Thursday, October 8, 2015

On being Mevazeh the Gedolim

A serious charge that is sometimes leveled in contemporary Orthodox society is "You are being mevazeh the Gedolim!" (The word mevazeh does not have a perfect English translation; the closest terms are "disparage" and "denigrate.") But what actually counts as being mevazeh the Gedolim? (Note that I am using the term Gedolim in its popular but inaccurate definition.) That is a fascinating question with some very disturbing answers. Respect for rabbinic authority is an important part of Jewish tradition. However, there is also a strong tradition of standing up for truth.

There are different scenarios to be discussed. Obviously I am not talking about name-calling or anything like that, which is surely never justifiable. (Strangely, however, there is a popular speaker who once referred to an important rabbinic leader as a "moron" and managed to get away with a very unconvincing apology - I think that this was because the rabbinic leader was not in the charedi camp.) Rather, I am talking about scenarios which don't involve obvious disrespect.

One is relating stories about the actions of the Gedolim which can be perceived as less than stellar. This, of course, is what happened with the famous case of Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's banned book Making of a Godol. That work presented biographical accounts of many Gedolim which were actually true, and thus very different from popular hagiographies. It included certain anecdotes which revealed these Gedolim to be human rather than superhuman. Controversy raged about whether or not this was disrespectful.

Another situation is disputing the positions taken by Gedolim. Many people are unfortunately of the opinion that this is automatically a sin of being mevazeh the Gedolim. Incredibly, Rav Chaim Kanievsky even stated that someone who supports one of the rival charedi political parties is guilty of being mevazeh the Gedolim! This, however, has no basis in Jewish tradition or Torah law. (An exception would be undermining the practical authority of rabbinic leaders of one's own community, which is certainly against Torah principles.) Of course, disputing people's positions should be done with due respect, but the nature of that respect is necessarily going to vary tremendously in different circumstances. For example, in some cases, there may genuinely be very little respect that is due. Another factor is that the nature of discourse varies between different cultures and societies - that which is considered par for the course in some places is viewed as unacceptably rude in other cultures.

The third situation is the most bizarre: quoting the positions taken by Gedolim. Now, you would think that there could be nothing objectionable about that. Yet this, too, is a case where many people consider it offensive. Marc Shapiro's important new book Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History provides countless examples of cases where positions of great Torah scholars were censored out of their works, because they were considered to be inappropriate.  This is very strange - after all, if you are publicizing the teachings of someone that you consider to be a great person, then surely you should respect their right to see things differently from you.

What happens when one actually goes ahead and quotes the strongly-held position of a Gadol in a case where his view is embarrassing to some people? I have done that on several occasions and have been accused of being mevazeh the Gedolim! My response is that if people have publicly voiced positions with significant ramifications, then these positions should be widely known, not suppressed. If there is any loss to their honor as a result, that is their own responsibility.

Unfortunately, for people who would like to put these figures on a pedestal and blind themselves to problematic positions they have taken, it's much easier to shoot the messenger than to honestly face up to reality.

32 comments:

  1. במקום שיש חלול ה אין חולקין כבוד לרב

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  2. Temujin once (reluctantly) lent out his collection of Chaim Grade's novels (in English trnsl.) to an enthusiastic baal teshuva fellow. Grade was the first and probably the only Yiddishist to have come out of a yeshiva and to write about pre-War Orthodoxy and the great rabbinic leaders and their factionalism factually, and without rancour, rather than as abject hagiographies. After reading through all of them...which can be summarized as a long, lyrical description of a train wreck in slow motion, where economically and culturally crashing religious obscurantism meets the worst parts of Modernity...the fellow somehow concluded that Grade wrote about the marvels and mystique of Judaism in the magical good-old-days. We see what we want to see....

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  3. PS, R' Nathan Kamenetsky's Making of a Godol: A Study of the Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities is available as a download from several sources including, http://www.slideshare.net/goedkosjer/the-making-of-a-godol.

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    1. Link doesn't work for me. Is this the original or the updated version.
      KT
      Joel Rich

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    2. It looks like the original, but it's only the first volume

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    3. Try the link without the final dot. http://www.slideshare.net/goedkosjer/the-making-of-a-godol

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    4. It is the 2002 version, which is the old version AFAIK.

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    5. Apologies to all for the poor link to a partial doc; one is still on his not-so-smart phone and it's a rigaramore to download and open PDFs. Perhaps this one, in two volumes, will serve better:

      https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SKOLaBzJe78dzSyQEX2Tz0z8bV26qNZ5J6a43ppKGJ4/mobilebasic

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    6. Out of curiosity is there any place to reasonably get a physical copy? Amazon's used copies are going over $400 for example and less would seem a reasonable request.

