Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Mishpacha, Gedolim, and Decisions

One of these things is not like the other
In many ways, Mishpacha magazine is a remarkable development and a positive influence in the charedi world. For example, it features positive profiles of non-charedi people, which is quite the accomplishment for a society that usually tries to avoid endorsing anyone who does not share its values. And it even features columns openly admitting to, and criticizing, problems in charedi society, such as with Jonathan Rosenblum's legendary "Kollel is Poison" article, and his even more extraordinary article about how "We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment."

Still, there are some ways in which Mishpacha perpetuates and strengthens problems. One of these is that it constantly, and without exception or qualification, gushes over "Gedolim." They are presented as superhuman repositories of wisdom, righteous without flaw, whose guidance everyone is expected to follow.

This is a distortion of reality. "Gedolim" are often (though not always) great Talmudists (in the Lithuanian tradition) and/or great halachists. But, as Chazal state explicitly, this does not at all mean that they are necessarily wise, and certainly not that they are righteous without flaw. (Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l once delivered a famous and crucially important address on this point, which was translated under the title "The Daas in Daas Torah," and if you haven't read it yet, download it here.)

One of the more notorious instances of Mishpacha unwittingly misleading people is with its feature story on the holy kabbalist Rav Eliezer Berland. Since then, Berland has been exposed as one of the most evil people of the generation - a master manipulator who sets himself up as an idol, financially exploits his disciples, attempts to destroy his opponents, and takes advantage of women. Still, he has numerous devoted followers, and you don't see Mishpacha retracting their praise of him or warning people about him - indeed, their puff-piece about him is still on their website.

This is an extreme example. The more common problem is the general impression given by Mishpacha about what Gedolim are, and the consequences of this for the general public. And the most prominent example of that is with Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is an utterly selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah. But Mishpacha endorses and strengthens the popular myth that he is much more than that. He is presented as a leader with unique insight into every situation. In one particularly ludicrous case, Mishpacha presented Rav Chaim's two-word wish of blessing and success to somebody as an example of his giving guidance as to which yeshivah the person's son should attend!

Aside from there being no good reason to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky benefits from any supernatural source of insight, or even reliable wisdom, there is very clear evidence that he does not benefit from it. In a well-publicized case, Rav Chaim made the beracha for seeing a king, with Shem U'Malchus, upon meeting a man who presented himself as an African King - whereas anyone with basic critical skills would have realized immediately that he was a fraudster. And in a much more serious case, Rav Chaim wrote a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen, the worst child abuser in the history of Israel. When my neighbor wrote to ask him how he could attest to the righteousness of such a man, Rav Chaim responded that he did so because other rabbis did so! You won't find that letter reported in Mishpacha, and many people will simply avoid thinking about it and its staggering ramifications.

Notwithstanding Rav Chaim's tremendous hasmadah, there is no reason to believe that he is wise, well-informed, or responsible in his proclamations; on the contrary, there is clear evidence against it. And yet I have met people who go to him with life-and-death questions regarding medical treatment! And there are people who are not vaccinating their children, drawing support from his ruling that schools may not refuse admission to such students. And as I write these words, he has been schlepped to a hall down the road from me, in order to tell the assembled crowds who they must vote for in the municipal elections next week. There are thousands of people who apparently believe that Rav Chaim is aware of the needs of a city that he knows nothing about, and that he can evaluate the relative merits of different political candidates when he been told nothing other than what his party handlers have told him. For Heaven's sake, my fifteen-year-old daughter has a better understanding of the city and the politics than he does!

Nor does it end with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Rav Moshe Shapiro once told someone to beat an old woman to death because he mistakenly believed her to be masterminding an abuse ring in a secret dungeon. Rav Aaron Leib Steinman once gave a talk down the road from me in which he claimed that there is zero correlation between secular education and parnasa. Rav Edelstein, yibadel lechaim, told a stadium of Beis Yaakov girls that if they leave the Beis Yaakov system, they won't succeed with parnasa or shiduchim. These are the people that should be making decisions for everyone?!

It certainly would not be true to say that no Gedolim are wise - many Gedolei Torah have been very wise indeed. However, being rated as a Gadol certainly does not necessarily mean that one is wise. There are countless people who make decisions that are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, life-threatening, because they have been led to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him should be making the decisions for them. Anyone who contributes to the myth of his Daas Torah shares responsibility for that.

