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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
I'm in the Italian Alps for three days giving some lectures, so my internet access is sporadic. I hope to be able to write an Alps-specific post tomorrow! Meanwhile, here is a guest post from the Brooklyn Wolf (it also appears with comments on his blog):
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
There are many that have said that the recent bans promulgated by the Gedolim (i.e. Rabbi Slifkin, the Lipa concert, The Making of a Gadol and now Vos Iz Neias among others) have caused the stature of the Gedolim to become far less relevant and important today. To some extent, that is true -- the mishandling of some of these bans has exposed the flaws in the process of some of their recent halachic rulings and has damaged the reputation of the Gedolim among the general populace.
Nonetheless, as evidenced by what happened with some of the cases mentioned above, the Gedolim still can be said to have enormous power. They can bring pressure to bear on people and events which can lead to loss of money, public embarrassment and communal shunning. The ability to bring such pressure to bear is an enormous power -- one that must be wielded with extreme care. I would think that if one has the ability to wreck a person's life, that ability should only be wielded with extreme care and great trepidation. The power to do such is a great power -- and, as Uncle Ben reminded Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.
Do the Gedolim have a responsibility to us? I believe they do. Any leader has a responsibility to the people that he or she leads. If a Gadol (or anyone else for that matter) is going to assume the power to greatly affect the lives of others, then he must be responsible to make sure that that power is used wisely and appropriately. There must be safeguards, checks and balances to make sure that the power is being used properly -- and those wielding the power must be responsible to make sure that those safeguards, checks and balances are in place.
Sadly, today, there are no such checks and balances. We have recently seen how the current edifice of halachic decision making is flawed and that the leaders (perhaps unintentionally, but still disasterously) have shirked their responsibilities. Those responsibilities include the following:
The responsibility to adequately investigate the facts and circumstances before making a ruling.
If a Gadol is going to issue a ruling that will impact a person (and all the more so if the impact is going to cause a severe loss of money or prestige), he has a responsibility to independently investigate the circumstances surrounding the case. This includes contacting the people affected and giving them a chance to adequately respond.
We saw this responsibility cast aside numerous times. The Gedolim who signed on the ban against Lipa's concert were told that there was going to be mixed dancing (among other misinformation) at the event. At no point did any of the Gedolim who signed on the ban even so much as pick up a phone and call Lipa or one of the event organizers to determine if this was true (it wasn't -- there wasn't even going to be mixed seating). The same thing occurred with Rabbi Slifkin -- he was phoned (not by any of the Gedolim who signed on the ban against his books) and told that he had hours to retract his books and was not given any real chance to respond. In addition, the ban against his books was signed, in many cases, by those who did not even read the book.
Another aspect of this responsibility is the responsibility to not simply rely on the signature of another Gadol when deciding whether or not to sign on to a halachic decision of considerable importance, scope and effect. If Gadol X signs on a document, I should have the right to assume that Gadol X has actually looked into the matter and came to the decision himself. If, however, Gadol X is signing on the document only because Gadol Y signed, then what is really the value of the signature? To say that he trusts Gadol Y? We already knew that he probably did. In the end, you get documents where twenty or thirty Gedolim sign, but only one or two probably actually gave any real, serious thought to the decision at hand. If so, is it really twenty or thirty Gedolim issuing a decision? No it's not -- it's merely one or two making the decision. In the end, however, I believe that if a Gadol is going to sign on a document, they have an absolute responsibility to investigate the matter for themselves. If I'm to be told to obey a document because Gadol X signed, I have the right to be assured that Gadol X actually did his due diligence to investigate the case -- and not rely on the word of a third party -- even that of a fellow Gadol.
A Gadol has, in my humble opinion, an absolute responsibility to do his utmost to ascertain the facts of a situation before issuing a ruling on it. It's not reasonable to expect a Gadol to get every fact correct every time -- they are only human and sometimes mistakes will be made -- but they must do their absolute best to make sure they have the facts of the situation before issuing a ruling. If the Gedolim are going to fail in their responsibility to investigate the facts (including all sides), then how can we have a responsibility to listen to their words?
