Friday, January 29, 2021

Making a Mockery of Rabbinic Leadership

And now things heat up even further, this time in an unusual way. The satirical television show Eretz Nehederet ran a skit featuring actors impersonating Rav Chaim Kanievsky along with his grandson Yanki. Many people in the charedi community (along with certain figures in the National-Religious community) are in uproar. Moshe Gafni, head of Degel HaTorah, declared that the producers should "burn in hell."

Now, the first thing to point out is that when the charedi community makes its elderly sages into political leaders, it cannot expect that they will receive immunity from political satire. And this is especially the case when these political leaders push policies that are strongly opposed by the majority of the population, and even more so when these political leader sometimes defy government regulations and instruct their followers to do likewise! Seriously, how can anyone possibly expect these rabbinic political leaders to be immune from criticism and satire?

But what about the actual content of the skit itself? It turns out that however shameful it was, the responsibility for that shame does not lie with the producers of Eretz Nehederet.

The core "humor" of the skit was that of a brash young man manipulating his elderly, utterly out-of-touch grandfather into making irresponsible pronouncements with enormous consequences, and doing so with impunity because of the reverence and voting bloc that he wields. 

But that is indeed the appalling reality of the situation!

Over the years, I've seen a lot of accusations and condemnations of people (including myself) for "mocking the Gedolim." In some cases there is indeed inappropriate mockery, either by people who do not care to truly understand a situation, or by people who just enjoy making fun of everything. In other cases, it's appropriate criticism. 

Yet then there are other condemnations which are intriguing and strange. On more than one occasion, I have been accused of "mocking" or "attacking" rabbonim simply for accurately reporting their statements! What's actually happening in these cases is that people are deeply embarrassed or uncomfortable with certain statements from these revered rabbis, but because they can't possibly admit this (even to themselves), they shoot the messenger instead.

Yes, Rav Kanievsky is a very elderly person who is utterly out of touch with the world (which is something in which the Charedi community takes pride). Yes, he is manipulated by his grandson. Yes, he does issue irresponsible pronouncements with enormous consequences - whether defending abusers because other people did or telling his followers to disregard Covid precautions. Yes, he does do so with impunity, due to the irrational reverence of the charedi community for his statements, and the voting bloc that he thereby wields. And the same is largely true for many other leaders of the charedi community.

The situation with the "leadership" of the charedi Gedolim is a national tragedy. The notion that communal decisions are being made by Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him - elderly, isolated Talmudists with no real grasp of communal issues and who are being manipulated by people of poor character - does not just go against traditionally preferred models of Jewish leadership; it's a joke with tragic consequences. Anyone who contributes to the myth of such leadership is responsible for the harm and embarrassment that it causes. 

Yes, a mockery was made of rabbinic leadership - but not by Eretz Nehederet. There could never have been such a skit mocking Chief Rabbi Sacks. Because respect for his rabbinic leadership was not something that others demanded for him - it was something that he earned.

 

Further reading:

Mishpacha, Gedolim and Decisions

The Slander of Mockery

Reporting Rabbis Badly

On Being Mevazeh the Gedolim


* Buy Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought at this link *

31 comments:

  1. Well, usually I would agree with Rambam that it is mistaken to isolate oneself with Talmud study. However, on such strange occasions in which we find ourselves, Rav Chaim Kanievsky isolating himself with Talmudic studies is exactly what he needed to do! I was surprised (and thankful) that he survived Covid at his age, a true blessing from HASHEM.

    As for the satirical show, it is funny but it's also a mockery of the charedi community, not unlike the satirical show called "the Jews are coming" which I enjoy for the humor and skits, but also realize that it is openly mocking religion. Is this funny or insulting? Can we agree that SNL isn't funny, nowadays? Just as no one should mock the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, they should not poke fun of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, either. It mocks the Haredi way of life. (At least Eretz Nehederet doesn't need to worry about Charlie Hebdo retaliations).

