Sunday, January 15, 2012

Strength in Leadership

The Gemara (Nedarim 38a) states that the Divine Spirit only rests on a person who is powerful, wealthy, wise, and humble. Now, we can appreciate the importance of wisdom and humility in a prophet, but why does he have to be powerful and wealthy?

Rambam explains this with a principle discussed in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, which states, “Who is mighty? He that subdues his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? He that is satisfied with his lot.” The power and wealth spoken of are internal, spiritual attributes, rather than brute strength and heaps of money. However, this explanation does not appear to be the straightforward meaning of the Talmud’s list of requirements, since the Gemara proves these requirements from cases of prophets who were actually rich and strong. (I am aware of alternate explanations of these proofs, which I discuss in the chapter on giants in Sacred Monsters, but they are not straightforward.)

There is another answer. One of my favorite childhood books was Richard Adam’s best-selling story about life in a rabbit warren, entitled Watership Down. The rabbit Fiver, a small, weak and pathetic bunny, also happens to possess the power of prophecy (admittedly unusual in a rabbit). Fiver experiences a vision that the warren is about to be destroyed by developers, and desperately tries to persuade the other rabbits in the warren to leave. But the other rabbits simple don’t believe him, and who can blame them? This pathetic and sickly little rabbit is obviously delirious, deranged, deeply disturbed, and desperate for attention.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that anyone who is sick, or poor, or generally pathetic would lack credibility as a prophet. Perhaps he’s pretending to do it out of insanity or to gain attention – after all, he’s got nothing to lose. The requirement for a prophet to be healthy and wealthy is simply to ensure that people take him seriously as a man of stature.

A similar reason applies to the laws of appointing a king. Rambam rules that one may not appoint a butcher, hairdresser, bathhouse attendant or suchlike as a king. This is not because such people are innately unsuitable for the task; Judaism cares more for internal qualities than superficial prestige. However, since the work of such people is not prestigious, the public will not take them seriously and their authority will be compromised. The requirement is based on a pragmatic outlook, rather than being an attestation to the importance of a high-powered career.

Leadership must be strong and vigorous, and must also be perceived that way. When leadership is weak, or even merely perceived that way, there is a problem.

There is a common perception, with much evidence to support it, that the rabbinic leadership in the charedi world suffers from such weakness. I have long wondered whether this problem might stem from the medical innovations of the modern era. For most of history, the only people to survive to adulthood were those of a strong constitution. Very few people reached old age; those who did were people of immense strength. And the authoritative rabbinic figures of fame were often younger than we assume. When Ramban stepped in to the Maimonidean controversy, he was only in his thirties! Today, on the other hand, many people survive to their eighties and beyond, and (perhaps as a result) "Gedolim" usually do not receive this title much before that. On many occasions, this means a decline in mental aptitude. But even if they are mentally acute (as Rav Elyashiv seems to be, at least until very recently), they are often weaker and more subject to manipulation by askanim.

It turns out that I was not the only person to reach this conclusion. There is a fascinating new article, "The leadership vacuum facing ultra-Orthodox Jewry," which makes this point and several important other points. It's an absolute must-read. You can read it at Ha'aretz, or you can read it at Vos Iz Neias and see the mixed reactions of charedi readers.


  1. A funny thing about the VIN comments is the attacks on the author (and source). The author is frum enough to occasionally layn at my Shabbat morning minyan.

    Great juxtaposition of pictures! But who's that with Tropper?

  2. Did you do the sematic shift on purpose or did you just not realize it?

    The picture of the rabbi you show, looks quite healthy. You shifted from physical strength to demunitive professions, to mental capacity. But isn't mental capacity covered in wise and humble?

    If you did this on purpose, can you explain the shift?

    And why did you leave out the aspect of money, which people are so want to follow these days?

    I had felt that the requirement for being wealthy would be so they could not be bribed to give a false prophecy or their prophecy be doubted as to the influences of a bribe. But in today's world it seems it goes the opposite direction. If you are wealthy, people assume you must have been dishonest.

  3. Nice pictures. And scarily enough, quite appropos.

    There is a very practical reason for prophets needing all those qualities. Look at Yishiyahu. do you think he could have prophesized as he did and gotten away with it if he wasn't the king's first cousin?
    Look at Yirmiyahu. Why wasn't he killed despite upsetting so many important people?
    Prophecy did not come with a forcefield. Proteksia was just as important.

  4. The picture wasn't ideal, but I couldn't find a picture of Tropper with Rav Elyashiv.

  5. Ameteur - good point about money. Indeed, Tropper used money to buy off most the Gedolim. Those who did not fall for him - Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Hershel Schechter - were those with yeshivos that are financially secure.

  6. A homeschooling advocate posited that the dearth of leadership in our generation is correlated with formal schooling. Perhaps. The greats of previous generations were taught by melamdim at their personal level, and not in classrooms.
    I had a different answer: the men who would now be in the 60s, not 80s, who could be leading this generation while the older ones retire, where are they?

    Killed in the Holocaust.

    And the new generation, is only in their 40's, too young.

