Saturday, January 11, 2014

And Man Made Godolim In His Images

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled "And Man Made Godolim In His Image." In that post, I discussed an essay by Jonathan Rosenblum, which claimed that the Gedolim secretly agree that the kollel system is deeply problematic and should be radically changed. I argued that it is more likely that Rosenblum was simply re-creating the Gedolim in an image more amenable to his non-charedi background, modern American worldview, and post-charedi sensibilities - as he has done on other occasions.

In a fascinating new post at the Seforim Blog, Dr. Marc Shapiro demonstrates another potent example of the phenomenon of people re-creating Gedolim in a more preferred image. There is a biography of Rav Elyashiv, written in Hebrew, which was "translated and adapted" into English. The English adaptation re-creates Rav Elyashiv to make him into the type of person that would be considered a Gadol by Anglo charedim, as opposed to the type of person that is considered a Gadol by Israeli charedim. For Israelis, portraying Rav Elyashiv as a Gadol means describing how he was completely absorbed in his learning to the negation of all interpersonal relationships, even with his own family. But for Americans, this would not be seen as a sign of greatness at all. Instead, it would be seen, at best, as simply a sign of an introverted personality, and at worst, as a personality defect. And so the English biography cuts out many of these stories, and adds a claim that Rav Elyashiv's family members held back from him because he would care too much.

It's long been known that many "Gadol biographies" are simply hagiographies that seek to inspire rather than present an accurate portrayal. But this is a fascinating example of how different communities can have opposing ideas of how to do that.


30 comments:

  1. :" But for Americans"
    I know many people who wore upset with some of the stories printed in the Yated . Like him not even knowing the names of some of his female relitives

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  2. IMHO just an extension of Rabbi Schwab (Selected Writings p233-234) [History should be inspiring]

    "There is a vast difference between history and storytelling. History
    must be truthful, otherwise it does not deserve its name. A book
    of history must report the bad with the good, the ugly with the
    beautiful, the difficulties and the victories, the guilt and
    the virtue. Since it is supposed to be truthful, it cannot spare
    the righteous if he fails, and it cannot skip the virtues of the
    villain. For such is truth, all is told the way it happened. Only
    a prophet mandated by his Divine calling has the ability to report
    history as it really happened, unbiased and without praise.

    Suppose one of us today would want to write a history of Orthodox
    Jewish life in pre-holocaust Germany. There is much to report but
    not everything is complimentary. Not all of the important people
    were flawless as one would like to believe and not all the mores
    and lifestyles of this bygone generation were beyond criticism. A
    historian has no right to take sides.

    He must report the stark truth and nothing but the truth. Now, if a
    historian would report truthfully what he witnessed, it would make
    a lot of people rightfully angry. He would violate the prohibition
    against spreading Loshon Horah which does not only apply to the
    living, but also to those who sleep in the dust and cannot defend
    themselves any more.

    What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic
    picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell
    ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people,
    their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their
    life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and
    their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages. What is gained by
    pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want
    to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience.

    When Noach became intoxicated, his two sons Shem and Japhet, took a
    blanket and walked into his tent backwards to cover the nakedness of
    their father. Their desire was to always remember their father as
    the Tzaddik Tomim in spite of his momentary weakness. Rather than
    write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a
    veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest
    which is great and beautiful. That means we have to do without a
    real history book. We can do without. We do not need realism, we need
    inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it on to posterity."

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  3. Interesting and it will get even more interesting, for ideals and perceptions also change with time and one may expect further hagiographic revisionism in the future. One is reminded of watching his grandfather dutifully, with a stoic expression, cutting out and pasting mailed revisions of articles and pictures in his Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

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  4. פֿאַרטײַטשט און פֿאַרבעסערט

    (Old joke about a Yiddish troupe's Hamlet - "Translated and improved.")

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  5. There is a fine line between Lashon Hara about former generations, and learning from their mistakes.

    R' Wein is very vocal on the harm caused by attempting "inspire" us with a false view of previous generations.

    Temujin, you in particular would appreciate his perspective, if I'm not mistaken. http://www.rabbiwein.com

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  6. > Only
    a prophet mandated by his Divine calling has the ability to report
    history as it really happened, unbiased and without praise.

    So what he's saying is that of all the things we learn from the Tanach, showing that our heroes had human failings is not one of them. Because you need to be a prophet for that. Perhaps. But you need to be a bigger prophet to know what to praise.

    I happen to be learning the story of Yehudah and Tamar. Who in their right mind would have imagined the Tanach taking Tamar's side?! Or recording the incident at all. Definitely not "inspiring", that history.