32 comments:

  1. I think that it's more than Daas Torah in this case. Rav Chaim is a Chaddishe Rebbe for the Litvish. People stand in line to get a single word abbreviation for a bracha out of him. Others ask him for segulot to fix whatever problem they have. He advises people never to shave no matter what their personal circumstances are. He is a Rebbe.

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    1. almost amusing. 50 years ago the non-hasidim used to mock the hasidim for their ridiculous trust in rebbes. it's come back to bite them with a vengeance. just as habad used to mock breslav for being a hassidus without a rebbe...

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    2. Curiosities:
      Which branch of breslav?
      Oh, wait a minute

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    3. Exactly. So why the attack on Litvish Charedim and not on chasidim. Its ok for Chasiddishe rebbes but not for litvaks?

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  2. Perhaps the reason so many intelligent members of the yeshiva world blindly rely on gedolim is that they feel they're not qualified to make tough decisions in their own lives because the "learning curve" is just too high. This online resource (https://gettingtorahright.org/responsible.html) has some very practical suggestions:

    "So independence is neither impossible nor wrong. Perhaps that's part of what lay behind a well known passage in Maharal's Nesivos Olum (Nesivos Olum Torah, at the end of chapter 15). There, Maharal harshly criticized the way people use Shulchan Aruch as their only halachic resource, diminishing their connection to the Talmud itself. "It would be better to pasken from the Talmud itself, even if there's a chance you'll diverge from the true path..."
    "How practical that might be for us is obviously debatable. But Maharal certainly expected an individual Jew to draw his own guidance for his life's decisions from core Torah sources. And Maharal was not the only authority who thinks this way. More than once I've heard gedolai poskim bitterly complain about talmidim asking simple sha'alos of איסור והיתר וכדומה.
    "On the other hand you, more than anyone else, know how much Torah you don't know and how much more work you need before you reach even a minimal level of bekiyus. Neither Moshe nor Maharal would want simple Jews just guessing at what they feel the halacha should be. Independence needs at least a basic set of skills, and it's hard to know exactly what those skills are.
    "The Torah wants us to take charge of every part of our own lives. But it also expects us to do it responsibly. It'll take enormous effort, but it's possible. Here are four things you'll have to do."

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  3. How appropriate that following a long long hiatus since your last piece regarding the Deluge you have written a piece that is sure to attract a deluge of comments

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  4. I suppose if people started calling you a Gadol, your attitude would perhaps be slightly different. Power does indeed blind. But what exactly is it that you hope to accomplish through such a post? Who is the target audience of this post?
    This blog has become a cesspool for bashing anyone having different ideas or ideologies than yourself. The vile hate here for different groups in Klal Yisrael has become obsessive.

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    Replies
    1. what exactly is it that you hope to accomplish through such a post?

      Save a few people from stupidity

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    2. Modern_Orthodox, how do you distinguish between criticism and "bashing"? And do you have specific rebuttals of the points raised in this post?

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    3. At least Rabbi Slifkin doesn't hide behind a deliberately misleading moniker. You are far from modern orthodox my friend and you know it.

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    4. Criticism with the intent of improving or helping the other party is not only warranted but very much commendable. The crowd who you address has everything to do with it. Somehow it seems you got the wrong crowd here.

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    5. MO, are you saying that criticizing "the wrong crowd" determines whether or not the criticism is valid?

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    6. Also, in comparison to other internet postings/comments/etc, this blog generally - this post included - tries to present a balanced approach, and one without too much outright negativity. Note how the discussion begins with a praise of Mishpacha magazine. Note how the discussion of R' Kanievsky begins with "utterly selfless" and "dedicated" to Torah study, as well as mentioning the hasmadah again later. If RNS wanted to use the learning as a weapon to hate on R' Chaim, I'm sure he could have chosen a different, more negative, phraseology. (Current counterexample: go look up the online thingy about R' Meir Kahane and see how some of the posters use language to express their, ah, disagreement with the man and his message.)

      Does the commenter perhaps feel rather negative toward the blog author and therefore reads the post as being rather negative to others? A certain Talmudic rule about criticizing others comes to mind...

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    7. Modern_Orthodox October 25, 2018 at 6:42 PM.
      Criticism with the intent of improving or helping the other party is not only warranted but very much commendable.


