Tuesday, December 22, 2009

And Man made Godolim in his image

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.


  1. In my limited experience the same problems apply to MO gedolim as well. My rabbi went to a number for a heter to deal with a personal problem of mine. A number of these figures said they were unwilling to grant the heter, even verbally, not because it wasn't appropriate, but rather because of the damage it would do their reputation (and perhaps that of MO) if they in fact ruled leniently in this specific case.

    So my rabbi thought a heter was reasonable but he did not 'have broad enough shoulder', the (unamed to me) MO gedolim thought a heter was reasonable but the risks of it becoming known that they had issued such a heter was not, and I was left high and dry.

  2. Interestingly enough, this past shabbos I heard a rabbi (who was one of the frequent contributors to the Jewish Observer, and seemingly a staunch upholder of the Agudist conception of Daas Torah) make a statement in his speech to the effect that a godol can't be afraid to speak, and if there are those who are afraid, perhaps they're not even to be considered gedolim. I'm not sure who and what exactly he was alluding to; for all I know he meant they should speak out against YCT more. But I was unaware that ketanim can speculate that so-and-so is not a godol because of such-and-such deficiency, and that is what he said.

  3. "First of all, what does it mean that Gedolim are “afraid” of saying that which they consider true and important for helping people?!"

    I'm afraid the word "afraid" doesn't appear in R' Rosenblum's article, except in a side-comment about stone-throwers. Maybe it can be inferred (but one can infer "concerned" instead of "afraid.")

  4. One of the dangerous of a dictatorship happens when the personality of the leader becomes the actual dictator instead of the leader himself.
    Consider the classic Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force".
    In this case, "the Gedolim" no longer refers to any actual rabbonim alive today but to an image. What Ravs Eliashiv or Shteinman might really think is irrelevant to those who follow "the Gedolim". It's what this image thinks that matters and any Rav who disagrees with the image loses his status.
    What's more, too many "askanim" have a lot invested in this image and as a result, they will destroy any Rav who tries to put a dent in it. It's a trap from which they cannot seem to escape.
    Besides, as the recent rioting in Meah Shearim showed, Chareidim only listen to their "Gedolim" when they want to.

  5. Rabbi Sliskin, I disagree with you. If someone of the stature of Rav Elyashiv together with some other "gedolim" publicly and forcefully stated that working for a living is good or that the world is billions of years old, it would have a huge effect, and the charedi community wouldn't be able to easily divorce itself from them.

    Even if it did divorce itself from them, their words would have a great effect on many charedim (who would join them in their theoretical place of ostracization).

  6. The issue is not what a particular godol says, the issue is how the society is set up. A person may get a heter to work, but that is no use if he won't be able to make the shiduchim he wants for his children or get his children in the school he would want.
    The only way to understand the charedi system is to take the economic approach taken by Eli Berman in the recent book "Radical Religious and Violent." (He does not argue that charedim are violent, but he discusses how religious groups can be violent.) Where people in the society compete for status by not working, they are not able to give up competing merely by getting a heter.

  7. Larry, your situation sounds very strange. If a rabbi with sufficient halachic knowledge thought the heter was reasonable, isn’t that your heter right there? If you’re worried about what God thinks is right, and someone with sufficient knowledge said that it sounds reasonable to them that this would be ok with God, then you’re done. Is there some sort of official process that needs to be gone through to use a heter, like getting a prescription from a doctor?

  8. G3 - I don't know. I'm a BT myself and unfamiliar with the details of this process. I went to my LOR, he told me he would get a ruling from greater rabbis than he, and when he returned from that he said no one would grant a heter because of 'fear of the right'. I was not privy to the actual discussion so I don't know details, but he was clear that he was not giving me a heter.

    Perhaps he was hinting that I should go ahead and act as though I had a heter anyway, but that isn't how I understand the system to work most of the time.

  9. R. Slifkin, the Shulchan Aruch specifically writes that giving mussar to one who will reject it is explicitly prohibited. Similarly, one may not turn the majority into sinners (meaning if there's a failure in the community that the leaders can't fix or bring the community to focus upon at this time, it's assur to point out this community failing and bring the community to be judged as sinners as a whole).

    A minor example of this is women's hair covering in the US. There's no leniency relative to those halachot (I'm not talking about the chumrot of sheitels or not sheitels or not pretty sheitels, but hair covering of any kind) - yet the vast majority of the observant community of the US simply didn't keep it, and the rabbonim were silent about it until about a generation ago.

