On Writing Gadol Biographies

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20 Responses

  1. DF says:

    Biographies are great, and I really enjoyed the Reb Yaakov bio mentioned above. Also Lietenant Birnbaum, which is disturbingly omitted from the list above. (Does the absence of a spiritual connection to Agudath Israel make an orthodox biography less worthy of mention?)

    As far as whether or not to include the faults of the subject, Boswell already discussed this in his Life of Johnson, and showed that Johnson contradicted himself on this issue. He once said that the faults should be concealed, as they would tend to diminish the charahcter being chronichled. More often though he said exactly the opposite, and the bulk of his writings, and of his own biographies of the English poets, showed that he ultimately concluded it was more important to tell the complete tale. As he said in Rambler # 60, which might as well be said about contemporary rabbinic bio:

    “There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known from one another but by extrinsic and casual circumstances. “Let me remember,” says Hale, “when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country.” If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.”

  2. Moshe Feigin says:

    I confess – I rarely read gadol biographies. I’d like to read some of the new ones about Rebbezin Kanievsky and Rav Schorr, but I’ve been fooled before. The stories tend to be whitewashed, unrealistic, and there’s only so many times I can read phrases like, “he acted with total purity, devotion, and humility” … especially when the biography is referring to when the gadol was six years old. The Chumush tells of Moshe’s faults and characteristics, but there is a hardly a biography of a gadol where I feel like I really get to know the person. I have about six on my shelf that I’ve managed to the read the first 50 pages before giving up. The one exception is “The Rebbe”, about the Satmar Rav … not the Feldheim version which is one of the six biographies that I got through 50 pages. The Israel Bookshop version. That was an amazing read.

    Moshe Feigin

  3. Toronto Yid says:

    R. Rosenblum:

    You note R. Schwab’s statement that a biography in accordance to Torah standards must not have lashon hara and rechilus, but you also note that “Biographers must avoid the trap of political correctness.” and “IN ORDER FOR A BIOGRAPHY to have its intended impact, the subject must come through in all his multi-faceted individuality”.

    It seems in practice that adherence to not even providing an possbility of an avak lashon hara has in most gadol biographies almost completely eliminated anything that would allow for a fuller understanding of the individual. Political correctness DOES reign supreme. Example: A godol read secular books in Russian? We don’t want our kinderlach to even think that is permitted, so eliminate that. It creates exactly the situation that I believe you want to prevent; that the laymen cannot gain inspiration because hashkafically the godol appears to be “kadosh min beten eemo” and didn’t have to fight temptations. (I don’t think challenges of being poor or not getting gabbai positions are examples that would inspire the same way as having has contact with the secular world, but successfully overcoming that to rise to what they became).

  4. Bob Miller says:

    A Gadol’s biography should never consciously exclude major instances where he cooperated with or maintained cordial relations with a Gadol of another Orthodox stream. Such an exclusion would serve a factional interest, not our overall group interest.

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    what difference could one possibly have with the Brisker derech?

  6. Dr. E says:

    The only “Gadol biographies” being discussed here are those sanctioned and published by a single vendor. So, I am not sure that there is really any intellectually honest discourse on the core points surrounding the hagiographic allegations being defended here.

    It is interesting and perhaps telling that there is no Artscroll biography of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l. Conspiracy theorists attribute it to a required whitewashing that would be way too transparent even among the Right. Any alternative explanations?

  7. mycroft says:

    ” And in another case, I reduced a machlokes (dispute) of many years to two sentences. Even had I been so inclined, the publisher would surely have excised any treatment of the subject. But I was not so inclined. For one thing, each of the twenty-five or so people to whom I spoke had a different take, and I was incapable of providing an “objective” resolution. Secondly, I would have no desire to meet any of the parties – all great men – in the next world and have to explain why I wrote this way or that. Because the differences were primarily ones of personality, they had no larger significance, and their absence is irrelevant in the long-run”

    We must value truth above all and precisely because differences were ones of personality one could perhaps ignore the machlokes. To imply that these great men had qualities that clearly their machlokes showed that they lacked would be a misleading falsehood. If one can’t trust the accuracy of what one is told when one has spoken to people who know the truth how can one trust what we are told about thousands of years ago. Thus, one can’t mislead in ones biography- if one does mislead it is a challenge to mesorah which depends on good faith accurate history.

