Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Who's Really Messing Up The Mesorah?

Years ago, during the latter part of the Great Slifkin Controversy, a speaker at one of the annual Agudah conventions famously announced that "the Gedolim" were to be so awesomely respected that asking them any questions about their rulings and decisions was forbidden.  We are so beneath their level, the speaker claimed, that we haven't the privilege or right to query them about such things.  Ours is to accept their commands without thinking for ourselves.
That statement has always bothered me but for a long time I dismissed as typical of the thinking of modern day Chareidism.  The main defining feature of that ideology has always been that of the individual subsuming himself and his personal identity to his community as exemplified and led by "the Gedolim".
Recently I was thinking more about this and I realized why I was so bothered by it.  In his comments to the opening of the first chapter of Pirkei Avos, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, notes that unlike other religions, Judaism believes in spreading Torah knowledge through the masses rather than keeping it as the exclusive possession of the intellectual elite.  We are not mean to be blind followers but educated ones.
Thus the ideal model is one in which the decision rendered by a posek is a teachable moment.  The shailoh is asked, the answer is given and the questioner must then feel free to ask for the reasons behind it.  Similarly the posek should be eager to share his reasoning.  What's more he should be open to challenges from the questioner since adding to the questioner's knowledge base and correcting misunderstandings is his sacred duty.  The answer "Just do what I say 'cause I said it!" is anathema to that.  Yet this is exactly what the speaker at the convention seemed to imply.
Now if this was an internal philosophy of Chareidism I wouldn't be so annoyed by it but as has been well documented, the Chareidi leadership both in North America and Israel seems intent on creating the public perception that the only real Orthodox Jew is a Chareidi one and that any other type of Torah observant is a second best deviation from the true form.  It is elementary logic to note that if this is true then mindless obedience to Torah leadership is an essential element of Jewish practice.
Yet we know this is not true.  The greatest mitzvah is the study of Torah.  A person with knowledge has an obligation to share it and the more one knows the greater the obligation.
Now, I can understand why this trend is occurring.  The Chareidi community is dealing with an outside world that is doing two things: first, through the internet it is making its presence felt within even the most insular communities and second, it has made the acquisition of knowledge far more accessible than at any time in history.
Think about it.  Once upon a time if you wanted to learn Talmud you had to find a Rav willing to teach you and sit on a creaky wooden bench squinting at smudged letters while trying to make sense of it, all by the light of flickering candles.  Now you can sit at your desk, open your Steinsaltz Talmud and learn at your own pace from an illustrated text with translation and commentary.  It's the same with the previously obscure Yerushalmi, the Midrash, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and any other number of texts.  Even those books that have been to be translated like the actual Shulchan Aruch are available in new editions where the typeset is - gasp! - legible.
Whereas once upon a time the layman would go to the Rav with his shailoh and simply accept what he was told, nowadays he often goes armed with his own research.  He already has an idea of what the answer is and oftentimes just wants confirmation.  And if the answer is different he has sources with which to object to it and ask for clarification.
I can understand why this would be irritating to the Chareidi leadership.  As a physician it grates my teeth when people come in and tell me their diagnosis and expected prescription based on what "Dr. Google" has told them.  It can only be worse for poskim with years of training to have to listen to someone with a Bar Ilan CD tell them what they think.
But what's the response?  There are two: the quick and wrong and the long and right.  The quick and wrong is becoming the Chareidi standard: Shut up, you don't know anything, here's the answer, now go away and don't you dare question me!  When a speaker at the Agudah convention stands up and says that emunas chachamim means blindly obeying "the Gedolim" that's what he's really saying.  That's how a leader maintains absolute power.  That's for men who want to be kings.
The alternative is the better Torah approach but it takes time.  The Rav has to sit down, review the questioner's sources, his own and then justify his conclusion.  He has to explain and each, expand the questioner's mind and create the situation when the person leaves with a complete understanding of the issue and why his approach was so incomplete.  Most importantly it must be done in an inspirational way so that the questioner feels that not only has his shailoh been answered but that he is a better eved HaShem for having asked it.  That's how teachers raise students.  That's for men who want each member of knesses Yisrael to feel a connection to the Torah.
And that's what we should be striving for.


RAM said...

Many poskim have been willing to explain their sources and reasoning all along. If you find that one is not willing, go find someone else.

Michael Sedley said...

RAM - there are many poskim who are prepared to explain their sources and reasoning, and on a personal level that's great, but I think Garnel's point is that the way Charedi society runs today is that a proclamation is made from "On High" (probably from an Askan who controls access to the "Gedolim"), and the entire Charedi world is expected to follow it without even asking why such a proclamation was made or what was the reasoning behind it.

This is a new Messorah which is very different from the tradition of earlier generations.

RAM said...

Michael, if it's new, how does it rise to the level of Mesorah? The more we refrain from asking for explanations, the less we'll know on a theoretical and practical level, and the less our poskim will be accountable---at least to their peers--- for shaky decisions. The transparency of psak is a check on faulty decision-making. But what of the subtleties in Daas Torah that underly some decisions but can't be put wholly into words? OK, but let's reveal as much as possible.

RAM said...

I meant "underlie" above.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Please see my original article on the Slifkin Affair,
"Authority and Wisdom: The Slifkin Affair" at

Rabbi Slifkin actually put the link on his site as well.

To be honest, it is the quote from Rav Moshe that always hit me.

Rabbi Ben Hecht