Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gedolim, Tzaddikim, and Leaders

A long time ago I posted about two related and curious phenomena.

The first is that there is a common assumption that if someone excels in one area of Torah knowledge, it means that he excels in all areas. The most common manifestation of this error is that it is assumed that if someone is a great lamdan, then he is also a great theologian. Yet this is clearly not the case.

The second phenomenon is the common, but baseless, assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must be a tzaddik, and often vice-versa. I don't think that this is entirely baseless, but there certainly is not a firm correlation.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is another related phenomenon. There is a common, but baseless, assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must be a great leader.

This last misconception is especially odd because Tenach is replete with the idea that the two are not necessarily connected. First of all, with some obvious exceptions, the greatest Torah scholar (or other such person connected with Hashem) was not necessarily the leader of the Jewish People. Second, there are people who, at least in the Charedi view, are understood to be Gedolei Torah (e.g. Korach's group) and yet were clearly not suited to be leaders.

Furthermore, throughout history, there was usually a divide between the political leadership of the Jewish People and the rabbinic elite. And it's pretty obvious that there have been some great Torah scholars who were thrust into leadership roles and yet were/are very poor leaders. Leadership requires very different skills than Torah scholarship, and there is no reason why brilliance in the latter should automatically qualify one for the former.

This seems rather obvious, so why the widespread misconception? In many circles, it's unthinkable to point out that a person is an outstanding Torah scholar, and even a tzaddik, and yet a very poor leader. It probably has to do with the general simplistic, black-and-white view of things that is so prevalent.

(Please try to keep the comments constructive, to the extent possible with a topic such as this.)


  1. Isn't this an old machlokes going back to the times of Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Shimeon Ben Gamliel?
    There was a longstanding machlokes whether the nasi should be a descendant of Hillel, or the gadol hador.
    Practically (see the Gemara at the end of Horiyos), that for a time, the meyuchasim one out.

  2. I think it has to do with the belief that Torah is the blueprint of the world. A great Torah scholar who has mastered the blueprint is supposed to be able to lead according to it. What he says is viewed not as his personal opinion but as daas Torah. Torah is viewed as capable of transforming a person into a tzaddik and a leader.

  3. This is a manifestation of the current understanding of "Daas Torah". To wit: since the Gadol has "ruach hakodesh" when it comes to giving psak in something, why wouldn't he also have it when making political decisions as well?

  4. R. Moshe Feinstein agreed with you. See here:

  5. The common mistaken assumption regarding these issues is indeed a result, in part, of the superficial thinking (lack of thinking) in our generation.

  6. I'm fairly certain that this is because of the role of the Exliarch in Babylonia, and then the role of the Gaonim after them.

    Throughout history, the non-Jewish nations appointed the Rabbis as the leaders of the Jewish people in terms of advocacy and as a means to set policy on the community within the country.

    It is also very likely a result of the enlightenment where Judaism was forcefully thrust into the realm of religion, and religions are always lead by its priests. And in Judaism it's modern "priests" are the Torah scholars.

  7. I think people have confused "leader" and "consultant." A particular rav might be the perfect address if you have a specific question in his area of expertise.

    From my experience, most of the rabbanim considered "leaders" are really expert consultants. Furthermore, many of them have no desire to lead, which we see from some very defensive comments they make about not feeling responsible for the tzibur, and the fact that some do nothing to hide their extreme irritability when you go/call to ask them a sheilah.

    In the Talmudic days, very learned people used their learning to address the issues of the day. You had chavrusa learning, but also group debates among the most brilliant minds. We also see from the Gemara that these great learners also went out into the world (it seems that quite a few Talmudic incidents occur in the marketplace, for example) in order to learn more. Their learning was very active. You're more likely to develop leadership qualities from actually experiencing life and from actively pursuing answers.

    Today's "gadolim" have often been very sheltered. Their parents often shielded them to some extent, then their wives took on the task, then their grown children and gabbaim continued. Even the ones who went through hardships, like poverty or war, often had their families take the brunt of it while they were able to escape into learning.
    Someone who really can learn with complete hasmadah forever is most likely a person with a brilliant mind who suffers from Avoidant Personality Disorder or mild autism, although I don't discount the fact that an emotionally healthy person could do the same -- but it is less likely.

    I think we do have leaders, but we refuse to follow them and instead we try to prop up these holy consultants.

    I think we are also driving away potential leaders by expelling or drugging students who "suffer" from excessive intelligence, energy, and gevurah.

    In many cases, we can choose our schools and who we consider to be a gadol. (Although I readily acknowledge that an FFB within a more structured community may, practically speaking, be less able to express full bechirah in those two areas.)

  8. "The first is that there is a common assumption that if someone excels in one area of Torah knowledge, it means that he excels in all areas. The most common manifestation of this error is that it is assumed that if someone is a great lamdan, then he is also a great theologian. Yet this is clearly not the case."