  8. cvmay says:

    The best biography is “A Tzaddik in our Time” about the Life and Legacy of Reb Aryeh Levin by Simchah Raz.
    I highly recommend it to all readers and it should be used a mussar sefer for “ahavas yisroel”

  9. Whoa Nelly says:

    Dr. E.,

    Really? You want a response to conspiracy theorists? Such a comment really does not warrant a response, however;

    Perhaps they could not afford to write the details about the irreligious opposition to the Vaad Hatzolah. Too much off a black eye for certain groups.

  10. A. Schreiber says:

    “Doesnt warrant a response” is what people say when they cannot respond. As for alleged irreligious oppostion to the Vaad Hatzolah – please. How many hundreds of times have we read material from orthodox groups slamming rabbi stephen wise on this topic? (While simultaneously ducking charges that the same Vaad itself only focused on rescuing orthodox Jews, and only yeshivah-affiliated orthodox Jews at that.) Clearly that’s not a factor.

    Having said that, there are many reasons some people do not have bios of them written, or said another way, there are reasons some people do have bios written of them. It’s not necessarily something sinister or conspiratorial.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Dr. E is free to be snide about a Gadol, and we’re free to object.

  12. jack bauer says:

    R’ Rosenblum, I stopped reading any Gadol biographies after the Lakewood Cheder sent out “My Uncle the Netziv” and then sent a letter to all those who recieved it asking them not to read it as it allegedly contained disparaging info about the Netziv. The crime? What was so terrible that this book shouldnt be allowed in a Jewish home? Well, it seems the Netziv-gasp – read the newspaper.

    Add to that the shameful banning of “The making of a Gadol” recently, so nothing has changed. It is obvious that the ‘powers that be’ have an agenda, and that agenda excludes anything that is slightly to the left of ‘right wing extremist chareidi.’

    I’m not interested in puff pieces or hagiagraphy that insult the average readers intelligence.

  13. Whoa nelly says:

    A Schreiber,

    Does not warrant a response means that it was an gratuitous comment. And it does not dignify a response.

    There was no detailed treatment of Weiss’s abhorrent behaviour and a book about R Aharon would necessitate just such a treatment. I guess these publishers were a lot more tuned into preserving the peace than Dr. E. might be.

  14. David F. says:

    Seems I’m in the minority here but I’ve read quite a few of the Gadol biographies and found some of them highly inspiring. Not all, but definitely quite a few. My favorites were the Rav Yaakov, Rav Elchonen, Rav Mendel Kaplan and although he doesn’t qualify as a “gadol” in terms of his Torah scholarship, I greatly appreciated the one on Mike Tress. His gadlus was no less, albeit in a different venue. I have aiming to read the Rav Dessler volume, but haven’t found the time yet.

  15. Nachum says:

    I think the reference to R’ Aharon Kotler is referring to his immediate family, details of which would never make it into a “Gadol” biography but which are very well known. (This is in addition to what was in “Making of a Godol.”)

    But why not? Chabad has managed to blur over almost identical details very easily.

    My brother was a close talmid of R’ Pam. When the Artscroll version came out, he asked the author, who he knew, why certain well-known details (for example, that he had a degree in and taught math in the Torah Vodaas high school before becoming a rebbe) didn’t make it in. The answer was simply and obvious.

  16. Shachar Haamim says:

    a quarter century long dispute can’t be reduced to two sentences.
    If we take the example of Mesivta Torah Vodaas between the 1950’s and the end of the 1970’s as an example, even if this or that fact is partially in dispute, one simply can’t deny the fact that major power struggles took place which involved shouting, physical attacks by rabbonim against other rabbonim, roshei yeshiva locking other roshei yeshiva out of the beis midrash, and a variety of other such incidents. This dispute had MAJOR ramifications for the direction of the yeshiva – and by extension for contemporary American charedi orthodoxy – which are still felt to this very day. Just as an example, had Reb Yaakov not been “forced” into “retirement” and/or had Rav Zelig Epstein not left the yeshiva and been appointed Rosh Yeshiva, American yeshiva orthodoxy would be VERY different today in many ways. So even if this dispute was “personality” based, it boggles the mind that any biography of the major players involved in it would just omit it entirely.