    The gedolim are responsible to lead, and they should be preparing the ground for the changes that are necessary (such as providing hascamot in Israel to charedi job skill educational institutions, and hascamot in Israel to army programs that meet charedi societal standards, etc). As these things would become a minority but functional option, the next generation of rabbonim could move it to a "normal" option.

    However, we do face a surprising difference in this generation. The gedolim are significantly OLDER and therefore (as we've unfortunately seen on some YouTube videos) somewhat manipulated or controlled by those surrounding them.

  10. Akiva, you remind me of what I wrote in an earlier post on RationalistJudaism:

  11. I believe part of the problem is
    1) they may be :Gedolim but they are negaih bdavar - they have a vested interest in maintaining the (unsustainable) status quo their respect power and also finances are enhanced by larger yeshivot and Kollelim.
    2)They have effectively been chosen by the system to be Gedolim in that they have been selected as the ones most likely to lead the system as it is not change it
    The only natural solution I can think of is a comparison to the old Soviet system which was also ultimately unsustainable but it took a visionary with ultimate power like Gorbachev to change

  12. Rosenbaum's a bit late - I and others said the same things in lengthy economic analyses at OUJ Group, my own blog, and plenty of other places. About two years ago I wrote three long posts which boiled down to similar basic conclusions, and also pointed out it was economic suicide for our communities to not act. They've known this, yes, for a long time - they or their underlings do actually read blogs - and yet they choose to do nothing. And now the school system, charitable support system, and whole shuls and communities are facing immediate threat of economic implosion. Any so-called "leader" who is more worried about what people think about his status than in speaking the truth is no leader, period. It is evil to knowingly allow the communities to be endangered!

  13. By the way, I'm sorry if I sometimes criticize you Rabbi Slifkin. I really think you do wonderful work, and I agree with 90 percent of this blog post. Chazak ve'amatz.

  14. Shlomo writes: "The only natural solution I can think of is a comparison to the old Soviet system"

    I'm just waiting for Godwin's law to kick in.

  15. R.Slifkin
    re. creating Gedolim in our image. Emunas Chachomim is a fundamental concept in charedi society. I believe that EC is possibly the biggest nisoyon in our generation. There are different ways to deal with this. It is fine when you personnally agree with a certain Gadol's opinion. What if you don't agree? One possibility is to be mevatel your opinion and just follow whatever decree. This is a tremendously difficult path to follow.
    The other alternative is to "explain" the godol's way and fit it into your worldview. So what you describe is a way for certain people to cope with EC once it is defined as a central belief. I believe it is less of a problem for Isreali-born charedim who have been educated from an early age to think in a certain way.
    Of course one can dismiss the concept of EC, but that's another story...

  16. The halachic process and the rulings of gedolim are, and have always been, critical factors in their massive exercise of guiding the Jewish People through highly complex social engineering. Many of the moves made appear to defy reason or precedent yet are part of their very long view of the development of Jewish society.

    Two expert chess players can start a game of chess and by the opening couple of moves already predict how the game will turn out. One of the largest frustrations to a professional player is to play against a non-expert player who at times plays non-standard or upredictable moves. Certainly the amateur is allowed to, but the expert would prefer not to have to deal with such perturbations to his system. He will berate and chastise the amateur for simply making his job more difficult.

    In the banning of your books Natan, I would guess that such concerns were and are the real basis for the "sky is falling" rhetoric that surround you and your work. Not what you wrote, or how you said it. The Gedolim think they have it all figured out. They feel that they know the best way to keep the aircraft carrier called "the Jews" on course. The pilot of an aircraft carrier has to start to plan a course change miles before implementing it.

    I agree with you that what appears to be the destination of their social engineering is not where I want the Jewish people to be heading. But, it is obvious why, in their minds, they have to change slowly and methodically, and spurn "the amateur" that is introducing extraneous noise into their system. Making their piloting that much harder. They will do whatever they can to keep people like you out of their pilothouse, and try to undo the course corrections you are introducing. Even if they agree with you, they will firmly rebuff you in the belief that now is not the right time. If the rebuff is not complete, people will see through their rebuke and your input will not be undone.

    The bottom line is: keep making the moves you need to make to help correct the course of our people, but don't be the least bit surprised when they seem to go way overboard in trying to discourage you, and the rest of us at your side. On the other hand, be careful not to push too hard too fast, or you'll spin us out of control in a different direction - a better direction, but out of control nonetheless.

    "The Gedolim" is a social movement, with its own social goals. They will ultimately deal with their financial reality, but it will take them a long time - and they better not miscalculate if they want to be around for their next move.

