Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Friday, 3 July 2009

Sit Down, Shut Up and Listen to Us

Any tool has the capacity to build or destroy. A hammer can put up a house or it can smash priceless artifacts. It all depends on how you use it and what your intentions are when you pick it up.
The information age is also a tool and like a hammer, it has tremendous potential to build and destroy. Again, it all depends what you do with the information. But one thing is certain. Once the hammer was invented, people stopped headbutting nails into the wall and anyone today who insists on doing so "like in the good ol' days" is an idiot. It's the same with modern information services. Like 'em or not, they are here with incredible penetrance into society. They cannot be ignored and those who would tell us to have their heads in the sand.
Like Rav Doron Beckerman over at Cross Currents, for example. In his latest missive, he bewails the anarchy that the Jewish blogosphere has created. Once upon a time, he muses, we were disciplined and obedient servants of our rabbinic masters and that was a good thing bcause they knew best and by following them without question we were fulfilling the will of our Father in Heaven.
But now, but now! People are thinking for themselves! They're discussing what "the Gedolim" are saying and second guessing them! They're coming up with their own opinions! And what's worse, they're aware that not all of these great sages are perfect human beings!
He then spells out three scenarios. The first is the worst case one:
To the left lies a future where the Torah leadership of the Jewish nation has been completely undermined and discredited. Their mistakes held under the microscope, magnified, and determined by the bloggers to be fatal. No longer can they be trusted to lead, and the best course is Ish Hayashar B’einav Yaaseh. Let each man do what is right in his own eyes.
Taking this turn means adhering to, or adopting, a philosophy of Torah leadership having no inherent value. It is only when they are proven correct that we accept their authority (if ever), but when they are not, maybe after some sort of three strikes rule, then, plainly, the very concept of Torah leadership, in any practical form, is to be jettisoned.

I would agree that this is certainly not the shiny future that any observant folks desire. A few years ago Time magazine's lead story was on how the Internet, with all its unlimited possibilities, had essentially turned into a giant XXX shop. Left to ourselves, we humans don't reach for the stars but for the gutter. Well yeah, that's humanity's history in a nutshell.
But Rav Beckerman's other solutions that concern me too:
To the right lies a path of passivity, where no questioning or criticism is tolerated, no mistakes acknowledged or allowed for, and frustration is kept in check for the sake of maintaining the status quo. One problem with this, is, of course, the hit counter. A more critical problem – it isn’t healthy. Input from the layman is critical to proper decision-making, and sometimes the best ideas come from them.
Although I doubt they'll publish it, my comment on this was "Yes, this sounds just like the Agudah dealing with pedophilia." Cynical comments aside however, this is exactly the model being pushed by many askanim in the Chareidi community today, one of mindless obedience to "the Gedolim" because they have "ruach hakodesh", are on a different spiritual plane, know everything about everything, etc. As the demographics show, this may work for a small segment of the Jewish poeple but for many it's a non-starter. I'm not interested in checking my brain at the door.
Rav Beckerman's compromise solution however, doesn't seem much different:
Straight ahead lies a path of responsible partnership, where Torah leaders are not undermined by ridicule, open disdain, or even disrespectful disagreement. Correspondence should not be made public without explicit consent, tempting as it may be to get the scoop. Bloggers pining for particular courses of action should certainly state their case, but I believe that actual calls for adherence should be channeled through Torah leaders, whatever camp they may come from. There are lines of communication to all the English-speaking Torah leaders, both in the US and in Eretz Yisrael.
What's the difference between this and the solution immediately previous? Ah yes, we simple minded folk get to make suggestions. Not decisions, mind you. We wouldn't be trusted with anything as important as that! But we get to tell our leaders what we think of their guidance. Unless we disagree with them of course. Yes, Rav Beckerman mentions the possibility of respectful disagreement but in Chareidi discourse that often translates into "But sir, I don't think you were machmir enough!" Otherwise, disagreement is automatically equated with ridicule, and open disdain, to use Rav Beckerman's terms.
As a physician, I am aware that the authority of my profession of patients has diminished over the past few decades. Some are bothered by this, but I'm not. After all, in place of unrestrained paternalism has come patient autonomy. Why is this a good thing?
Fifty years ago the doctor didn't enter into a discussion with the patient. He analyzed the case and instructed. We all know that more often than not the patient mutely nodded his acquiescence and then went home and did what he wanted to, even if it was against the doctor's advice.
Nowadays, it's much easier for physicians. We advise the patients, engage in some education and at the end of the day put the whole thing in the patient's lap. The patient then goes home and does what he wants to do. In other words, what people are doing has not changed but I now know my limitations. What's more, by admitting them I don't feel any sense of crisis when the patient gets into trouble. I treated him as a responsible adult and therefore the fault for his problems is on his shoulders, not mind.
Perhaps "the Gedolim" could take a hunt from this model. After all, we know from the news on the accursed Internet that most Chareidim are not following their every instruction to the letter. What's more, as the pashkevils and gezeiros pile up, less and less of their authority seems to be respected. About the only thing that really unites Chareidim anymore is a chance to riot in Yerushalayim.
The era of the shtetl is over. Once upon a time, Yankl might have been a simple fish monger who could barely read. Today he has access to information from around the world. Once upon a time a crisis or spiritual lapse in an important rabbinical figure could be shushed away. Today it makes all the headlines.
Wishing people would turn their back on this in just that: wishful thinking.