  17. DF says:

    Rabbinic biographies are OK, but they are all pretty much the same. Not so much in that invariably they claim (almost always on the basis of triple hearsay) that their protagonists were child prodigies, but more fundamentaly, because they all had essntially the same life. Went to yeshivah, married the rosh yeshviah or gvir’s daughter, became a rabbi – and then spent the rest of his life in an exclusively religious setting. Yes, there are some occasional variations, but by definition a rabbinic biography is the story of a rabbi [and in our time, usually a rosh yeshivah.] Not saying you can’t get some degree of inspiration from that, but deep down, most of us dont really aspire to that sort of life.

    Why not mix the religious bios with some good general ones? There are some good one or two volume biographies on Churchill, for example, which any orthodox Jews would do well to read. Likewise, biographies of Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, or any of the American Founding Fathers. You can not only get inspiration on how to take advantage of your time, but beleive it or not, depending on the subject, you can also get religious inspiration.

    [Sometimes. Edison was a notorious anti-Semite]

  18. dovid2 says:

    ” … he [Rav Pam] had a degree in and taught math in the Torah Vodaas high school before becoming a rebbe) didn’t make it in.”

    Is anyone in our machane regarding mathematics treif as well? The Vilna Gaon is bakki in math and astronomy. So were a bunch of amoraim. So is rabbi Yisroel Belsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas.

  19. BenShaul says:

    No conspiracy as to why there hasn’t been a bio on Reb Aaron; the line i heard was that “the mishpocha doesn’t have the capability and Shaul Kagan doesn’t have the time”. Simply put -to correctly write a bio on R’ Aaron Kotler was seen by many as a monumental undertaking that would necessitate years of work, research etc. R’ Shaul Kagan -who wrote a beautiful article on R’ Aaron for JO many years ago- told me that he would need to research various libraries and documents just to properly cover the work with Vaad Hatzolo, never mind the rest of his life. He -R’ Kagan estimated a minimum of 3 years -and since no-one wanted to foot the bill, it never got done.(he since then passed away aprox 14 years ago) There have been some weak attempts but nothing solid. JR himself on Reb Yaakov used much of the research from the making of a gadol. Bunim wrote the book on his father, and while it is a great work, it took him far longer than he estimated, and he used a ghost writer for the final product.

  20. Dr. E says:

    To Bob Miller: Not sure how you inferred anything snide in my comment. Just the opposite. It seems that there was a significant amount complexity to Rav Aharon Kotler’s great life, and therefore it might not be able to be reduced to a Parve biography.

    To Ben Shaul: You seem to have some insider information that might be insightful into some of the politics surrounding this theoretical project. But, given that it has been 50 years since Rav Kotler’s passing and biographies have come out for most of his contemporaries, makes the obvious question of ommission even sharper. We know that that Artscroll has put out two recent biographies within months of the passing of those individuals . So, that sort of makes this question more compelling, unless the standards for the required research are somehow drastically different.

    Prior to the genre of Artscroll biopgraphies (and the notable manufacturer recalls), there were basically three categories of reactions to accounts such as a certain Torah luminary reading newspapers: (1) it made them look normal and informed—a definite positive; (2) totally neutral; and (3) we can’t print that, as people will get the wrong idea… My guess is that a generation or two ago, the vast majority of people would take such vignettes within Category 2, as very matter-of-fact, thinking nothing of it. In an effort to sanitize things, these biographies have pretty much eliminated Category 2. So, it’s the MO, Centrists, and some Yeshivish-Lite who gravitate to Category 1, and the Chareidi community firmly planted in #3.

    Don’t get me wrong. In theory, biographical accounts of Gedolim and Torah luminaries should certainly have a place in our vernacular. They can inform and inspire. It’s just that most of the discussion in the original post and comments is confounded by “Gadol Biography” = Artscroll. But there have been other publishers with less political editorial processes that have put out biographies, and many would prefer to read and be inspired by those more realistic accounts.

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