The responsibility to avoid even the appearance of manipulation by those with agendas.
If a Gadol's ruling is to have any meaning, it must be clear that it is a fair ruling. If people perceive that the ruling was manipulated or engineered by those who have a particular axe to grind or agenda to push, many people will simply ignore the ruling.
I find it extremely ironic that a Dayan (judge) in a Bais Din must take great pains to figuratively bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of manipulation or favoritism in a court case involving a lousy five dollars, but when it comes to public policy that affect wide swaths of the community on a far grander scale, no such impartiality is enforced. It will all too well known that many of the now-infamous halachic decisions that have been handed down lately (including, according to several reports, the recent ban on Vos Iz Neias) were engineered by parties with a particular political, monetary or ideological grudges against others. It is, in my humble opinion, the absolute responsibility of a Gadol to make sure that his decisions are not only arrived at in a fair manner without undue influence, but that they also don't even have the appearance of manipulation by insiders or outsiders. If a simple five-dollar case in Bais Din requires this, I would think that it's a no-brainer that major halachic and public policy decisions requires the same -- and in this, the Gedolim have failed.
The responsibility to clearly elucidate their rulings including defining the parameters of those rulings, the process of how the question came before them and the process of how they arrived at their decisions.
A Gadol who issues a ruling has a responsibility to make the ruling as transparent as possible. That includes not only clearly defining the parameters of his ruling (i.e. in what circumstances does it apply and under what circumstances does it not apply), but also on what facts and assumptions the ruling relies, how he came to make the ruling in the first place (this is a part of maintaining the appearance of independence from manipulation) and upon which sources he relies to make his rulings. The saying "sunshine is the best disinfectant" is wholly applicable here -- a Gadol who is not being manipulated by others and is making his best effort to issue a correct ruling has no reason to fear being completely transparent about the factors that go into his decision. Allowing people to see how the decision was arrived at will increase people's confidence that the ruling is impartial and correctly arrived at.
The responsibility to ensure that their rulings can be verified by the general public.
Rav Elyashiv has been famously quoted as saying that there are so many rulings being issued in his name that are not, in fact, from him that unless you hear from him directly (or see it in a responsible Torah journal or legitimate sefer) that you can assume it's false.
While I can applaud Rav Elyashiv for his honesty in this matter, I believe that he (and other Gedolim) have absolutely abdicated a fundamental responsibility that accompanies power -- the responsibility to ensure that forgeries are not issued in their name.
This is something that is extremely important. The government takes great pains to try to shut down counterfeiters -- not necessarily because their efforts might devalue the currency (although that can be a factor) but also because counterfeiters, by definition, usurp power that the government alone has -- the power to print currency. Likewise, one of the most carefully guarded objects of rulers of old was their signet rings and seals -- not because they liked to wear rings or have pretty designs made in wax -- but because such objects actually conveyed power to those who wielded them. If you saw an edict sealed with seal of the king, such an edict was extremely likely to be obeyed, whether the king actually endorsed the edict or not. It's not for no reason that the writer of Megillas Esther focuses on the fact that the king gave his ring to Haman -- the one who wielded the ring truly wielded the power. A ruler or leader who does not actively take steps to find, stop and punish those who wrongly usurp their power is no true leader, since it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine which of their edicts are proper and legal.
While the Gedolim may not have signet rings and seals, they have, in my humble opinion, utterly failed at the responsibility to protect the validity of their rulings. By allowing word of their rulings to spread by word of mouth and broadsheet, they allow far too many opportunities for other people to either put their own spin on their rulings or, worse, make up rulings for them out of whole cloth.