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  7. We are asked:
    "What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic
    picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity."

    and:

    "What is gained by
    pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want
    to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience"

    Do you know what can be learned? The fact that no one is perfect , yet IN SPITE of the imperfections
    present in the great ones of the past, they were able to overcome them and still live up to the standards of the Torah and pass them on to the next generation. This is a lesson to us imperfect people of today and gives us examples of people we can emulate. To say they were perfect and then to realize that we are not can lead to disillusionment and then despair.

    Secondly, if we are aware of flaws in among the earlier generations, we can learn not to repeat those mistakes and to see what the negative consequences can be from repeating those mistakes. This is the lesson of the Torah which quite explicitly details the mistakes of the earler giants of Judaism and Torah.

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  8. Only
    a prophet mandated by his Divine calling has the ability to report
    history as it really happened, unbiased and without praise.


    However, when one tries to learn the tanach according to pshat or to bring in "unapproved" commentaries, the "kav" accuses you of heresy.

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  9. `" What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic portrait `" ?

    How about not treating us like children?
    How about grounding them in a real world, full of temptation, doubts and difficulties, and not some perfect halachic fairy tale?

    How about admitting that living practically on air presents serious problems, just like today?

    And regarding Cham and his brothers. I have no idea if Noach was a perfect tzadik. maybe the two other brothers wanted to preserve what little was left of his dignity . However drunk and despondent he was, Noach was still their father.

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  10. Kira, thanks! One has, though, been reading Rabbi Berel Wein's blog from time to time. It's a beginning. There is a serious lack of good historiography from Orthodox sources; the field is in the hands of the secular and non-Orthodox. Temujin is not sure why, but Rabbi Schwab's approach may be an explanation. One is puzzled, though, as one would have thought his Torah in derekh eretz approach would have directed his views towards a less ideological perspective on historiography.

    Another thorny issue is the loshon hara principle which is a theological quagmire Temujin would rather avoid. leaving to others here to growl over. One understands the ethics behind it, but is puzzled over the practicalities. From a strictly functional perspective, there are serious problems it poses if strictly and broadly applied. By censoring and whitewashing current events and issues, one eliminates a crucial survival strategy that has contributed to the well-being of Jewish individuals and communities throughout the ages: the benefits of speedy transmission of accurate information. From the point of historiography, removing important details results, again, in the removal of vital information which could, literally, save lives. An extreme example would be Agudah's skewed understanding of Nazi plans and its hammering of present-day reality into a preconceived template. To paraphrase an old line about fighting wars, Agudah responded to "yesterday's pogroms." They missed the magnitude and novelty of the Nazi program for the destruction of European Jewry, treating it as another pogrom which could be mitigated with meekness and buy-offs of officials as happened plenty of times in the past. Not only was the "history repeats itself" assumption entirely wrong, but the historical outlook ignored the countless times when nothing Jews did to calm the beast made any difference.

    Again, one doesn't know what the solution to this is, as the understanding and uses of history is, in Orthodoxy, largely a theological matter.

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  11. Does anyone know what the Hebrew biography is called and which book is the English translation?

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  12. Revenge is sweet no?

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  13. I certainly hope that Rav Schwab modified his cited view elsewhere in his writings. The idea that nothing useful can be learned from revealing the flaws of people is tantamount to criticizing both the torah and prophets for not whitewashing the statements and deeds of biblical heroes.

    On the other hand, this post about the various approaches to the story of a recent Hareidi hero illustrates a different point. If you tell allegedly inspirational stories about how some noted religious figures conducted their lives seemingly oblivious to mundane concerns such as feeding and caring for their families, then you can expect varied reactions. Some people may be inspired to emulate such behavior. Such efforts can be considered destructive or laudable depending on viewpoint. Other people reading such tales can come away with a negative view of said heroes. So, even writing would-be laudatory stories of 'Gedolim', can lead to a variety of responses. Which would make Rav Schwab's viewpoint problematic as well as untrue.

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  14. Y. Aharon, basically, the old adage that it's always easier to just tell the truth, still holds.

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  15. Baruch,
    Hebrew biography - Hashakdan
    English - Rav Elyashiv: A Life of Diligence and Halachic Leadership

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  16. I find it amazing how many people offer the argument that one can only be inspired by flawed indivduals as if they are the first to make the argument and as if it's an obvious truth.

    Well, I, for one, am much more inspired by super heroic people (geniuses and the like), than by flawed ones. Reading Marc Shapiro's biography of the Seridei Eish (an example everybody loves to use) did not inspire me in the slightest. In actually made me dislike the man as he clearly was extremely wishy washy and didn't have the guts to stand up for what he thought was right.

    I'm not saying one must lie, but telling the full truth is not always necessary either. Do all of us plan on telling our children about the faults of our parents and/or grandparents?

