The Mistake of One-Stop Torah Shopping
Diversity is a good thing, writes our own Jonathan Rosenblum. So much of the yeshiva world has been concentrated and centralized in Lakewood, that many of its gifts are increasingly denied to smaller, less established communities. There is another variety of centralization whose consequences are perhaps more severe – the tendency to seek Torah guidance on all issues from the Torah community in Israel, rather than here in the US. Many people believe that is the cause of much that ails the American right-of-center Orthodox world today.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski penned an important observation about seeking guidance in meta-halachic and hashkafic areas in particular. They are preserved in a footnote to Shiurei Daas (of Rav Gifter zt”l), pg. 83. R. Chaim Ozer wa asked to comment about his own view on the dispute between R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. Selig Ber Bamburger regarding the proper stance to take to Reform Judaism. (R. Hirsch was the architect of austritt, the idea that traditional Jews were required to walk out of the until-then unified Jewish collective, after Reform had made it clear that it was cutting its umbilical chord with halacha. R. Bamburger strongly disagreed, maintaining that it was essential to keep a single strong Jewish front in its dealings with the non-Jewish world.) He first cautions the reader that the question is not a classic halachic one that is answered through the capable analysis of shas and poskim. Rather, the question could only be addressed by a clear perception of the situation and a sense of what methods would be most effective in facing the challenges to tradition. The positions of the the two German luminaries did not owe to their different understandings of established halacha, but to their different essential outlooks and their different personal approaches to avodas Hashem. The following is a free translation of the next lines:
This outlook is most clear to the chacham who understands the local situation, and who lives in that region and kehilla. He knows the natures of the people of the community in all their details, and is connected to them on multiple levels. He who takes responsibility for supervising their ways has the penetrating eye to properly weigh the spiritual issues that confront them, and to anticipate the impact of developments upon the future. For this reason, it appears to me, they did not take this weighty question to the preeminent Torah luminaries of their day, recognized throughout the reaches of our community, sages like the Malbim, R. Yisrael Salanter, the Maharil Diskin, R. Yitzchak Elchanan, the gaonim of Israel and Galicia. This was not a question that would be best addressed through sources in Shas and poskim, but through proper analysis and an appropriate and clear perspective. Those distant from the location of the question could not involve themselves in the determination; they had to rely on the righteous rabbis at the local level…
[Rav Gifter continues:] The words of our teacher are fundamental in understanding the difference between matters that require a precise halachic determination, and matters that require the clear perspective of Daas Torah. In our lowly generation we have moved away from this distinction. We suffer from internecine conflict and hatred whose root cause is the blurring of the distinction between these two areas of decision-making.
Sometime after the petirah of R. Moshe zt”l and R. Yaakov zt”l, a group of people essentially came to the conclusion that there was no one left in America worth addressing questions to, whether of the halachic or daas Torah type. They determined that the mantle of leadership for America had shifted to Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim. This was hardly a unanimous decision, but the group could claim both strong leadership and large numbers of followers. Those to whom the questions were addressed would often demur, arguing that the questions should properly be brought to talmidei chachamim closer to the source of the question. The questioners, however, were persistent, and argued that the local talmidei chachamim themselves wanted nothing more than the counsel of the luminaries in Israel. Gradually, it became the standard practice in much of the Torah world.
The result is that responses and standards that are entirely appropriate to the special conditions of Israeli Torah life are quickly flown across the Atlantic to waiting consumer markets here. Many people thought they “caught” the kanoim who pushed the Lipa concert ban in a crude error. The letter signed by American roshei yeshiva was originally written about Israeli concerts, and still contained the reference to them, rather than to American concerts. I don’t think it was an error or oversight at all. The full expectation of many people by now is that if something is true in Israel, then it is true here as well. Why should there be a difference? When R. Ahron Leib Shteinman shlit”a visited the US a few years ago, he met with educators and fielded questions. One of them asked him whether it was appropriate for a rebbe to play ball with his students. R. Ahron Leib, of course, replied that it wasn’t. This created enormous tension for the scores of rabbeim, especially outside of NY, who understand how getting closer to students on their turf increases their respect for Torah, and not the opposite as it might in the more ethereal provinces of Bnei Brak. What was tragic is that the person who asked the question didn’t realize that he should have taken such a question to R. Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a or R. Aharon Shechter, shlit”a – and have taken them privately, off-mike – who have far more experience with the parameters of American chinuch.
Treating Boston, Beverly Hills – and even Boro Park – as if they were Bnei Brak can only have disastrous consequences. Papering over the differences will not make them go away, will not erase fundamental differences in the fabric of Torah life in different places. There are people who are monists, who believe that when push comes to shove there is one “best” set of answers to all questions, and all should subscribe to them. Others believe in a kind of diversity and pluralism – not with other “movements,” but with differing forms of avodas Hashem necessitated and engineered by Divine Providence itself, which arranges Klal Yisrael like the different choirs in an orchestra. Rarely are the woodwinds expected to play the same notes as the strings. The coming serious rift within the Torah community will be between those who can hear only one melodic line, and those who can hear – and demand – counterpoint and difference.