Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Smartest Isn't Always The Best

It's no secret that we value Torah learning and knowledge.  A person's value in the eyes of many is tied less to his mitzvah observance than it is to his level of knowledge.  The shakdan, the man who never leaves his seforim for anything else sits at the highest level of virtue.
There is good reason for this attitude.  As the old platitude goes, more than the Jews have kept the Torah, the Torah has kept the Jews.  Forget matzah balls and tikun olam in the form of environmentalism.  It's the learning and observing of Torah that makes us unique amongst the nations of the world.  It therefore makes sense that the more one possesses of Torah knowledge the greater one is.  No argument here.
But there is a necessary follow-up question: does being knowledgeable automatically grant one the necessary skills for leadership?  Is the smartest guy in the room the best leader?
I would suggest that this is not the case.  Leadership is a special task requiring skills all its own.  Yes, knowledge is important but there are other factors.  Knowing how to delegate, knowing how to run a team and trust its members to work in proper coordination, knowing the needs of the group being led are all important and such skills don't come with intensive book learning.  There is also a need to know the limitations that the real world puts on ideals and goals so that they can be adjusted and implemented successfully.  These skills can sometimes be intuitive and at other times they can be taught but they do not correlate with the basic accumulation of knowledge.
The current leadership structure of the Chareidi community, on the other hand, would seem to completely disagree with the preceding paragraph.  Under the rubric of "Daas Torah" many in that community feels that the intense learning of Torah is the only thing needed to develop a great leader.  With high level of knowledge comes some form of ruach hakodesh and this spirit is what guides the Gadol towards making the correct decision each and every time.
I was thinking about this as I recently read Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's early obituary for HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, zt"l.  I say early because I don't doubt there is already an Artscroll hagiography in process to be published soon, one that will emphasize all the "right" midos HaRav Eliashiv possessed as well as a sanitized version of his life so that we shouldn't think, chas v'shalom, that he ever left his learning for an instant, even to go to the bathroom or something like that.
Actually I'm surprised it hasn't come out yet.  Hagiographies for Rebbitzen Kanievsky, zt"l, and HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel came out seemingly within hours of the funerals but it's been several months now and nothing on HaRav Eliashiv?
Rav Rosenblum's piece hits all the right notes, of course.  HaRav Eliashiv was a non-stop learner which, combined with his God-given genius level of intelligence and startling lack of need for sleep, resulted in his premier status as posek hador for the Chareidi community.
There are, of course, inaccuracies in the piece.  The first is an outright contraction.  At one point, we are told:
 For ninety years, he sat alone in the same small shul learning almost all day, except for the hours he answered halachic questions or gave his daily Talmud class, open to all.
But then Rav Rosenblum admits that HaRav Eliashiv did have a job at one point, working for the Zionists no less:
He served for 22 years as a dayan (religious court judge) on the Bais Din HaGadol of the Chief Rabbinate, until he resigned in protest over Rabbi Shlomo Goren's ruling in the Langermamzerut case. Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog assigned him the task of preparing the protocols for the Chief Rabbinate's batei din, which protocols are still in force today.
But this is a minor quibble.  Far more egregious is something that is an outright lie:
Even after resigning, he remained ever a dayan in his conduct, refusing, for instance, to hear one party in a dispute unless the other party was also present. He possessed the great dayan'sability to quickly separate out the extraneous and cut to the core of any issue
Yeah, just ask Rav Natan Slifkin about how truthful that statement is.
What struck me most was this set of ancedotes:
That was Rav Elyashiv. He thought in halachic categories and his responses were determined by those categories. Informed of the birth of a new great great-grandchild, he would respond "kasher l'eidus" (permitted to be a witness) – i.e., the proscription on close relatives giving testimony with respect to one another does not apply to a great great-grandchildren. (An only child himself, Rabbi Elyashiv left behind over 1,500 descendants at the time of his passing, extending into the sixth generation.) His first question whenever someone came to urge a particular course of action was always: What does the Shulchan Aruch say?
The same straightness could be seen in everything he did. One time, he needed an electrician to fix something in the one-bedroom apartment, in which he and his wife -- primarily his wife -- raised ten children. (She was the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, portrayed by Simcha Raz in A Tzaddik in Our Time.) He refused to take the electrician who prayed in the same minyan he did until the man agreed to charge the full price. While the man was doing the repair, Rabbi Elyashiv was informed that one of his daughters had passed away. He sat down and reviewed the laws of mourning. Then he paid the electrician. Only when the debt was taken care of did he leave for the funeral.
The picture painted here is quite frightening, if you think about it.  We who are fans of Star Trek, for example, enjoy the portrait of Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan raised in a culture where emotions are forbidden and his constant struggle to understand them while maintained absolute control over his own.  But here was a man who truly was Vulcan.  Yes, it's quite admirable to draw an immediate halachic conclusion when being told about the first of a great-great-grandchild but is it normal?  Is it healthy?  There is a famous anecdote about Rebbitzen Kanievsky, his daughter, in which she tells her husband, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit"a, that he is not as intensive a learner as her father because unlike her father, HaRav Chaim knows the names of all his grandchildren!
If the only way HaRav Eliashiv could relate to such an joyous family event was to retreat into a legal structure, what does it say about his understanding of real, live human beings?  If his grandchildren couldn't have a personal relationship with him, what does that say about his understanding of the needs of strangers?
Yes, HaRav Eliashiv was uncompromising in his approach to and implementation of halacha but really one have has to consider: when was he ever forced to do otherwise?  When did any negative consequences of a psak he gave come back to haunt him?  He could be an ivory tower purist because of his position and power but did that make him a great leader?
There is no question that the Torah world is poorer for his passing and the loss of his holiness and knowledge but is the Chareidi community in as health a position as they might have been had a more pragmatic leader, using the guidance of HaRav Eliashiv, been in charge the last few decades?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