I find it utterly incomprehensible that in today's day and age, we still disseminate rabbinical rulings by word of mouth and by posters plastered on walls. Oddly enough, I think that the World Wide Web is an ideal medium for the Gedolim to issue their rulings. If a Gadol had his own website under his firm control, he could post his rulings there -- and people would be able to be reasonably confident that the ruling was, in fact, issued by the Gadol who owns the site. In addition since "space" and "paper" are not true issues on the Web, the Gadol can expand on his ruling as much as necessary to cover some of the other points I made in this post. Even if the Gadol in question did not want to get involved with the Web, there is always the option of having an automated telephone system where people can call and hear a recording of the Gadol saying something to the effect of "yes, I issued this ruling, these are the parameters, this is how I came to the decision, etc. The Gadol, of course, would have to be vigilant in ensuring that only content he approves of goes up on the site or the telephone system (the site/telephone system, in effect, becomes his signet-ring) - but as I mentioned earlier, an essential part of having the power to issue rulings is the responsibility to protect the integrity of those rulings. Failure to do so results in an open invitation to having the very validity of the rulings he issues questioned, disregarded and, ultimately, ignored.
The responsibility to be able to make independent decisions regardless of the personal consequences and free from communal pressure.
This responsibility is perhaps the most important responsibility that a Gadol has and yet, at the same time, the one that may be the hardest for him to make because of the potential personal cost involved.
In the United States, justices to the Supreme Court are appointed and, failing any misconduct on their part, maintain their positions for life. There is an important reason for this lifetime appointment -- the need to maintain an independent judiciary. It is vitally important that, if a decision is to be a correct one (meaning free of political pressures and based strictly upon the law and his or her interpretation of it) then it is important that they not be subject to recall based on those decisions. You may argue with how successful the implementation of this has been (both conservatives and liberals can probably quote numerous cases where they feel that judges ruled based on their political biases rather than the law*), but the principle is sound. When a correct decision needs to be made, it has to be free from political pressure.
This also needs to apply to the Gedolim as well. If a Gadol is going to issue a ruling, it is his responsibility (as I mentioned above) to ensure that the ruling is fair and not manipulated or engineered. However, it also has to be free from personal considerations as well, including those of power and prestige.
Unfortunately, it is all too apparent that in many cases, Gedolim sometimes make decisions because it's the popular decision to make and one that will appease the masses. Jonathan Rosenblum, in an article about a year ago, made the point very clearly. In discussing why there would be no public statement regarding a possible change in communal policy, he says the following:
There is another reason that there will be no such public statements. Any such statement would be met with vicious attacks by the “kenaim,” who would say about the gadol in question precisely what KollelGuy asks me: Who are you? The Chazon Ish did not say what you are saying; Rav Shach did not say it.” Perhaps KollelGuy remembers the attacks on one of the Sages he mentions for his tacit support of Nahal Chareidi. (Even Rav Shach used to say that he was afraid of the stone-throwers.) One of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the United States told me recently that the gedolim cannot even discuss questions surrounding poverty because if they did the “street” would just label them fake gedolim.
In other words, there are cases where the Gedolim are afraid to make a correct ruling (or public policy decision) because it would mean the possible loss of their positions as Gedolim. Even if you put aside the fact that this causes their rulings to smack of corruption (even if there is, in fact, no corruption in any particular ruling), this undermines the whole point of having Gedolim determine public policy to begin with. Of what value is there to have a Gadol make a determination if there is a possibility that the determination is rooted in his fear of being labeled a "fake Gadol?" Aren't we relying on them to give us true rulings? If their rulings can be influenced by "the street," then how can anyone trust their rulings?
I'll admit that it's not easy to ask any person (Gadol or not) to put their positions on the line when they are faced with making an unpopular ruling. But part of being a true and responsible leader is to take responsibility for your leadership decisions. If the cost of a true ruling is the loss of personal power and prestige (i.e. by being labeled a "fake Gadol") then perhaps that's the price you must pay. If a person is going to accept the awesome responsibility to wield the power to ruin lives, then he must also be willing to take the responsibility to stand up and assure the people that his decision is correct, even if it comes with personal consequences. Failure to do so simply means that the inmates are running the asylum.
If one is going to posit that the Gedolim have the power to make important communal and halachic decisions and that we, the general populace, have a responsibility to follow their decisions, then they have a responsibility to make sure that their rulings are factual, informed, fair, honest, clear, verifiable and free from manipulations, agendas and communal pressure.
* But then again, if both sides feel this way, perhaps it's right after all...