Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Of Rebbe Stories

Despite being an important secondary character in a great fantasy fiction trilogy, I'm not exactly a story person.  To qualify, I love fictional stories about fictional characters but am less thrilled when presented fictional stories about real people and expected to believe they're true.
Maybe it's also my dislike of naturohomeopaths.  Have you ever noticed that, for all their hocus-pocus talk, they don't really have cures for anything that matters?  Oh they'll whip up something for that trick knee or persistent cough but when it comes to something real and substantial like, say, a heart attack or end-stage cancer they're all talk and it's up to real physicians to save the day.
As a result I've never been a fan of "rebbe stories".  You know the ones I mean.  The am ha'aretz goes to the Rebbe, needs a miracle and so the Rebbe prays for him and the miracle happens, usually in a way that confers a moral lesson.
Again, as a story they're cute.  It's when people say "And you know, it really happened that way!" that I get annoyed.
Sometimes it's a little different.  There's the story I once heard from the local Lubavitcher about how one of their Rebbes needs to be exhumed long after his burial.  Despite the prohibition of doing it, some of the handlers opened the casket because they wanted to see the state of the body.  After all, the Gemara tells us that the perfectly righteous do not decompose in the grave and their Rebbe had been perfectly righteous.  Naturally, as the story goes, his body looked exactly as it had on the day of his death, confirming the literal truth of the Gemara.
I pointed out to him that this story was clearly rigged.  Imagine, I told him, that you're one of the handlers.  You crack open the coffin convinced you're going to see a pristine body.  Instead you see some bones and leftover, mummified pieces of flesh.  What are you going to tell people?  That the Gemara is wrong?  That the Rebbe wasn't perfectly righteous?
What bothers me about the stories is that the miracles are never anything significant.  The poor guy gets an unexpected challah from Shabbos, an infertile woman conceives, all fell-good but small time events.  Why are there no stories about the local Polish overlord calling off a massive pogrom once it was underway?  Why nothing about relieving the massive widespread poverty of eastern Europe's Jews?  Why no Moshiach being summoned to bring our final revelation?
I thought about this even more when I recently read Joe Bobker's excellent book excerpt on the response of various rabbinic leaders to the Holocaust.  Now, there's a lot of people out there who believe they know two things about rabbonim and the Holocaust.  One, that many leaders told their flocks to stay put which led to increased slaughter.  Two, that some leaders took off and abandoned their flocks.
As Bobker cogently notes, we cannot judge since we have the benefit of hindsight and a lack of understand of the situation as it was for those rabbonim.  For example, many leaders thought that World War II would be a repeat of World War I, a few years of hellish fighting and then the resumption of regular society.  Staying put or fleeing a short distance was what worked from 1914-1918 so there was good reason to think it would help again.
Additionally we have to remember that, despite the bellicose threats of total extermination by Adolph Hitler, y"sh, few people took him seriously.  They expected oppression, pogroms and small scale murder but not the industrialized massacre that was being planned.  Even the Nazis, y"sh, didn't openly admit to their Jewish victims what they were doing.  Jews being deported to death camps were told they were being relocated, often told to bring belongings and provisions for the journey.  It is unfair for us to say "Well those rabbonim knew what were going to happen!"  No one knew, including them.
What caught my attention in the article, however, were two items I'd not heard before.  One was that the Chofetz Chayim, zt"l, was asked to curse Hitler and didn't on the assumption that what was happening as the Nazis came to power was God's will and couldn't be trifled with.  The other was that the Belzer Rebbe, zt"l, was asked to petition God to stop the Holocaust and also refused for the same reason.
On the surface it seems like both leaders were extremely cold and uncaring.  Jews were being slaughtered en masse and the answer is "Well God wants it that way so what do you expect from me?"
However, as I noted above this seems to put the "rebbe stories into their proper perspective.  Like the Lubavitchers opening the casket there's only so much one could expect.  Imagine the Belzer Rebbe, in full regalia with all his followers watching.  He lights the right candles, says the right words in Yiddish and Aramaic, and then... nothing.  The Nazis are still outside, the crematoria are still running.  What does he do next?  He's the tzaddik, the guy who says "jump!" and God asks "How high?"
Imagine the Chafetz Chayyim publicly cursing Hitler and his monsters using all the right incantations.  What does he do when nothing happens?
Perhaps these two saintly men knew this, that the stories are just stories.  Perhaps they knew that, if they were pushed into performing an actual miracle they would fail and that this would cause a loss of faith in their followers who had been educated and conditioned to believe that these men had God's ear and obedience, k'b'yachol.
Perhaps that's what I don't like the stories.  They are the result of a cultural need for simplicity and understandable connection to the Divine in a religion that simply doesn't work that way.  Is is so hard to get past such simple linear thinking?