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    Replies
    1. You should take a look at Jewish Action's review of PMS's book where others were likewise distinctly unimpressed

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  17. Yehuda

    when i was a kid i read a book on wilma rudolph 20 times. she was my hero. same thing here.

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  18. Yehudah-
    Then how do you explain all the problems and mistakes the great avot ha'umah made as described in the TANACH? What do you say about the famous biblical commentators (RAMBAN, RASHBAM, Ibn Ezra, etc, etc, etc) who point out flaws in our great ancestors?

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  19. "For Israelis, portraying Rav Elyashiv as a Gadol means describing how he was completely absorbed in his learning to the negation of all interpersonal relationships, even with his own family. But for Americans..it would be seen, at best, as simply a sign of an introverted personality, and at worst, as a personality defect."

    Oy. More evidence that Israel makes Judaism worse. It's more fanatical, more extreme, more insular, more intolerant, more hateful and more violent. We need to take a long hard look at what Israel is doing to our religion.

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  20. If you are arguing that knowing about some faults and mistakes of great people would also inspire (because they overcame them), then you are implying that any other fault which would NOT inspire but would only serve to lower the stature of the subject in people's eyes should be omitted.

    So all of you are essentially admitting to the necessity of writing hagiography regarding gedolim, and are only haggling over the extent.

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  21. Last Year-
    I am afraid you are assuming that "Judaism" is the same as the Haredi camp. The Haredim are PART of the Orthodox/religious community but not the only part. I, who associate with the Religious Zionist community find "Judaism" here in Israel MUCH healthier than what I lived with in the US. The average "baal habayit" that I see here is much more learned (he speaks Hebrew, after all!) and careful in mitzvot than his American counterpart, even if he is not a full-time learner and participates in outer, secular culture.

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  22. > If you are arguing that knowing about some faults and mistakes of great people would also inspire (because they overcame them), then you are implying that any other fault which would NOT inspire but would only serve to lower the stature of the subject in people's eyes should be omitted.

    I think this is an excellent point and he's absolutely right. I never liked this argument about "flaws inspire us", and I think he just nailed why it's always made me somewhat uncomfortable.

    The real reason we shouldn't be hiding the things we disagree with is simply because they are TRUTH and by hiding it, you often allow sheker to be perpetuated. For example, by hiding the fact that the gedolim of yesteryear read secular literature, its allowed chareidi society to justify it's stance against secular education as something that's part of the mesorah.

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  23. Y Ben David -
    I think we may have different opinions on what "healthy" means. They may be more careful in their performance of mitzvot, except those ben adam l'chaveiro.

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  24. While it is true that we have many examples in the Tanach of people failing in their avodas Hashem, as pointed out by Chazal (and Rishonim), do we have examples of Chazal themselves pointing out flaws in people of their generation?

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  25. do we have examples of Chazal themselves pointing out flaws in people of their generation?

    depends what you mean by flaws. what we call a flaw may not have been a flaw in chazal's eyes. i mean, there are plenty of stories of a rav cursing another rav, with the latter than suffering something horrible. did the gemara records these events to show us what a lousy guy the first rav was? or that the second rav had it coming? or something else entirely?

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  26. you know very well that even if what you wrote by way of what is included in each Rav Elyashiv book is true...what was written in each book can be completely true.
    Another case of your deep intellectual dishonesty by which you don't even have control over your own mind

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  27. The issue here is that arguably part of Rav Elyashiv's success in becoming the Posen had or came about because of his lack of sociability ie closeting himself up in the beis hamedrash to learn undisturbed. Omitting this fact is therefore disingenuous and silly

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  28. @ Ben
    "depends what you mean by flaws. what we call a flaw may not have been a flaw in chazal's eyes. i mean, there are plenty of stories of a rav cursing another rav, with the latter than suffering something horrible. did the gemara records these events to show us what a lousy guy the first rav was? or that the second rav had it coming? or something else entirely?"

    I'm not sure what the Talmud was trying to convey in the case you brought (although it doesn't sound like what I asked for). You would have to learn it to find out.
    I'm asking if anyone knows of a Gemara where a Tanna or Ammora pointed out a negative of one of his contemporaries to the public?

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  29. “One is puzzled, though, as one would have thought his Torah in derekh eretz approach would have directed his views towards a less ideological perspective on historiography.”

    But Dr. Isaac Breuer wrote, “It is incorrect to talk about Torah with anything else. There is no synthesis, there is no tension, there is no reconciliation, there is no balance; there is only domination.” According to RYY Weinberg, the physical and social circumstances in which man finds himself is the matter, the DE, upon which Torah imposes its form. R Schwab undoubtedly followed these definitions.

    ----

    “R' Wein is very vocal on the harm caused by attempting "inspire" us with a false view of previous generations.”

    Kira, does RBW show Hareidim cocooned in their world also being harmed?

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