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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.