Who Needs Charedi Columnists?
Reb Chaim Brisker and the Chofetz Chaim were once discussing the wisdom of having a Torah newspaper. Reb Chaim Brisker asked the Chofetz Chaim who would write for the newspaper. “You won’t write because you don’t have time. I won’t write because I don’t have time. So who will write?” he asked. Then he answered his own question, “Those who have time.”
The strong implication was that only those who have too much time on their hands would end up writing, and in that case the public might well be better off without the benefit of their wisdom.
Of course there have been gedolei olam who wrote frequently for the broader public. German Jews of the mid-19th C. spent hours every Shabbos with the weekly essays of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s, Hy”d, great work Ikvesa D’Mashicha was not originally written in book form, but as a series of essay on current events for popular journals.
Obviously we do not have access today to the thoughts of gedolim of comparable stature on current events. Once again the field has been left to those who have time. And if that is the case, the question begs to be asked: Why should the public want to hear their thoughts?
I don’t ask the question about someone like my esteemed colleague Rabbi Moshe Grylak, who had intimate contact with some of the greatest figures of our time for over half a century and is himself a walking repository of Torah wisdom. Rabbi Grylak collected most of the material for Pe’er HaDor on the Chazon Ish, whom he knew as a young boy, and as the founding editor of Yated Ne’eman was in constant contact with Rav Shach.
But what of someone who had the zechus to learn for many years in kollel, but who even in those halcyon days never had the title “talmid chacham” mentioned in connection with him.
TRADITIONALLY, THERE have been a few models for chareidi columnists. The least problematic, of course, are those who served as the shofar of the gedolim. R’ Moshe Shonfeld, for instance, was a close associate of the Chazon Ish, and readers knew that whatever they read under his by-line reflected the views of the Chazon Ish. No one writing today bears a similar relationship to such a towering figure.
Then there are those columnists who appoint themselves as the watchdogs at the gate determining who is a proper chareidi and who is not. A noble calling no doubt, but one requiring far more confidence than I could ever muster. The question regularly addressed to all chareidi columnists – Mi samcha (Who appointed you)? – seems particularly apropos here. And after reading the comment of one community askan about the tragedy of drop-out youth – “As the community grows so to do the dregs grow” – I could not help thinking that part of our problem might be that we are a bit too ready to classify our neighbors as the “dregs.”
So what possible function remains for those who fit into neither of these categories and why should anyone care about their opinions? About the most that might be said for a columnist who is not a talmid chacham is that perhaps he has the ability to give expression to others ‘inchoate feelings in a way that clarifies things for them. What was it that Emerson said?: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts – they return to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I doubt, however, whether since R’ David Zaretsky there has been a chareidi writer upon whom the crown genius rests easily.
Another possible way for the chareidi columnist to employ all that free time granted him while others are either learning or employed at honest labor would be to investigate and report on all the good things that are happening in the Torah world and the dedicated people behind these projects. One ironclad rule: If something big is happening, it is only because one or more person has made himself a “meshuganeh l’dvar echad.” Here the key is to look for projects that have had a major impact in particular field, but that are based on models that can be replicated elsewhere and benefit many more Jews. I will confess that discovering and publicizing such models is the most satisfying aspect of writing.
Finally, a columnist can attempt to place on the communal agenda for discussion issues that are on the minds of many. If he is wise, he will do so only after clarifying in his own mind that the resolution of whatever problem he happens to address does not lie with him. And even if he is not wise, he should at least be smart enough never to forget this fact, for if he does, there will be many to remind him.
Again if he is wise, he should recognize that any problem that he writes about is multi-faceted, and that there are many aspects of the issue, far more than he is capable of addressing in any one column. An awareness of the complexity of the subject is something that he should strive for before writing about it. At the very least the effort to clarify the different sides of an issue in his own mind should serve as a reminder as to why the resolution of such issues is not left to those “with time on their hands.”
In any event, the whole idea of placing issues on the communal agenda for discussion only raises a host of other questions. Is there a place for open public discussion in a Torah society? What kinds of forums are appropriate? And who should participate? What value, if any, is there to lay people giving expression to their concerns and difficulties, or their opinions about possible solutions? What, for instance, is the proper function of a Letters to the Editor page that gives readers of many points of view an opportunity to express their opinions?
Ultimately, the question may not be so much what is the role of a chareidi columnist, as what is the role of the chareidi public in discourse bearing on major communal decisions. I have no answer to either of these questions, and would be eager to hear from readers what they think.
This article appeared in Mishpacha Feb 20 2008