  17. "Of course one can dismiss the concept of EC, but that's another story..."

    Yes, one can dismiss one of the Forty Eight ways of Pirke Avos. Just hoping that the correct understanding of that Way isn't dismissed.

  18. I always think these discussions about work vs. kollel don't really lead anywhere because they are too vague about what "work" means, especially in the modern world. Of course, no Godol or any Rav would tell someone not to get a job that he is already qualified for and pays well rather than to become a pitiful charity case. The issues become much more complex, though, when they involve years of training, problematic environments, etc.

    I'm not saying this as a justification for life-long kollel. Just the opposite; since the society is so focused on kollel, people who want (or need) to work get zero guidance on what kind of work is appropriate for themselves as a Ben Torah.

  19. From the original post:

    This would be a severe deficiency in any person – kal v’chomer for someone in a position of leadership.

    Maybe the real issue is that most of these Rabbanim have never been selected for 'leadership', but rather for either teaching ability, technical Torah knowledge, or ability to pasken she'elos. Maybe they don't even want to be leaders? Is that possible?


  20. The Gedolim think they have it all figured out. They feel that they know the best way to keep the aircraft carrier called "the Jews" on course.

    What mitzva is it to do this? Where do we find any obligation or even recommendation to "keep the Jews on course"? Isn't that the Ribbono Shel Olam's job?

  21. > [R. Slifkin]: As I have said before, I think it is far more disrespectful to deliberately distort someone’s position than to dispute it.

    It's not quite so simple:


  22. Ephraim,
    In interpreting halacha and the mesora all through the ages the chachamim have always steered halacha in a manner highly influenced by the Jews social condition. When the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and Judaism went from temple (cohen) centric to halacha (chachamim) centric the chachamim effected major change to promote social/religious survival. This has been true all through the ages. The Chasam Sofer and the Hungarian push against reformation, and the current push against "modernity" and the MO movement are just a couple examples of major engineering the "Gedolim" are trying to effect. If they keep steering too hard to the right all the time we are just going to be stuck going around in circles.

    Judaism is not just a religion. It is a way of life. It is the raison d'etre of the Jewish people. Just as activism from the secular judiciary promotes a prefered social agenda (at least as prefered by those sitting on the bench), so to do our sages practice social activism in their religious guidance. The big question is - who is a Gadol. But, since the question involves such broad social impact, the answer is essentially self defining. Those that can effect the most social impact are considered gedolim. A gadol screaming in the wilderness is just another jew. A gadol that can draw a large following can be a Gadol. Until we have another sanhedrin, its all we have. When agendas coincide we get "the Gedolim." Otherwise, its each man for himself. Occassionally we get askanim and kanaim that try to herd the gedolim according to their personal agendas. They try to creat the illusion of "the Gedolim" to help further their causes. We are too often at their mercy.


  23. In interpreting halacha and the mesora all through the ages the chachamim have always steered halacha in a manner highly influenced by the Jews social condition.

    This has been true all through the ages.

    I know this is how certain people want us to look at things; my question was, where is the evidence that this is something that should be done, and even more importantly, that these specific people (who have been appointed by no one to positions other than Rav, Dayyan, Rosh Yeshiva, and the like) are empowered to do it?

  24. DF
    R' Natan, I made exactly the same point you made on the Cross Current website. That is, what kind of GEDOILIM are afraid of voicing their own opinions? And if they are indeed so afraid, then how do the followers of GEDOILIM know that they are really following what the GEDOILIM truly believe? It is truly a killer point, and therefore I have to belive JR, as insightful as he usually is, did not fully grasp the implications of what he said. If he was right, then the entire Charedi system has just been undermined.

    Of course, cross currents didnt publish the comment. They never publish the hard hitting ones.


  25. All RW Gedolim are supportive of "kollel forever" idea. And they would call the minority LW Gedolim (who care about poverty) as "fakers." So the problem is not with the street, but with Gedolim calling each other fakers.

    Anyway if they all together sign to a statement about importance of parnosah, no one is gonna call all 60 Gedolim as fakers.

    But hey we are supposed to say Gam-zu-letoyva.

  26. "As I have said before, I think it is far more disrespectful to deliberately distort someone’s position than to dispute it."

    Which is worse, /accidentally/ distorting one's position and not owning up to it, or disputing one's position? The reason I ask is because you still haven't addressed your (hopefully accidental) distortion of Rabbi Shafran's ideas in this post:

  27. I replied in the comments to that post.


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