      Okay, but not with your zero success rate. You can pay attention to what I read today in a "Toras Avigdor" sheet. "People don't live by principles; people live by emotions. And therefore it's possible to win over even the irreligious if you're nice to them. And sometimes you can even change them entirely. And that's why, like somebody said, you can attract more flies with a drop of honey than a gallon of vinegar. Just by fighting them you won't accomplish much." Tape 555, June 1985.

      So quiet down and find someone to be nice to.

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  5. You just want to be called a Gadol too ! Jealousy

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  6. I looked at the Rosenblum article you title "We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment." That is not its title (In "Crossways" the title is "We Owe an Answer") and most of the words you put in his mouth in a January 2015 blog were not said by him, but by President Rivlin.
    Rosenblum writes nothing about chareidim having to work in that article.

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    Replies
    1. Rosenblum endorses what Rivlin said. He's also made it clear in other columns.

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  7. Those Charedi so-called ""ghedolim"" in 2005, in the face of Sharon's DEPORTATION OF 10,000 JEWS from the Gaza Strip and Northern Shomron, were either SILENT IN THE FACE OF EVIL, OR EVEN CALLED ON THEIR PUBLIC NOT TO TAKE PART IN ANTI-DEPORTATION ACTIVITIES, "because of tsnyuth"...
    If one needed to know the definition of NAVAL BIRSHUTH HA-TORÀH (disgusting with Toràh permission) in 2005, that call was enough! ...
    It was ALMOST the EQUIVALENT of Ovadiah Yosef and Shach teaching before Oslo that OUR MORASHÀH CAN BE GIVEN AWAY to our enemies, which was a WRONG psaq that Ovadiah Yosef HAD TO TAKE BACK in 2003 because it HAD LED TO THOUSANDS OF JEWS BEING MURDERED AND MAIMED!!
    My TORÀH-BASED opinion (as per the TANNAIM, Rishonim like Rabbenu Bachye, and Acharonim like Ben Ish Chai) is: IF YOU WEAR BLACK ON SHABBATH, OR ALL YEAR ROUND, LIKE THE PRIESTS OF AVODÀH ZARÀH DID, I DO NOT TRUST YOU WITH TORÀH DECISIONS. Chumràh (stringency) is MANDATORY with regards to what is connected to Avodàh Zaràh; for all other issues, stringency - which is what all those alleged "ghedolim" teach - mostly comes from IGNORANCE, as MORI DANHI taught me:
    ״חֻמְרָה באה מחַמָּר: כל חמר יכול להחמיר, רק תלמיד חכם אמת יודע להקל״ - מורי יחיה דנחי, זצ״ל

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  8. Your have very high standards. You mention a few mistakes he made and declare he lacks wisdom. It seems like you are influenced by the Israeli charedi mentality. Here in US, we are aware that our gedolim are human, and we allow them their human imperfections.

    Anyway, signing on something because other rabbis did is not, by itself, stupid. That he does so is not something his supporters would be surprised at. (Of course, it depends on who those rabbis are. But if I remember correctly, in the case you mentioned it was big gun rabbis that he relied on.)

    And people who are listening to his advice on who to vote for in a municipal election are not doing so because they think he knows who will do a better job of cleaning the streets. It's because they agree with him that certain religious concerns are most important, and that the party he endorses share their values on what's important.

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  9. "... it constantly, and without exception or qualification, gushes over 'Gedolim'. They are presented as *superhuman* (emphasis mine) repositories of wisdom, righteous without flaw, whose guidance everyone is expected to follow." I am glad to see that you agree with me that Haredim are polytheists. They worship both the True God and the Gedolim.

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  10. I don't understand this blog's frequent attacks on Mishpacha. The so-called "gushing" over Gedolim is necessary to establish Mishpacha's Charedi bona-fides, which provides space for Mishpacha to push against Charedi society's boundaries in subtler ways. Mishpacha has done quite a lot to enlarge Charedi discourse and to foster tolerance of religious denominations other than their own. R' Slifkin would be well served if he adopted that approach as well.

    The criticism of the Berland article is similarly off base. If they had simply removed the article R' Slifkin would accuse them of whitewashing their record. I agree that a disclaimer above the article would be appropriate, but Charedi publications seem generally reluctant to publish that type of information due to lashon hora concerns, and at this point everyone knows about the accusations against Berland anyway.

