Monday, March 21, 2022

A Leadership Vacuum?

There has been much talk about whether the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztz"l creates a leadership vacuum in the charedi world. In my view, it does not, but I do not mean this in the way that you might think I mean it.

There are many different types of rabbis. There are Talmudists. There are Poskim (halachic decisors). There are theologians. There are synagogue rabbis. There are teachers in schools and yeshivos. There are Roshei Yeshivah. There are heads of institutions. There are scholars. There are community activists. And this is far from a full list.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky was a Torah scholar par excellence. He was incredibly, totally, utterly dedicated to learning Torah. He also answered questions that were asked of him, and wrote many works of Torah scholarship. But he was not a Rosh Yeshiva or Rosh Kollel and very rarely gave shiurim. And he never held any formal position of responsibility or power or authority. Nor did he travel or make any attempt to learn about the goings-on in society, and the opportunities and challenges that exist. He was a supremely modest, private, secluded person.

There are people claiming that Rav Chaim was a strong leader. And there are those criticizing him for being a bad leader, during Covid. But they are all mistaken. Rav Chaim wasn't a strong leader or a weak leader. He wasn't a good leader or a bad leader. He just wasn't a leader at all. That is simply not the role that he either wanted or played. He was the Torah scholar - and one of the greatest.

Why, then, are so many people describing him as a leader? The answer is threefold.

First is that charedi society has innovated a concept of Daas Torah whereby definitive guidance for all issues is best given by people who are completely isolated from the world. Accordingly, leadership (in the sense of direction) is taken even from those who are not actually leaders by any other measure. 

The second reason is that he was wielded as an authority by others. As described in the previous post, Three Funerals in Bnei Brak, there were people who realized that precisely because he was not a leader, they could freely manipulate the concept of Reb Chaim for money and power. They could pronounce something as Daas Torah in Reb Chaim's name, and nobody would dare to disagree.

The third reason that people describe him as a leader is that there wasn't really anyone else competing for the title. 

And so the passing of Rav Chaim did not create a leadership vacuum in the charedi world. It had already existed before he passed away.

* * *

Since the reactions to the previous post were very mixed, I'd like to share a message that I received:

I know you've taken some heat for your recent article about Rav Chaim's passing. The truth is, I'm mostly familiar with the second version of Rav Chaim, the chassidic rebbe version, and that version of Rav Chaim means very little to me. However, even when I hear about the first version of the great Torah scholar and tzaddik, it's usually coming from those who also, to at least some extent, promote version 2, so I don't give too much weight to their words. The fact is, coming from you, I take the words to heart, and I feel like your post really helped me appreciate and respect the great loss of Rav Chaim version 1. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that far from being disrespectful or cynical, I found your post to be inspiring and to elevate Rav Chaim's life and legacy in my eyes by providing what I believe to be an honest overview of his true greatness in Torah and his humility and simple lifestyle, without adding dubious claims about his greatness in other areas, which, to my knowledge, he never claimed for himself.

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29 comments:

  1. I would like to echo, verbatim, the message you received that you quoted at the end of this post. Thank you for helping me appreciate Rav Chaim.

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    Replies
    1. No disrespect intended: anyone who doesn't understand the depth- not just the breadth- of Rav Chaim's scholarship, need only open his sefer Nachal Eisan, on hilchos para aduma.

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    2. Nachal Eisan, on hilchos ... EGLA ARUFA.

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  2. If a management consultant were to draw up an implied set of mission, vision and values statement with an organizational chart (not with names but with roles) that would best support this statement, imho their would be a single leader role. IIUC the vast majority of litvish chareidim would have filled in that box up until erev shabbat with the name of R' CK. Thus there is now a leadership vacuum (Note Lubavitch solved a similar issue by changing the org chart). I just wonder whether any succession planning was done.
    kt

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  3. He may not have been a leader by position, but surely you concede that many thousands of charedim did treat him as a leader, if only by asking him all their questions, making him a pseudo-Posek?

    Ppl were happy to make all sorts of decisions based on his advice which - correct me if im wrong - was based on Gemoro more than final Halacha Lemaaseh.

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  4. It's amazing, that is literally the exact thoughts I was having... I just never thought of puting it into words... I never really appreciated any of the yeshivisha Rabonim just because of all the other "stuff" out there. This, I do appreciate.

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  5. I agree with the main point of this post. He wasn't a leader in the normal sense of the word, like R' Shach was. However, in terms of motivating and inspiring people to learn Torah lishmah, he was second to none. And that is a type of leadership. BDE, his loss is irreplaceable. אוי לה לספינה שאבד קברניטה.

    Here is a point that I don't understand. Listening to hespedim last night, some people were saying he wasn't an iluy, it was all his hasmada. I don't understand how people could know that or make such a statement. He clearly knew Shas from a very young age. And all his seforim scream ilui sh'b'iluyim. How do people define "ilui"? צ"ע.

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    1. I heard a story that The Steipler took R' Chaim when he was a child to the Chazon Ish because he was NOT having success in learning. The CI told him to let R' Chaim learn however he wanted and it would sort itself out. Apparently it did . . .

      Stories about R' Chaim knowing shas from a young age are almost certainty exaggerations. They don't even say things like that about the Chasam Sofer.

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    2. Because there is a famous story (myth?) that the Chazon ish advised the Steipler to learn bekius with his son Chaim, rather than Iyun, because he couldn't handle it... and that's what led to his incredible Bekius.

      I wonder if the story can be verified.