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  2. An interesting historical example from Cantonist times:

    שו"ת חתם סופר חלק ו - ליקוטים סימן כט
    וע"ד עם בני ישראל הנלקחי' לצבא המלחמה למלכיות השתיקה יפה מדבורינו בזה וגדולי ישראל ע"כ יעלימו עין והניחו להם להממונים
    Better for rabbinic leadership in some cases to remain silent and leave it to local leadership?
    KT

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    1. You are confusing countries. The CS was nowhere near any place that had Cantonists. He did not deal with them at all

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    2. Cantonist times. Perhaps you'd like to contact R' Asher Weiss for more detail?
      http://www.torahbase.org/%d7%99%d7%94%d7%a8%d7%92-%d7%95%d7%90%d7%9c-%d7%99%d7%a2%d7%91%d7%95%d7%a8-%d7%91%d7%a9%d7%a2%d7%aa-%d7%94%d7%92%d7%96%d7%99%d7%a8%d7%94-%d7%aa%d7%a9%d7%a4%d7%90/
      Rav Asher Weiss-יהרג ואל יעבור בשעת הגזירה

      KT

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    3. The Cantonist Times is my favorite daily...

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  3. I was actually most uncomfortable with the fawning way Netanyahu was portrayed in the skit.
    My question is, what alternative leadership model would you suggest for the haredi community, given all you understand and lay out in your new book about their notions of knowledge stemming from tradition rather than empirical reality?

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  4. I was actually most uncomfortable with the fawning way Netanyahu was portrayed in the skit.
    My question is, what alternative leadership model would you suggest for the haredi community, given all you understand and lay out in your new book about their notions of knowledge stemming from tradition rather than empirical reality?

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  5. I disagree with the implication at the end of the post that Rav Chaim hasn't earned respect. If you read his seforim, you cannot deny the genius and the scholarship he has.
    Unfortunately, the latest shenanigans are the result of Yanki taking control, and are causing Rav Chaim to lose respect, but it should not undermine his previous accomplishments.

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    1. Nobody is mocking Rav Chaim's hasmada or Talmudic scholarship. They're mocking his supposed leadership.

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    2. Fair enough. He is definitely not doing that. The way you wrote the end of the post implied he doesn't deserve respect, which I disagree with.

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    3. True enough. R' Saks for instance wasn't a "leader" in the way that people make R' Kanievsky and others (e.g. politically). R' Saks would also never deign to tell people what to think --he'd have thoughts and opinions you could take or leave. That's also why you wouldn't be able to mock him. There's a careful balance between humility and shirking responsibility for leadership. I'm not sure what I would do as a rabbi with a following myself. However, as R' Slifkin said, surely he opens himself up for mockery if he does enter that realm.

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  6. Moshe Gafni should keep his mouth firmly shut as it seems the only way to prevent him spreading poison.
    Satire will nearly always offend someone - but it is only a problem when the someone starts to take it seriously. I don’t recall British politicians of any shade taking Spitting Image so seriously as to feel mortally offended - instead they correctly regarded it as appropriate humour because they had chosen to put themselves in the public eye.

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    1. We have a religious tenet not to mock talmide khakhamim--the Brits don't.

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  7. I watched it. Yes as a frum person I felt this was Bizoyon Talmidei Chachomim for making fun of R Chaim in any shape or form.

    On reflection, as a separate point, in the cold analysis one can calm down a bit and realise that the main thrust of the show was to mock Yanki for manipulating his grandfather (true), and Bibi for fawning to Yanki (likewise true).

    The only offensive point against R Chaim was that he mumbles indistinctly (somewhat true), and that he seems unaware how Yanki manipulates him (possibly true).

    The show was definitely irreverent, but it wasn't inaccurate.

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    1. He did say Nazi though. On watching, I don't think it absolves R' Kanievsky as much as one would think.