    You're correct, but as I recall it is the opinion of the chazon ish.

    "This last misconception is especially odd because Tenach is replete with the idea that the two are not necessarily connected."

    Tanach, of course, says nothing about Torah scholars.

  9. > There is a common, but baseless, assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must be a great leader.

    And vice versa. It is assumed that all leaders were talmedei chachamim. We have no textual reason to think that Mordechai or the Maccabees or even Dovid Hamelech were talmedei chachamim, but it’s assumed that they were.

  10. "And vice versa. It is assumed that all leaders were talmedei chachamim. We have no textual reason to think that Mordechai or the Maccabees or even Dovid Hamelech were talmedei chachamim, but it’s assumed that they were."

    As is obvious, the gemarah is full of this assumption. As RNS has certainly become aware, it's so very difficult to play the role of Orthodox rationalist.

  11. This seems rather obvious, so why the widespread misconception?
    I think Haym Soloveitchik is right in "Rupture and Reconstruction" that the gedolim (largely rashei yeshiva) gaining power is all about the loss of the mimetic tradition and the rise of the text-based culture:
    "It is their standing as the masters of the book par excellence that has given them their newly found authority...This mastery now bestows upon him the mantle of leadership. And that mantle has become immeasurably enlarged, as the void created by the loss of a way of life (the orah hayyim), the shrinkage of a culture, manifests itself."

  12. and yet one more tragic manifestation of this error…the assumption that if someone is a great learner they must be a great husband and father.

  13. an anonymous random survey would be of interest - how many really believe it? I suspect the numbers would be fairly low (especially interesting would be a cut by age/years frum)

    Joel Rich

  14. After reading the other comments, I see I didn't answer RNS's question directly.

    So I agree with Garnel.

    (And with Seeker's extrapolation.)

  15. The thesis of this post should be obvious to most readers. Let me add some anecdotal evidence, however. A younger relative of the Chafetz Chaim used to cite his illustrious relative on the subject. Once he noted that the main thing wasn't how much of Shas a person learned, but what did Shas teach him. Another time, he stated, "someone who claims to have mastered Shas, but his character doesn't reflect that knowledge - this table stands higher than he" (presumably because the table has borne many sefarim, but remained a table - due to its nature. While the learned man with character flaws was able to change, but didn't).

  16. Someone can also write books and articulate matters and yet not be the best in articulation. Something can't be baseless and yet not entirely baseless at the same time and yet that is what you wrote (pen faster than your reflective thinking perhaps). By the way Rabbi Berel Wein said that being a big rabbi and being a tzaddik can not be guaranteed to go hand in hand.

  17. Classic application of the Peter Principle. A successful scholar reaches his level of incompetence as a political leader or vice versa. My rabbi is a very wise man. I wouldn't ask him to fix my fuel injectors any more than I'd ask my mechanic how to wear tefillin.

  18. I think there is a parallel in the U.S. Christian world that often asserts that Christianity is corrupted by Christians involved in the government. So, in general, the Christian movements in the U.S. have been very ambivalent government involvement, in certain eras refusing to endorse anyone from any party.

    It's very strange that there are two Carols on this list. I hope the other one who said, "I think it has to do with the belief...." is not writing in my name....

  19. Regarding R' Haym Soloveitchik's lamenting the return to texts as opposed to the mimetic tradition-there seems to be a glimmer of light in this phenomenon. I prefer that Jews base their practices upon a proper understadning of the Talmud,rather than mistaken traditions. To the extent that returning to texts allows for this-then good has been done. To the extent that returning to the texts means strictly abdiding by codes regardless of whether the Talmud is being correctly interpreted-this is the downside.

  20. What emerges from post after post is what a house of cards the Charedi worldview is. When the slightest intellectual pressure is applied to it, the whole structure collapses.

    My only question to you RNS is how an intelligent, inquiring person like yourself remained Charedi for so long.

  21. Ten Jew Very MuchJune 27, 2011 at 3:35 AM

    Two points to extend your comments.

    First, leadership comes in many varieties: political, military, artistic, intellectual, religious, business and others. Read Garry Wills's Certain Trumpets for an excellent exposition of this (and, further, contrasting a leader in each area with an "anti-type.")

    Yet people often assume that the skill/intelligence is easily transferable. Not so. A person successful in business thinks--and gets others to believe--that he/she will make a good governor. Sometimes yes, often no.

    Second, leadership often entails taking risks, something that many people--even ones of high ability--shy away from. It can mean saying, "What has worked up to now won't work in the future." But in the OJ world, almost no one is willing to go out on a limb.