6 comments:

Doron Beckerman said...

I'm going to have to deal with this for the next week non-stop if I get started, but Lichvodcha, since I think you're a good guy, I'll respond to what seems to be your main gripe.

What's the difference between this and the solution immediately previous? Ah yes, we simple minded folk get to make suggestions. Not decisions, mind you.

Please be accurate. I'm not talking about personal issues. I'm talking about public policy and how to relate to situations such where people are asking for the head of great Rabbanim. Pick your Torah authority, I don't care which camp he is from, and let HIM push the agenda you think is vital, because Torah leadership is a must (a concept you may not agree with). If you can't find a single Gadol from any camp who thinks like you, maybe you should rethink your position.

The equivalent isn't a patient of yours not following what you say, but a layman advocating a public agenda that not a single responsible doctor publicly advocates.

(skipping a little snark here)

Yes, Rav Beckerman mentions the possibility of respectful disagreement but in Chareidi discourse that often translates into "But sir, I don't think you were machmir enough!" Otherwise, disagreement is automatically equated with ridicule, and open disdain, to use Rav Beckerman's terms.

I think this is an unfair caricature and it isn't what I meant. Have you ever approached an English speaking recognized Torah authority and spoken to him about issues that are not Mutar/Asur?

Have a good Shabbos.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Kvod HaRav,

First of all, thank you for your response. I wasn't aware that you even knew my blog existed and appreciate your feedback.

> how to relate to situations such where people are asking for the head of great Rabbanim.

The problem from "out here" is that quite often we see public policy being decided in bizarre ways. For example, the banning of the Lipa Schmeltzer concert a couple of years ago. It turned out that most of the signatories to the ban had either no idea what they were signing or had been lied to as to the true nature of the concert. Yet without investigation they signed on to a piece of paper that almost ruined the poor guy's life.

Consider the Sliffkin controversy. Without commenting on the merit of his work, I would note that the ban against him was signed by rabbonim who never read his book.

Rav Eliashiv, shlita, is reputed to have said that if he has to spend time clarifying what he did and did not say he'd have no time to do anything else.

What is an am haaretz like myself supposed to conclude from this?

However, I do agree with your comment regarding choosing one's camp:
Pick your Torah authority, I don't care which camp he is from, and let HIM push the agenda you think is vital, because Torah leadership is a must

The problem is that while this works in theory our parochial nature often undermines it. For example, Rav Sherman's recent statements that all rabbonim have to obey the psak of Rav Eliashiv, even non-Chareidi and non-Ashkenazi ones. Again, what's the implication there?

Again, thank you for the feedback and gut Shabbos

Doron Beckerman said...