Micha Berger said...

Well, the Chafetz Chaim version of the story is implausible for yet another 2 reasons...

First, he whole idea of miracle-working rabbis isn't Litvish. For that matter, the CC died before daas Torah was invented, or perhaps at most during its dawn. The people he was around weren't likely to make such requests.

Then there is the more objective but less hashkafically signifiant issue: dates. The CC was niftar on Sep 15, 1933. Hitler had been chancelor for 9 months at that point, and the extent of antisemitism by the German gov't so far were quotas for non-Aryans in civil service and in college. Kristallnacht was still 5 years away.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

But you see that your information proves my point, right?

Micha Berger said...

Not every online exchange has to be a debate. (I know, shocking!)

I did write "yet another 2 reasons", I intended to agree with your point and then adding more reasons why casting the story as happening in Lithuania before the CC's passing makes it even less plausible.

Temujin said...

Harrumph! (Rant alert.) On the subject of naturopathy and homeopathy, Temujin believes that no physician today has the right to complain about the rising popularity of medical quackeries. With nearly half of the population availing itself of such, the game is over; the quacks won and what used to be mainstream medicine is now another alternative..."allopathy"...on the seemingly endless spectrum of equally valid medical approaches.

Instead of standing up and calling fraud a fraud and nipping the thing in the bud before it became a multi-gazillion dollar industry with some very aggressive lawyers, most physician either rolled over and purred or even jumped on the lucrative bandwagon. Temujin dumped his first physician back in the early eighties when he proudly displayed his newly acquired certificate in acupuncture. Nowadays it's doctors who dump patients and Temujin dare not even ask where his current leach stands on the issue ...don't ask, don't tell. Doesn't help either when pharmacies sell copper bracelets and herbal cures right beside the serious looking fellow in the white coat.

Is there a point to complaining when even the famed Mayo Clinic advises thus:

Why are some doctors hesitant about complementary and alternative medicine? Many conventional doctors practicing today didn't receive training in CAM therapies, so they may not feel comfortable making recommendations or addressing questions in this area. However, as the evidence for certain therapies increases, doctors are increasingly open to complementary and alternative medicine....

That's great, isn't it? As we used to say back in those eighties, "gag me with a spoon!"

JT said...

Allow me to share my favorite "Rebbe story":

Three Chassidim were arguing over who's Rebbe was greater.

The first said "My Rebbe is such a miracle worker! Once, while on his way to to do bikur cholim, he was faced with thick heavy fog and couldn't contine. He raised his arms to Heaven, proclaimed 'Fog ahien, fog ahehr (Fog to this side, fog to that side)', the fog split and he continued on his way."

The second topped it. "My Rebbe is so great that once, when he was on his way to a Rabbinical convention, he was stopped by a raging river and a washed out bridge. He raised his arms to Heaven and cried 'River ahien, river ahehr', the river split and he proceeded on dry land."

The third beat them both. "My Rebbe has such power! Once he was walking on Shabbos and saw a thousand dollar bill lying on the ground. He raised his hands to Heaven, shouted 'Shabbos ahien, Shabbos ahehr', picked up the money and finished his walk!"

Mr. Cohen said...

"Fell-good" should be corrected to "feel-good."

Fred said...

I think Rebbe stories can be used constructively, provided they convey cases exemplary behavior that a human being is capable of. However, they rarely take that course, and instead lapse into the "supernatural, miracle maker" mishegoss that quite frankly can border on idolatry. They provide the excuse that the Rebbe is infallible, and simply can't be questioned on his decisions or actions. We've had a lot of problems from other guys who have been deified while they were alive, but the lessons still haven't been learned.

I also read Bobker's essay- it was excellent; however, he was extremely gracious and non -judgmental, perhaps overly so, in the historical context of what various Rebbeim did- or did not do during the Holocaust. On the Chassidish side, Satmar, Belz, and others advised their followers to stay put. On the Litvish side, R.Wasserman, among others, advised the same. Thousands and thousands of their followers died as a result. But stories about Rebbes tend to portray them as men who exceed the boundaries of time and space, and infallibility. To this day I hear stories of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe made prognostic statements that are being "proven" correct 50 years later. But that's all you'll hear- that the Rebbe's actions were correct, even if you pressed the fast forward button for 5 decades to prove the point. But that's the problem: the presumption of infallibility renders the possibility of reaching an opposite conclusion virtually impossible. Bobker didn't include this outcome in his essay, which is understandable but inaccurate, in my opinion. You can certainly conclude someone was wrong without being judgmental, while being cognizant of the conditions they faced at the time. All it takes is a commitment to intellectual and historical honesty.