    We have hopes for you, R' Slifkin.

  7. The haredi leadership is weak and getting weaker. I pray that this does not result in Jews leaving Judaism but it appears that this may be one of its effects.

    We need new leaders in Judaism who will take the reigns and replace the current leaders from whom there is no direction or vision. One such leader could be HaRav David Bar-Hayim.

  8. those who did were people of immense strength.

    The suggestion is that Rabbinic leaders of yore were physically stronger thereby more credible?

    On a theoretical level, consider that the same health considerations would have been relevant to the flocks of Jews that the Rabbi's of yore were presiding over, so what difference would it make?!

    On a practical level, is this backed up by any evidence? Consider the five-foot tall Rav Moshe - lack of height didn't seem to diminish his authority. Consider the sickly Sfat Emet, and what about the sickly Moshe Mendolsohn with a "body of Aesop"?

  9. So who is he with?

    "Look at Yishiyahu. do you think he could have prophesized as he did and gotten away with it if he wasn't the king's first cousin?"

    Yishayahu doesn't seem to have offended the king that much- and had a king receptive to his message. Who knows how he did with Menashe- apocrypha and Midrash say Menashe killed him.

    (Yoav was Shlomo's first cousin. Didn't help.)

    "Look at Yirmiyahu. Why wasn't he killed despite upsetting so many important people?"

    Yirmiyahu had zero proteksia. The king had a servant who liked him. Generally, even evil kings of Judah and Israel didn't kill prophets.

  10. Kira, Holocoust ended 67 years ago.

    Let's stop complaining and come to terms with life without 'gdoilim'. Is it such a bad life?

    Did Yona have 'protekzia' in the Assyrian court?

  11. On the other hand, sometimes gedolim are really gedolim, and won't allow themselves to be manipulated.

    The Tzitz Eliezer's grandsons told me that as he grew older, he stopped accepting shailos because he felt he didn't have the same mental clarity anymore.

    Granted, R. Waldenberg didn't have the star appeal of many of the rabbonim mentioned in the article.

  12. Natan, juxtaposing a Rav with pictures of fictional characters is in poor taste. Again you are taking the low road, and it is undermining whatever valid points you have to make.

  13. Wow. Watership down? That was a summer reading assignment in my 9th grade honors English class. Not to mention, the book is massive. I am impressed that you read that as a child.

    Brings back painful memories of that summer (although the book was really good).

  14. I fully agree with Ben Dov.

    Picturing fine upstanding people on the same page as that monster is a great insult.

    You owe Tolkien an apology. :o)

  15. "Kira, Holocoust ended 67 years ago.", yes, and that would be the age of the new generation of leaders that might have been taking over for the generation that is now passing.

    Yes, we have no choice but to live in a world with no leadership. Yet we should not be unaware of the dangers of "ein melech be'Yisrael ish hayashar be'einav yaaseh".

    About Yirmeyahu: he did not fit the profile of a Navi in the slightest, including starting his career as a youth, completely in contravention of the Rambam's Hil' Yesodei HaTorah chapter 7.

  16. > "Kira, Holocoust ended 67 years ago.", yes, and that would be the age of the new generation of leaders that might have been taking over for the generation that is now passing.

    So where are all the gedolim in their 6s0 born just after WWII? Where are the great people in their 50s stepping up to fill the leadership roles? Where are all of the baby-boomer gedolim born to frum American GIs? Why are the “gedolim” only men from pre-war Europe?

  17. Who is in the picture with Tropper?

  18. I hosted a well known Rabbinic personalty who was publickly attacked by R' Elya Svei during one of his Aguda convention addresses. During his stay he told me about an incident which illustrates UR point in dramatic fashion.
    Once RES was oiver botul and R' Shmuel Kamentesky became the godol and ascended to the Moezet the victimized Rabbi asked RSN why RES denigrated him at the convention. RSN responded that dementia does not appear overnight it's a long drawn out process with slow deteriorization over a number of years.
    So RES was aloud to continue with his keynote speeches at Aguda conventions whilst those in the know were quite aware that his mental faculties were in a steady decline.
    Alto I was not aksed to keep this matter confidential I believe this Rabbi wud not want me to disclose his name so I won't.

  19. >>> About Yirmeyahu: he did not fit the profile of a Navi in the slightest,

    Yet Yirmeyahu was the only Navi (i think) that has the description of a prophet as given in Deut 18:18

    See Jer. 1:9 & 1:7 Interesting coincidence or something more in the similarity of these verses.

    >>>> completely in contravention of the Rambam's Hil' Yesodei HaTorah chapter 7.

    I suspect Yirmeyahu didn’t have a Rambam to guide him. :)

  20. There have been great rabbis of the past who had long lifespans. Rabbi Yosef Karo lived to age 87 and Radvaz to an even older age. Does anyone know how active they were in their last years?