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    7. Subject to copyright law in your location and your halachic tradition, you can print out the pdf at a service that does binding.

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    8. Which version is better, the original or the "improved"?

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    9. torah is meant to be free. does temujin have a free version where you not need to give your credit card details?

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    10. David, here's a web site that purports to compare the two versions of the book: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2005/09/differences-btwn-improved-making-of.html

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    11. I found another web site that has a copy of the book but you can only read it online. URL is http://www.slideshare.net/goedkosjer/the-making-of-a-godol.

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  4. Well, if there is a such a thing, first someone has to provide a list of Gedolim. I've asked for years and have never received a response.

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    1. Good luck.

      Chirp, chirp, chirp....

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    2. First of all, there are my gedolim and your gedolim. You cant insult my gedolim, but we can insult your gedolim.

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    3. You've got this backwards: There are my gedolim and your gedolim. You can't insult my gedolim, but we can insult your gedolim.

      :)

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  5. "Another factor is that the nature of discourse varies between different cultures and societies - that which is considered par for the course in some places is viewed as unacceptably rude in other cultures."

    This applies not only to the responses to statements of Chareidi Gedolim, but also to the statements themselves. They sometimes speak in hyperbole, with the understanding that they mean to impress the listener with the seriousness of the matter, not that the statement should be taken literally literally.

    I think a lot of what sounds, in translation, like excessiveness, is understood by the Chareidi listeners as per the above; e.g. "someone who supports one of the rival charedi political parties is guilty of being mevazeh the Gedolim": I don't think he would say that someone who actually does this would literally incur the penalty for this (which I believe is losing his portion in olam habba.)

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    1. Ha! "Literally literally," I like that one.

      So true about the penchant for hyperbolae. Yet to better undetstand Hareidi culture, a familiarity with Eastern European Slavic culture goes a long ways. The warm intimacy is a welcome ingredient...the authoritarianism, absolutism, unyielding dogmatism and kowtowing to superiors not so much. One is always impressed by the way the younger generations soak up that tradition.

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    2. This sounds similar to an argument I've heard regarding the death penalty in halacha. The laws of evidence (the act must be committed in front of two kosher witnesses after having received and explicit warning from those witnesses) mean it is practically impossible to have a capital conviction - nobody would ever commit (for example) adultery in front of two kosher witnesses after having received a warning from them. But the Torah makes them capital crimes in order to strongly impress on us the seriousness of the crime.

      I think you're using a similar approach regarding some statements of the gedolim. And you may well be right. I would, however, be concerned that there are many (both within and outside these communities) that do not understand this and assume the hyperbole is intended to be taken literally. That can lead to people taking incorrect actions and (if the non-Jewish press decides to run with the story) can lead to a Chillul Hashem.

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  6. yeah, 'gedolim' should really try to set an example by not doing things that are 'mevazeh' themselves.
    and that of course includes not being 'mevazeh' other 'gedolim,' at least so as not to confuse us.
    if we are mevazeh gedolim who are mevazehed by gedolim, are we following the gedolim or not?
    probably yes. after all, only gedolim can knowho areal gedolim, so if we mevazeh mevazehed by gedolim gedolim, who are not really gedolim.... oy the above comment just caught my eye...
    i'm probably mevazehing myself by posting regardless, which proves i am not a gadol, in which case...

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  7. The third situation is the most bizarre: quoting the positions taken by Gedolim. Now, you would think that there could be nothing objectionable about that. Yet this, too, is a case where many people consider it offensive.

    I think that this statement may be a little too general. If you quote statements by any historical figure which are now known or thought to be wrong with the intent of making that person look foolish, then you may be treating them with disrespect. I'm thinking of negative attitudes towards various groups (women, Gentiles, blacks), pro-slavery positions, scientific errors, mistaken predictions and the like. Obviously quoting these in a scholarly context or in order to provide understanding of the viewpoints of the time or place are fine, or even to legitimately criticize, but you can imagine other contexts where you are simply trying to unfairly embarrass or discredit the figure with the advantage of hindsight. One can also improperly cite personal failings in an attempt to discredit. This applies to all figures, not just "Gedolim".

    Of course, in practice, I have seen this done by the Orthodox in order to discredit Gentile or Non-orthodox figures.

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    1. I was thinking the exact same thing, David.