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  11. "If you don't understand the opposing view or opinion then you don't understand your own position"

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    Replies
    1. I don't understand what you're talking about.

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  12. Though I don't disagree with R. Slifkin's perspective, I would add that there is a more fundamental anti-rational bug embedded in the very core of limmud Torah in many such communities. For instance in learning Chumash or Tanakh there is a prevailing view that the text cannot be encountered without Rashi and/or Chazal. Of course these sources are important and even essential in gaining a fuller understanding of a verse within its oral context. But if these gedolim somehow magically excuse us from actually reading the verse closely--wrestling with its grammar and roots and inherent interpretive ambiguities and resonances--then we might as well be receiving a second written Torah from above with a suspended mountain rather than participating (e.g. kimu v'kiblu) in the oral Torah unfolding through us. This same hermeneutical structure of disassociation applies to situations that involve present-day gedolim--at least in the way they are often approached as daas Torah "gedolim". The participatory critical capacity that should mark every Jew's practice of learning is suspended, as if limmud Torah consists in receiving a petek from above. Now obviously I am not suggesting that people make their own psak din or decide on their own pshat without reference to authorities. But without a rational and questioning mind that is itself struggling with solutions what is there for Chazal to be chal on, and what is there for a gadol to communicate with other than by offering a segulah?

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    1. Very well said! I couldn't agree more

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    2. This is why most of the best and brightest leave learning Torah.

      They teach us to build palaces in learning, but when we are finally capable of building one (after years of diligent hasmadoh), the Rabbaim tell you you are not allowed to build those palaces, but rather you must spend the rest of your life as a maintenance man of broken down old one.

      Who wants to do that for one's life?

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    3. "This is why most of the best and brightest leave learning Torah."

      Cause the overwhelming majority who don't even dream of leaving aren't true scotchmen

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  13. Even for people who say that you have to listen to the gedolim, it's not one of the Big 3 and doesn't override pikuach nefesh, so it still doesn't apply to vaccination.

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  14. Can you provide an example of a case where R. Kanievsky has given medical advice and it turned out to be wrong?

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    1. Is there an example where he gave medical advice. He says "refuah shleimah." He doesn't give medical advice.

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  15. Whilst I agree with many of the points raised in your point, based on the comments below I feel like it is necessary to clarify a couple of things.

    Firstly, in the vast, vast majority of cases Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the vast majority of other 'Gedolim' do not give direct advice, but rather simply provide a Berocha. I recently discussed this with a highly respected Modern Orthodox Rav who quoted to me the Gemara saying that even a Berocha of a Hedyot is influential, so certainly there is a logic and rationale behind going to ask for a Berocha from Rav Chaim and co.

    Of course, even such Berochas have their pitfalls as highlighted by one Mishpacha article which described Rav Chaim giving a Berocha to one Bochur that he should be Matzliach in his learning, if he has greater Hasmoda! But at the same time I don't think that is sufficient to undermine the 'custom' so to speak of going to the Gedolim for Berochas - provided that the Berochas are viewed not as a definitive assurance.

    Secondly, I do think that the examples provided by the author of this blog, are difficult to correlate together. Whilst the infamous example you provided of Rav Chaim making a mistake is certainly valid and higlights the folly in receiving advice from Rav Chaim on wordly matters which he is not familiar with. However, the examples from Rav Steinman and Rav Edelstein are entirely different and I do not believe support your argument. Whilst certainly their Hashkafic viewpoints may be flawed, but there was no mistake in their advice and by bringing these examples you are turning the debate into a Hashkafic discussion on the relationship between Parnassah and Hishtadlus, a topic which has been discussed many a time in the past.

    Lastly, whilst all the evidence provided by the author is valid but as a Torah Blog I think it is important to appreciate as well the significance of the Halachic/Hashkafic discussion behind 'Ruach Hakodesh' nowadays. As I was told (by that same Modern Orthodox Rav) Nevuah ceased before the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah and therefore no-one in this generation can definitively see the future and give advice based on that. However, without having looked into the inyan of 'Ruach Hakodesh' extensively there are certainly some sources to suggest there is some degree remaining today to some extent. Who receives it? When and How? I do not know or understand, but I do think that a further exploration of the Inyan would be beneficial when discussing this topic.

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