know this is a long post, and this may be lost in the context of my overall message/ idea (even though I didn't mean for it to be lost), so I want to reiterate that the Gedolim are indeed incredible scholars...but, as is the theme of my post, they are not Gods.

SemGirl said...

Chana, unbelievable your posts are so incredible, I am tempted to just ignore my responsibilities to my younger siblings and ignore my blog just to digest yours.

Could you give us all sometime to come up for air, and fully absorb what you have to say, like maybe a week in between really long, intense posts like the one about Nidda.

Ezzie said...

Chana - thanks for the e-mail.

I'm sorry my (rushed) comment came out wrong. My main point was thus: The issue is when this mastery is portrayed as God-like or utilized to assume they therefore have mastered every other subject to the same extent - as you said.

I should have said that near the beginning, where it says, A Gadol (who is almost always an old man in a black coat, with a long white beard, wearing glasses, and presented as unable to relate to the human race) is one above. He has been appointed. By whom? We do not know. Perhaps it is his lineage, a hereditary title and/or position. Saintly blood runs through his veins., it implies the statement above. I understood your points, and was just noting the one misleading statement which took away from your message.

I missed the paragraph you quoted in your comment, and likely would not have said what I did - I apologize.

As I wrote on my blog a minute after that comment, I think this is one of the best posts I have ever read. Very impressive.

e-kvetcher said...


I admire your ability to put your thoughts on e-paper in such a coherent, if voluminous :) manner. It seems to me that you are trying to persuade people to your point of view and I suspect that one of the side benefits of writing this down in a public forum is that it helps you define your thoughts and positions clearly and thoughtfully.

I don't want to discourage this in any way, partly for selfish reasons, as I rather enjoy reading your posts. In my experience you can never win these types of arguments because of the tremendous emotional stake that people have in being right. The good news is that there are probably enough people out there in the world that share your opinions. Seek them out and your life will become more pleasant. And when you run into the adherents of the Errant Templars, just smile politely at them.

David_on_the_Lake said...

There are many types of Gedolim..and it's sort of a loosely used term.
1. You can have a Manhig..a leader. This function is today served by many Rebbes. When I lived in Israel I lived in Kiryas Belz and I got to see what one man (The Belzer Rebbe) is capable of doing. The institutions he set up, the way he cares for thousand of Chassidim..from parnossah to ensuring they have happy marriages etc. That is a leader..

2. You have a Talmud Chochom. Someone who is turned to because of his great knowledge.

3. Tzaddik. You can have a Godol that people turn to because of their great piety..

If you've ever spent a shabbos in the home of a true know what I mean. You feel want to be a're giddy with excitement...

It's something very real..and very vital..

Irina Tsukerman said...

I agree with your point completely.

Sounds like these people are simply intellectually lazy.

However, there may be another reason, and perhaps we ought to give them a benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps by trying to make you accept a certain type of authority, they are hoping to protect you from the type of mistakes that have been made by all the great people you've mentioned.

Which is not very wise, I admit. I think the whole point of Judaism is our ability to exercise our mind... I'm sure eventually even the narrow-minded institution you've described will move beyond the little box it created for itself... but it will take a long time and many outspoken people like you! : )

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

Gershom Sholem wrote an article about the diference between a chassid, a tzadik and a talmid chacham... good stuff

I disagree with cloojew though... if someone is patently talking garbage, why follow them? Where in this (new monolithic?) Judaism does it say that? I know there have been reams of books written on the idea of personal authority and rabbbinic autonomy (!) but still....

we are supposed to be intelligent responsible people. If we just follow gedolim then you might as well replace us with robots.

Anonymous said...

I believe this is what you have in mind, Chana. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Tshuva 5:1-2).
Rock on!

רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו. הוא שכתוב בתורה "הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע" (בראשית ג,כב)--כלומר הן מין זה של אדם היה אחד בעולם, ואין לו מין שני דומה לו בזה העניין, שיהא הוא מעצמו בדעתו ובמחשבתו יודע הטוב והרע ועושה כל מה שהוא חפץ, ואין לו מי שיעכב על ידו מלעשות הטוב או הרע. וכיון שכן הוא, "פן ישלח ידו" (שם).

אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירובעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי, או כיליי או שוע; וכן שאר כל הדעות.

Chana said...

ProfoundlyConfounded, you have made my day.

Thanks very, very much. ;)

Anonymous said...

The too many rabbis who have recently made inaccurate statements about things in which they lack knowledge convinces me even more of the need for the "Torah-u-maddah" philosophy. It pains me when our leaders embarass themselves publicly.

Tobie said...

Hey, Chana, first of all, congrats on the blog. Very impressive, and it was good to hear from you once again.
While I understand your rage at the traditional Gadol-worship, I think that it is important to realize that this trend is not necessarily universal. Many Orthodox people out there realize the falliability of Gedolim. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that they are experts in their field. Anyone who has spent an lifetime studying a subject is going to be better at it than the average individual, even an intelligent one, especially if the person who has been studying is the very best of the experts. And, if we believe that the Torah has any Diviinty, than the implications of that expertise are wide-spread, rather than necessarily linked only to questions of whether your chicken is kosher.
While a healthy realization of the limitations of our gedolim is wise, it must be balanced with the realization of our own far greater limitations, not in a self-abrogating manner but realistically speaking. I fully support the idea of researching ideas rather than blindly accepting others' opinions, but we must be aware that their opinion, is, actually, just a little more valid than our own. Gedolim are, in general, pretty great, probably greater than us. Not G-d, just men, but pretty wise and holy men, for the most part.