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    2. Right, but I'm not talking about those sort of cases.

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    3. Bottom line, I think is this.

      Bad: Look how backward the Rambam was; he believed in spontaneous generation.

      Good: Spontaneous generation was generally accepted by intellectuals in Medieval times and even a figure as skeptical as the Rambam accepted it.

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  8. See שו׳׳ת בני בנים חלק ג׳ סימן י׳׳ח, about if it is אסור to publicize a statement made by a Rabbi that will embarrass him if it is made public.

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  9. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20024&st=&pgnum=65

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  10. How do you define "embarrass him"? If this is a statement that he held of, then he wouldn't be embarrassed by it, even if his followers are.

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    1. R. Slifkin: The T'shuva supports your position. The Rabbi in question sent a letter to the editor that denigrated other Rabbis. Rav Henkin permits publishing the contents of the letter in order to counter the Rabbi's attack. One of the reasons to permit is precisely what you mentioned: since the Rabbi in question sent the letter to a publication and did not request that it be kept private, he was implicitly granting permission to publish it. Therefore it can be publicized to "counter-attack" him:

      כיון שאותו הרב לא חש לזה אין בפרסום דבריו משום לשון הרע

      One of his other reasons to permit is also relevant. Since the Rabbi in question was causing divisions among the people, it is permitted to say Lashon Hara about him. This is based on his interpretation of a Yerushalmi that permits Lashon Hara in case on "בעלי המחלוקת". (I assume it the Lashon Hara needs to be related to the persons actions within the dispute and not to general attacks on the person).

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  11. From the Daattorah blog:
    Saturday, October 10, 2015
    Chasam Sofer : Criticizing Gedolim when they deviate from what is viewed as the accepted halacha

    update - finished the English translation



    The following is from חוט המשולש
    page 64-65 http://www.hebrewbooks.org/29069

    Once when my grandfather [the Chasam Sofer] was visiting the community of Yergin a distinguished person pressured him to be a guest in his home. He agreed. It was a very nice dwelling. However not many days later he learned that his host was spreading lashon harah and slander against him concerning his piety. The Chasam Sofer asked his shamash about this but the shamash did not want to describe with his mouth the disgusting things he had heard said about him. The Chasam Sofer was forced to order the shamash to tell what he knew. The shamash had no choice but to reveal what their host had said about him. After hearing the nature of the slander the Chasam Sofer requested that the Rav of the community make the host to take an oath and to confess that he had said bad things about the Chasam Sofer. Surprisingly the host readily admitted that he had said bad things about the Chasam Sofer and was not the slightest bit embarrassed about admitting this. The Chasam Sofer then asked him what was the basis of his saying derogatory comments about him? The host replied that he had been behind the Chasam Sofer's door on Shabbos day when the Chasam Sofer had sat down to have his meal and he noticed that the Chasam Sofer had not made kiddush (My grandfather had the custom of making kiddush on bread in the morning and then at the seuda of the day he just made a beracha on wine - which is the actual din of kiddush during the day). The host demanded to know - what type of Jew eats a meal on Shabbos without making kiddush?

    The Chasam Sofer was astonished and thought to himself - what sin have I done to warrant this punishment of lashon harah and slander in my old age. It then occurred to him that by being a guest in the rich man's house he had violated the statement of Chazal that a talmid chachom is not to dwell with even a pious ignoramous. But that explanation still did not satisfy him because he didn't understand how he forgot about this warning of Chazal at this time?

    But as he thought about the matter he suddenly became very happy that this degrading event had happened to him. He had always been bothered by the possibility that false and corrupt leaders would arise over the Jewish people and they would lead the people astray from Yiddishkeit and that eventually that would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. He realized that by this incident G-d was showing him that he was mistaken.

    G-d in fact had given the Torah to the most brazen of the nation. He thought to himself, "Here I am an elderly rabbi the head of a large community - nevertheless this Jew had no problem speaking very disgraceful things about me when he thought I had done something wrong. This Jew had seen from his ancestors that they made kiddush during the day meal - and he thought that I didn't. Therefore I see that those faithful to G-d do not pay attention to their leaders to do something they view as wrong. That is because the true foundation of their faith is what the children receive from their parents. This is in fact what the Ramban said. The Jewish people - even if they themselves are not prophets - they are the offspring of prophets.

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    1. So, is it me, or is the Chatam Sofer saying (in this story) that we should be mevazeh (or at least not be afraid to criticize) the Gedolim if we think they are wrong?

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