  21. Nachum, it's Rabbi Reuven Fienstien.

    As for the Haaretz article I don't think it's true. There are more than enough candidates to be gedolim, and within a few years one will emerge as the "greatest one." In Chasidic circles, as well, the leaders of the big chasiduses are indeed not widely regarded as great leaders, but some obscure rebbe will eventually emerge as a great tzadik who everyone will start running to.
    People will make it happen the same way they made it happen in every generation. The internet will surely ruin the chances of some, but not all

  22. Not sure, but I think that is Tropper with Rabbi Reuvein Feinstein, the son of Rav Moshe.

  23. We see the same tension between wealth as physical vs. wealth as spiritual in the NT: Jesus either said "blessed are the poor" or "blessed are the poor in spirit" (regardless of whether he actually said them or not).

    I think the Rambam is trying to do something similar but necessary, because it would be too extreme for the elite to say that wealth is anathema!

    Also, ancients thought that wisdom and wealth are interconnected (it's all over Proverbs) - if you are wealthy, you certainly must be wise enough to have acquired it, and vice versa.

  24. Those living in RBSA should wake up and realize that the beloved "moderates" aren't so moderate. They wish to see RBSA turn into a Charedi only city.

    How can we expect them to condemn the extremists when they themselves support the charediazation of the city?



  25. A post very relevant to last week's parsha (Shemot).

    Why was it necessary for Moshe to grow up in the palace? Ibn Ezra hints at 3 answers:
    1) So that he wouldn't have a slave mentality. How could someone with a slave mentality take a slave nation out of Egypt? Someone with a slave mentality doesn't stand up for another slave when the taskmaster is beating him, or when two other slaves are fighting or when men are harassing women at a well.
    2) His Egyptian princess mother teaches him to stand up for what is right even though everyone is acting cruelly to the Israelites.
    3) "had he grown up among his brethren, such that they had known him since his youth, they would not be in awe of him, for they would consider him as one of them."

    This third answer is exactly what this post is about.

    This was based off of R Samet's parsha shiur:

    I would also add that Moshe is a man involved with the people, who cares about them. I don't know how many of today's Charedi gedolim are involved with the people. They're stuck in their 4 amot of halacha.

  26. With regard to comments on the recent development of the concept of "Daas Torah" as it's applied today -- Is it really any different than saying so-and-so has "Ruach Hakosesh", accept that the chareidem reserve the latter for earlier scholars like Rashi? (Same idea, different language?)

  27. About Rabbi Elysahiv . . .

    Someone somehwere said an insightful thing about him. He said R. Eliyashi is an "accidental gadol." Meaning, the other chareidi gedoilim are aware that the charedi public for some reason believes them to be infallible, for all intents, and thus they act accordingly. They try to act and speak in a matter befitting leadership. [Whether we agree with them or not is, of course, another matter altogether.] But they at least try to act the part.

    Rabbi Eliyashiv, by contrast, doesnt seem to get it. He still thinks of himself as pretty much a private citizen like he was 30 years ago, more or less. He doesnt seem to appreciate that his community now looks upon him as a GODOL. Thus, he basically says whatever is on the top of his mind, without really realizing that his comments might affect his community, who view his every word as though it came from Sinai. That's why you hear and read some pretty crazy things coming from him. As the guy said, people dont really change all that much past the age of 70.

    Can't swear to it, but this seems to make sense, and explains a lot of things.

  28. It seems to me we are missing an extremely important point in this post, and the article presented in VIN. There are elements of the Haredi world, in the name of some pseudo-religious agenda and their own self-appointed position as "guardians of the faith" that are perpetuating a lie, and in some cases issuing rulings that are not based in reality...sounds like...a dictatorship? North Korea? Avodah Zora, by turning human beings (great as they have been) into super human beings, or the Messiah, and worshiping them?

  29. “Look at Yirmiyahu. Why wasn't he killed despite upsetting so many important people?
    Prophecy did not come with a forcefield.”

    Yirmiyahu’s did. He was assured of that in advance of his life’s mission, as explicit in Sefer Yirmiyahu ch. 1

    אל תירא מפניהם כי אתך אני להצילך [פסוק ח']

    ואתה תאזור מתניך וקמת ודברת אליהם את כל אשר אצוך; אל תחת מפניהם... ואני הנה נתתיך היום לעיר מבצר, ולעמוד ברזל, ולחומות נחושת, על כל הארץ - למלכי יהודה, לשריה, לכהניה, ולעם הארץ; ונלחמו אליך ולא יוכלו לך כי אתך אני... להצילך [פסוקים יז – יט]

    As opposed to other prophets who might provoke public ire with an occassional Jeremiad, Yirmiyahu's entire career was Jeremiads, and he needed that special protection - and received it.

  30. The Haaretz article was a difficult read - swimming through so many half-truths and unbased fantasies to get to a few [important] grains of truth. The comments were markedly predictable - the choir told the preacher "hurrah" and the anti-choir told him "boo" [with the worst spelling and grammar in the most fundamentalist comments]. What else is is new? For me, duss is nisht nayez.

  31. isn't the gemara discussing what allows a person to recieve n'vuah? i'm not sure how Rav Hirsch's pshat explains that. it just seems that a navi won't be listened to if he lacks these qualities, but there's nothing blocking the n'vuah itself.


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