Jonathan Rosenblum has a fascinating article on Cross-Currents , the latest in a series of iconoclastic pieces that he has been writing as of late. He states as follows:
1. The charedi system of mass kollel is a deliberate reform of traditional Orthodox society.
2. It is causing financial disaster and other problems.
3. It is unsustainable – bitachon won’t help.
4. The Gedolim know and accept that many people should be seeking work instead of learning, and that the “system” should promote this as a perfectly legitimate option.
5. One of the reasons why they don’t say so is they cannot do so without it sounding like the policy for the last sixty years is a mistake (I don’t understand why Rosenblum can say it without giving this impression, but the Gedolim can’t.)
6. Another reason is that they are afraid.
7. Another reason is that they would instantly be delegitimized as Gedolim. People only respect Gedolim as Gedolim when they say what people want to hear. “If you don’t agree with me, then you’re not a Gadol.”
Rosenblum should be given much credit for saying this. Charedi society is in desperate need of reform, and it is courageous of Rosenblum to say so. However, there are a number of disturbing questions that his article raises.
First of all, what does it mean that Gedolim are “afraid” of saying that which they consider true and important for helping people?! I say things that I believe are true and considerably less important for helping people, even at great personal cost (and even requiring me to file a police complaint about threats to my family). And I am not a Gadol – merely someone who was taught by his parents that integrity is of paramount importance. Rosenblum is apparently not afraid to say these things, either (at least on Cross-Currents). If someone refrains from saying something that needs to be said, on the grounds that he is afraid of people, does that not show that his yiras bnei adam exceeds his yiras Shamayim? This would be a severe deficiency in any person – kal v’chomer for someone in a position of leadership. And if the Gedolim sometimes are motivated by fear of the kanna'im, how can anyone trust their leadership? If what Rosenblum says is true, this is an extraordinarily damning indictment of the Gedolim.
Second, with regard to Rosenblum’s comments about how people only respect and follow Gedolim insofar as they say things that they can agree with – this is true. People always claim that the Gedolim agree with them, and are loathe to say otherwise. But perhaps this is equally true of Rosenblum himself. In this article, Rosenblum claims that the Gedolim secretly agree with him that the kollel system is deeply problematic and should be radically changed. How do we know this to be true? I think it is entirely likely that this is only true of the more Americanized Gedolim that Rosenblum is in touch with – people such as Rav Aharon Feldman and the Novominsker. But I highly doubt that Rav Shmuel Auerbach, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Michel Lefkowitz feel the same way.
Unfortunately, I have personal experience with a case of Rosenblum re-creating the Gedolim in an image with which he is more comfortable. In a public lecture to a mixed group of modern Jews and non-Jews, he claimed that the Gedolim who banned my books are not (narrow-minded, primitive) people who object to the idea of the universe being millions of years old or to the Talmud being fallible in science. Rather, they objected to my “tone” - the dangerous rationalism of someone who is arrogantly trying to appropriate Rambam’s approach and innovate new paths in Judaism. But the truth is that clearly the majority of those Gedolim who banned my books, and especially those more prominently involved, such as Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Shiner, and Rav Moshe Shapiro (who is a rebbe of Rosenblum) were indeed objecting to the idea of the universe being millions of years old and Chazal being fallible in science. They said so explicitly! But it is uncomfortable to Rosenblum to admit that, so instead he publicly re-creates the Gedolim in his image (see my letter to him here – he did not reply.)
As I have said before, I think it is far more disrespectful to deliberately distort someone’s position than to dispute it.