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"Torah Leadership" Is Not What You Think
This week I was privileged to be mentioned, though unfortunately not by name, in the Forward. The article was written by Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs and spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. Rabbi Shafran describes how many years ago, he got into trouble with the Novominsker Rebbe and others for an article that he published in the Jewish Observer about Moses Mendelssohn, which wasn't derogatory enough about him. Rabbi Shafran proudly describes how he respected the Gedolim's critique:
I could have taken the reproach as a personal insult. Another Orthodox writer, when things he wrote were criticized by some rabbinic leaders, did just that, responding with antipathy toward his critics and letting a thin skin prevent him from thereafter contributing his talents to the mainstream Orthodox world.
But I knew something important that the writer apparently wasn’t ready to consider. We might think that great men are mistaken but not only can we be wrong, even if we’re convinced that we’re right, those luminaries are still no less great, no less worthy of our veneration.
Judaism has no equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. There is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that even members of the ancient Sanhedrin were capable of erring, even in halachic matters.
But it is nonetheless a principle of Jewish thought that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered most qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews. Expert doctors, too, even if they are fallible, as they must be, are still the most qualified people to offer medical advice.
Torah leaders, like parents may seem to children, might seem unreasonable at times. But, just as parents always remain parents, Torah leaders remain Torah leaders.
Tragically, Rabbi Shafran is making several mistakes. I'm not going into a detailed explanation of why I myself had no reason to listen to the Torah leaders who banned my books, insisting that there was no age of dinosaurs and that the Talmud was correct in referring to spontaneous generation - I've already written a list of reasons on this page as to why I didn't need to listen to them. (In brief: They didn't understand modern science, they didn't know about rabbinic scholarship on these issues, they didn't know what my books actually said, they didn't know what the purpose of the books was, they were misinformed about the effects of the books, and they were ignorant of, or rejected, the entire rationalist school of thought.) Instead, I'd like to make more general points that are more broadly applicable.
First, "Torah" is simply too vague a term. There is Tanach and Talmud and Halachah and Kabbalah and Machshavah and Theology. Those who are renowned as expert Talmudists are often not expert theologians. There are plenty of matters of import to Jews that Talmudists and Halachists simply know very little about.
Second, although devout adherents of modern mystical doctrines of Daas Torah believe that single-minded dedication to Torah gives one divine insight into areas outside of Torah, classical Judaism maintains that being secluded from the world gives one less expertise, not more. Adherents of modern mystical Daas Torah believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, entirely isolated in his Bnei Brak apartment, is all the more qualified to provide leadership on communal issues - the rest of us strongly disagree.
Third, two people can study exactly the same sources and have diametrically opposed approaches to them, because they have completely different worldviews. Rambam believed in naturalizing miracles - others see that as heretical. There is no reason why the leadership of a "great Torah authority" who is entirely locked into a particular worldview should be accepted by someone with an entirely different worldview. There is no comparison to "expert doctors"; it's more like saying that an average, scientifically-educated Western person should submit to an "expert healer" in China. It's a completely different system of thought.
Fourth, it is simply not the case that a great Torah sage is a great leader. Leadership is much more complicated than that. I've quoted Rav Eliezer Melamed on this many times before, but it is worth quoting him again: "Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."
Fifth, expertise in Torah does not even necessarily make one wise. The Sages themselves pointed out that one can be a Torah scholar (by their standards!) and yet lack da'at - and they described such a person as being worse than a putrid carcass! On this point, it is crucial to read Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's essay, "If There Is No “Da’at,” How Can We Have Leadership?".
Sixth, the "the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes" that Rabbi Shafran idealizes is somewhat of a pipe-dream. No matter how selfless and kind a person is, people have biases, as well as limitations on understanding new concerns. None other than Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, conceded that the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America dropped the ball on dealing with abuse and molestation in yeshivos, and that the issue only started to be taken seriously after bloggers kept pushing it.
As further examples of the above points, one could point to how most of Rabbi Shafran's revered "Torah leaders" supported Leib Tropper's takeover of conversions worldwide, even though it was apparent to many people (including myself) that this would be a terrible mistake - as they were later forced to admit. And the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America - the body for which Rabbi Shafran is a spokesman - could not even issue guidance for people to vaccinate their children, since three of the members of the Council are themselves anti-vaxxers!
Finally, while Rabbi Shafran would like to believe that the leaders of Agudas Yisroel are the leaders of Klal Yisroel, that's simply not the case. His so-called "Torah leaders" are not the leaders of all Torah-observant Jews. They are not the leaders of Religious Zionism or Modern Orthodoxy or countless Chassidic sects. Even many "black-hat" communities also have a completely different model of rabbinic authority, which empowers rabbis on a local level, rather than claiming that there are a few "Gedolim" which everyone has to follow.
So, Rabbi Shafran, you are welcome - perhaps even obligated - to follow the "Gedolei Torah" that you select as your leaders, whether they are young-earthers or anti-vaxxers. But the rest of us "Torah Jews" are under no obligation whatsoever to respect their leadership. Fortunately, we have plenty of wonderful rabbinic leaders of our own.
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