The problem from "out here" is that quite often we see public policy being decided in bizarre ways.

I'm not "in there" either.

For example, the banning of the Lipa Schmeltzer concert a couple of years ago. It turned out that most of the signatories to the ban had either no idea what they were signing or had been lied to as to the true nature of the concert. Yet without investigation they signed on to a piece of paper that almost ruined the poor guy's life.

"Input from the layman is critical to proper decision-making".

Consider the Sliffkin controversy. Without commenting on the merit of his work, I would note that the ban against him was signed by rabbonim who never read his book.

People who were trusted told them about it.

Rav Eliashiv, shlita, is reputed to have said that if he has to spend time clarifying what he did and did not say he'd have no time to do anything else.

What is an am haaretz like myself supposed to conclude from this?

Don't trust everything you hear in Rav Elyashiv's name.

"There are lines of communication to all English speaking etc..."

For example, Rav Sherman's recent statements that all rabbonim have to obey the psak of Rav Eliashiv, even non-Chareidi and non-Ashkenazi ones. Again, what's the implication there?

The implication is that Rav Sherman thinks that Rav Elyashiv is such a major Posek that regarding such a gargantuan issue of public import L'dorei Doros, i.e. acceptable standards of Geirus, one cannot lower the standards below his criteria and expect that this not meet fierce opposition, and that Gerim will not get seriously hurt in the process. I think that at least as a matter of practicality and good sense, he's right.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

> People who were trusted told them about it.

And this is acceptable as testimony? How was it different from rechilus?

> Don't trust everything you hear in Rav Elyashiv's name.

Ah, but then how do I know which I should listen to? Should I stick to his published sheilos teshuvos and ignore everything else? Where do I draw the line?

> The implication is that Rav Sherman thinks that Rav Elyashiv is such a major Posek that regarding such a gargantuan issue of public import

But that simulataneously delegitimizes every other leading posek out there. If he had said "As far as I'm concerned, Rav Eliashiv is the final word" that's one thing, but to say "As far as I'm concerned, all of you should think Rav Eliashiv is the final word" is presumptive.

Doron Beckerman said...

And this is acceptable as testimony? How was it different from rechilus?

I don't want to get into Halachic discussions here.

Ah, but then how do I know which I should listen to? Should I stick to his published sheilos teshuvos and ignore everything else? Where do I draw the line?

Ask your authority whether you should do what people say he said. Then it doesn't matter if he said it.

But that simulataneously delegitimizes every other leading posek out there.

It's just good sense that a Posek followed by tens of thousands as the final word should be taken into account for the sake of Gerus being done within an accepted consensus, or the opinions of the other leading Poskim don't matter, because there will still be the Litvishe Charedi world that won't marry them. That's very dangerous and cruel to do to Gerim.

I don't think Rav Sherman would say the same thing about opening bottle caps on Shabbos.

Thanks for hearing me out.

Shavua Tov!

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There seems to be an assumption of a certain model of Torah structure that existed perhaps from the time of Sinai that is now being chllenged by the Internet. Yet where does this very assumption come from to begin with? There is much indication of greater decentralization of psak over the centuries when, without technology such as the telephone, individual rabbanim had to render decisions without the benefit of clearing it with a gadol. The force of this decentarlization is actually reinforced by the fact that issues, in the time of the Sanhedrin did not necessarily come before that eminent body and variant views were allowed to exist. Given this, the fact that the Internet is allowing individuals to "spread their wings" may actually be taking us back to an even more pristine structure of Torah. But at least we should distinguish between any opinion and one built upon thought and knowledge? Yes, but that is not necessarily accomplished through the imposition of an opinion based upon authority even though the originator of this idea obviously thought about it. There are problems with centralizaion and there are problems with decentralization. There are problems with encouraging individuals to think while recognizing their own limitations. There are also problems with just accepting opinions without critical analysis of them. (See Rav Moshe's hakdama to Iggros Moshe.) The call maybe is first to understand the depth of this dilemma.

Rabbi Ben Hecht