The flip side of your analysis is this:

Possibly, the anecdotes and other details selected for the obituary were those that fit the "gadol stereotype" but these, even if accurate, did not fully reflect Rav Elyashiv the actual man. Do you have a way to know the "real" Rav Elyashiv from reports such as these?

ZP said...

"Is the smartest guy in the room the best leader?I would suggest that this is not the case."

I see this so often in chinuch. A guy has smicha (which is not what it used to be and there is joke in YU that if a guy doesn't know what to do yet, he goes into smicha) and now he is automatically fit to teach? Not always.

You make a very important point how we try to make these leaders into "puritans" who never sinned, when even in Tanach, our avot were not perfect and we learn that the Torah davka mentions that so that we can feel like we can relate/be like them.

frum single female said...

I agree with you. Just because one is intelligent it does not automatically make one a good leader. Sometimes very intelligent people are only book smart, but their social skills are lacking.
The other issue is that often great rabbis are not there for their children because they are so busy with the klal.

Atheodox Jew said...

Hi - a few reactions.

1. Not only is the smartest person in the room not necessarily the best leader - they're no less liable to reach false and ridiculous conclusions than anyone else. It's just that they'll construct highly complex and convoluted arguments to support their fallacious positions.

2. I'm also frustrated by his participation in the book ban, but couldn't you say that "refusing to hear one party in a dispute unless the other party was also present" is referring to an actual "din Torah", whereas giving an opinion on a book didn't necessitate hearing the author's side of the story?

3. About R. Elyashiv saying "kasher l'eidus", I'm not bothered by the fact that he'd say that, or think that. Someone who lives and breathes Torah (or any subject) is always there, always making connections to it. Which is great. I'm sure he ALSO felt and showed tremendous joy. The "frightening" thing to me is what frum biographers select out as a "show of greatness", as the thing most worthy of emulation. And on that count, I agree it comes out robotic and sterile!

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I think we also have to again make the point (that we've both written on) that many "gedolim" held up to be the leaders of the community actually lead once they get into advanced years. Some stories I've read about Schneerson, Shach and most recently Elyashiv have made for some pretty strong evidence that once these guys hit their 80s, a lot of their faculties are gone, but because of the culture of rebbe/rav uber alles and daat torah, they can never be allowed to step down. Hence you not only get a bunch of Grimmer Wormtongues whispering poison into the leaders' ears and essentially using their names to support all manner of nonsense, who also basically have a position that amounts to elder abuse. I'd feel quite badly for the elders except I'm too busy feeling sorry for all the people hurt by the crazy edicts put out in their names.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

sorry, should be "cease to lead"

Anonymous said...

I believe you mean Grima Wormtongue!

Best,
M. Singer

Yaakov said...

It's not just the Slifkin ban. In the cherem against Rav Shlomoh Riskin many years ago, when Rav Elyashiv was quite a bit younger, he did the very same thing.

Observer said...

You note that some of what R. Rosenbloom writes is inaccurate, then you proceed to accept all of the anecdotes as fact. What is our source for the story about his child's petirah? There are so many things that don't ring true, that i really wonder about it.

As for the anecdote about Rebbetzin Kanievsky A"H, I don't believe the story at all. For one thing, the most common version has her complaining the her husband knows the names of his children, while her father didn't - a contradiction to things she (conformed by others) had said in public about their relationship with their father. Secondly, how would anyone have known about this? Does anyone really believe that she would have made a denigrating comment about her husband's learning in public or to people who can't keep their mouths shut?

I do agree that we have a communal problem in the anecdotes we choose to tell about gedolim. But, please don't blame them for things that they may very well not have done.

Mr. Cohen said...

In ancient times, the men of Yissachar were the greatest Torah learners, but it was the men of Yehudah who were chosen to be the leaders.