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    3. Happy, "... [I]n terms of motivating and inspiring people to learn Torah lishmah, he was second to none ...."

      Herb Keinon in JP seconds this motion well:

      "What was his attraction? What was his pull? Why did so many invite hours of discomfort and inconvenience to attend his funeral procession?

      "THE ANSWER is that those at his funeral were paying homage both to the rabbi – a man whose Torah erudition was as legendary as his simple lifestyle and his distinguished lineage – as well as to what he represented....

      "But more than being a religious leader, he also represented the aspirational ideal for the haredi community. Kanievsky was a man who shunned material wealth and did not seek fame – but only wanted to learn, learn some more, and then continue learning.

      "As one commentator said during his funeral, he opened a book of Torah at the age of three and only closed it last Friday, 91 years later. And in the meantime, he studied continuously.

      "That is the haredi ideal, one that only very few come close to realizing. By coming out in mass to pay their respects to the rabbi, the hundreds of thousands of haredim at Kanievsky’s funeral were venerating the ideal that he represented ...."

      https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-701834

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  6. I fully agree with the quoted statement. Rabbi Slifkin's hesped of R' Chaim zatzal that he posted yesterday did not denigrate R' Chaim at all; to the contrary, it elevated him by removing the nonsense falsely attributed to him. A diamond has to be polished in order to shine.

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  7. Haredi community leadership will not change.
    It will remain with the askanim.
    They'll just need a different fig leaf.

    (It's not that the haredi world doesn't likely have Rabbonim who do have vision and actually could lead, but askanim have too much benefit from the present system to ever allow an independent, non-corruptable leader to emerge.)

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  8. Without being too disrespectful, your description sounds eerily similar to Chauncy Gardiner.

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    Replies
    1. I was going to say this; but a little less delicately. Thank you for finding a method. Also..Why would a person want their child to aspire to that?

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  9. I'm kind of curious how he came to be known as such a great Torah scholar if he was so private and did not give shiurim or seek to spread Torah in a conventional sense. How did he become known as a gadol hador when it seems all he really wanted was to be left alone to learn.

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    1. Jonathan, it only takes one conversation with someone not so quiet in which you blow him away with your knowledge, for your name to get out. Also he wrote many Sefarim.

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    2. He wrote many well regarded seforim with original commentary on all aspects of Torah. See his Wikipedia entry which lists many of his works

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Kanievsky

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    3. Many of his ספרים are available on hebrewbooks.org.

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  10. Chassidim can pick their rebbe, but a rebbe cannot choose his chassidim

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  11. Here's the thing, when people talk about succession, the question is if there's anybody left like him. Yes, ב"ה we have many great bekiim and lamdanim in Klal Yisroel, most of whom are unknown. Every big kollel has people who regularly go through Shas. In Bnei Brak they're a dime a dozen, ח"ו not to belittle them ב"ה שזכינו לכך, וכן ירבו בישראל.

    But clearly R' Chaim was on a totally different level. If I may be so bold, he was our generation's Chazon Ish. His seforim are similar to the Chazon Ish in both content and style, with seemingly effortless mastery over every cheilek of Torah. The ability not to just draw from everywhere in the Torah, but categorize and put together every source. Something beyond bekius and lomdus. Not to mention his tremendous perishus, humility, kedusha, and love of the Torah. We have lost something incredible. Is there anybody else like that out there?

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    Replies
    1. You associate the Chazon Ish with special bekius? See CI on OCH p. 214a left column end of first paragraph.

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    2. "If I may be so bold, he was our generation's Chazon Ish."

      Two major differences:
      1) RCK was not a posek in the conventional sense. I don't think we'll see a development of followers of a halachic derech that we see for the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish had many opinions, which despite being non-mainstream have been accepted by many followers. I don't think, there's going to be a significant community or faction in which the men don't wear wrist-watches, or in which all babies are given exclusively T'nach based names.
      2) RCK was particularly distinctive for his works on topics infrequently covered by most scholars.

      But they are very similar in the sense that they never held any official position, but still rose to a position of leadership.

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    3. Dave, it took me a minute to get it. But I got it, I think.
      🗑️
      | 🐐 🐟

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  12. Interesting note: Marc Shapiro quotes an exchange between the CI and Saul Lieberman in which the CI says "I don't know, you have more bekius than me".

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  13. Who constitutes Religious Zionist leadership? Who constitutes secular Jewry's leadership?

    And since when has there ever been "leadership" in religious Jewry? It's not a political party or chassidic dynasty. There have always been factions, and no one rabbi or group of rabbis since the exile ever spoke for all Jews. There is no pope among Jews.

    I remember other secular Jews in Israel saying the exact same thing after R. Shach died. Its such ignorance. Some people have no idea how religion works in actual practice.


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  14. RDNS:
    In your previous post you wrote: "It is no exaggeration to say that Rav Chaim over virtually every aspect of Torah, albeit strictly from a Lithuanian-charedi-mystical perspective." I am curious about the second half of that statement. What exactly do you mean by that, and how do you see that manifested?

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  15. Strongly agree on that last quote. Your comment actually made me respect Rav Chaim far more.

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  16. "I'd like to share a message that I received:
    "... So I guess what I'm trying to say is that far from being disrespectful or cynical, I found your post to be inspiring and to elevate Rav Chaim's life and legacy in my eyes by providing what I believe to be an honest overview of his true greatness ...."

    RNK received a similar letter for MOAG. To spin an old saying, you can make all the people happy some of the time, some of the people happy all the time, but not all of the people all of the time

    ReplyDelete

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