  22. See Shapiro, Marc, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, on Rav Joseph Rozen's (Rogotchover) questionable character although a brilliant Talmid Chacham. We must also realize that R Saul Lieberman and R Louis Ginzburg were among the greatest talmidai Chachamim of the 20th Century but not considered leaders by the Orthodox community.

  23. An equally big misconception (and related) is that all rabbis are learned, or that rabbis are more learned than laymen. In actual fact, a rabbi, and that includes rosh yeshiva and rebbi, is simply a profession. Some rabbis are learned, but some are not. And while it is more likely that the average rabbi is more learned than the average layman, in every community there are plenty of laymen that are more learned than the rabbi(s).

  24. This is really part of a much more general cognitive bias, the halo effect, that shows up in many different contexts. In general, people are likely to associate good characteristics as all being positively correlated with each other and bad characteristics to be all positively correlated with each other. Unfortunately, there's a fair bit in the Jewish tradition which encourages this bias. The most obvious example, (although I I don't remember where exactly it is) is the Gemarra that talks about finding more negative things to say about rushaim and trying to find more good things to say about tzadikim.

  25. What is a good example of Jewish leadership?

  26. While discussing "leadership" in a general way, a good example of the non-transferability of leadership in one area to another is the tragic Israeli belief that military leaders are automatically qualified to be good national political leaders. The fact is that the worst leaders in Israel's history were the ex-Generals....Barak, Rabin, and Sharon (I know the Left adores him now because he destroyed Gush Katif, but I and many others view his Prime Ministership as being a major failure). Knowing how to move troops on the battlefield and how to motivate soldiers has no connection to understanding a country's strategic interests and motivating the civilian population. That is why countries like the UK and US have had very few military leaders go into civilian leadership. In the US, it is illegal for an ex-General to be Defense Secretary, this being viewed as a conflict of interest. In Israel, practically all Defense Ministers are ex-Generals which explains to me why so many military operations in Israel's recent history have been failures and why the IDF wastes so much money.

  27. HaRazieli,

    First, I only read part of the article, but it seems one of the problems he is pointing out in relation to "returning to the texts" is that many practices can't be exactly defined based on the text alone. You have a tradition which could be reconciled with the text ( with some effort ), but that tradition is thrown out. Since there is insufficient information in the text ( by itself without reference to any external information ) to specifically define the parameters of the particular practice, you end up with a kind of extreme maximalist interpretation resulting in an absurd level of humra.

    Separately, regarding leaders it seems like most of the decent Jewish leaders in the past 125 years have been secular.

  28. There is another flawed premise I would like to add.

    We assume, that because there were great Torah scholar in our history and even in the recent past, that we will find them today, of that same caliber.

    In our past, all recognized them for what they were.
    Today, one man's lamdan, is another man's layman, one man's Talmid Chacham, is another man's ober'shter Chacham.

    A good leader, is one that has good advisers.
    No one is that smart, as to not need advice.
    Because of this, the only good leaders that the Jewish people have in our times, outside of Israel, is that which is, on the side of our houses.

    We all know, that everyone of us is a Tzaddik. Baruch Hashem.
    Now we only have to let our deeds know it. (people are better then their worse deeds)

  29. So I guess you support the gedolim/askanim setup then ; )

  30. Rabbi Yehiah Kafiach is a good example of an orthodox leader. He started and lead the anti-kabbalah dardoi movement in Yemen to return to a pure monotheistic faith and embrace modernity. His 'Milhamot Hashem' is highly recommended.

  31. The fact that one identifies with the worldview of someone has no bearing on whether or not they are a good leader!

  32. Whether or not someone excels in all areas of the Torah is an objective reality. Ditto for whether someone is a Tzaddik (very good person).

    Your new category, whether someone is a "good" leader, is not so simple. How do you measure whether someone is a "good" leader? If it's just by whether that person has followers, then by any objective standard one would have to admit that the current crop of "Gedolim" are very good (if unwilling) leaders.

    On the other hand, if by "good" leader you mean someone who leads peiople the way you, R. Slifkin, wish they would lead, then I guess you're right that the current crop of "Gedolim" are not good leaders at all.

  33. 'The fact that one identifies with the worldview of someone has no bearing on whether or not they are a good leader!'

    You'll never hear any different from me. However, dardoim have been under persecution for over 100 years. A day may yet come where R. Kafiach's ideas may enjoy the success that they deserve. Maimonidean teaching might have gone thru similar periods in the past.

  34. I think this is a largely ashkenazi social phenomenon. Political leadership in the Sephardi community is far more vested in the hands of the economic elite (though there is still coordination with the leaders).

    Much of Ashkenazic history is grounded in impoverished villages where there was limited education and the local rabbi held the most sway. This is especially thecae in chassidishe tradition which further emphasizes the rebbe.

    Bzman hazeh, with the charedi, and increasingly the rwmo communities' nostalgia for the shtetle, it makes sense that the power of the "gadol" is growing.


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