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  8. Postscript.
    They could have filmed it just with Yanki and Bibi. The presence of RCK was unnecessary and a Bizoyon. I clarify my previous post - I condemn the Bizoyon.

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  9. "There could never have been such a skit mocking Chief Rabbi Sacks. Because respect for his rabbinic leadership was not something that others demanded for him - it was something that he earned."

    This was the highlight, I thought.

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    1. Completely ahistorical though. Ask literally any UK Jew - reform through to Satmar - about whether they felt that Rabbi Sacks' leadership (as opposed to his post Rabbinic scholarship) earned respect. I don't know anyone who thought he was a success and that includes the late Rabbi Sacks.

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  10. This is indeed a terrible disgrace. I agree that Torah leaders who put themselves in the public eye cannot expect to be immune from the mockery of the wicked. It says so in Tehilim many times, זדים הליצוני, etc. But we can also recognize the wicked for who they are, and reasonably predict their lot in the World-to-Come.

    And of course every wicked scoffer can always say that their mockery and disparagement is "accurate". Has there ever been anyone who didn't? It's no excuse. Remember the whole to-do you made when somebody wrote something in your name in the Hamodia? Well, that was a much more accurate impression of you than this is of RCK.

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  11. Rabbonim can't "shun society" and "avoid government" and then proceed to make pronouncements that affect exactly those things.
    There's a reason why historically rabbonim were reluctant to issue rulings about other locales - because they didn't know what was going in there.

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  12. While there may be merit in the message portrayed by satire. If done by religious Jews who should know better it should be soundly condemned. Making a mockery or leitzanut of other people is never the preferred way.

    Poking fun at erroneous ideas is fair game. Making fun of actual people is forbidden.

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  13. When I was an officer of the Shul, one of my responsibilities was putting out a newsletter with the schedule for the coming month, social notes such as weddings and births and a devar Torah from the Rav.

    The Rav was often too busy to be bothered writing a proper ma'amar. The publication had to be on time because of the schedule. And it was certainly improper for the Shul to publish something without a word of Torah! I would type up what the Rav wrote and give it back to him to review, More often than not, he would give back without a glance saying it was fine.

    I was excoriated for making the Rav look bad by distributing poorly written, sometimes incoherent, essays. It was bizayon to the Rav and to Torah. The solution was not to publish anything.

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  14. Too many Orthodox Jews are going up the rails on a crazy train. Yanki and others are driving this train.

    This train leads to premature death from diseases like COVID19 or a life of poverty, or a lack of proper defense for medinat yisrael.

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  15. Strange how we dislike satire when it's coming at us, while we encourage it against political adversaries. Freedom of speech cannot have different standards for different people.
    On a personal level I enjoyed the show, even though I don't think things are quite near this. I also enjoy watching ''The Jews are Coming'' even though their knowledge of rabbinic litterature and medieval history are appalling. Its meant to make us think and view things from a different standpoint, and that it does masterfully.

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    1. Still not as funny as y'hudim baim. I haven't found it as inaccurate as you say--and I imagine that the same knowledge is even more appalling among the Orthodox. But bottom line is what are you goign to do about it? The choice isn't should I let this air or not--I don't have that power nor should I. (Although in Israel everything is more complicated because the taxpayers fund so much--government needs to get out of that as it does with so much else... When Israel was just starting perhaps the government had a good argument to subsidize Israeli culture because the country was so small and poor but that is no longer the case.)

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  16. It is sad that a Talmud chacham was mocked. It's even sadder that the mockery carries weight. Sigh.

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  17. Two little corrections:
    "even more so when these political leader sometimes defy..." --leaders
    "telling his followers to disregard Covid precautions" -- I think this phrase should include a hyperlink.

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  18. I'd say further--the skit shields R' Kanievsky from direct criticism. This is the only defense for such decisions and the only way to retain respect--that he trusts the wrong people but is not himself a bad guy.

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