On Writing Gadol Biographies

More than twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled, “Are Gadol Biographies Good for Us?” Little did I dream at the time that I would soon be asked to write the first of many biographies of major Jewish leaders. From that experience, I learned to be careful with my words lest they come back to haunt me.

At least one person benefits greatly from the writing of a “gadol biography” – the author himself. The best such biographies require a total immersion in the subject’s life, until one is constantly asking oneself: How would he have approached this subject? Why did he make that choice? Living with a great person for years can only uplift a person, though, as with everything in life, no degree of inspiration lasts unless translated into concrete actions.

At their best, biographies of gadolim should provide the reader with the experience of living in the presence of the subject. I have witnessed how a maggid shiur with sterling middos can, over a period of years, transform every single person in a shiur. And the same thing should be true of a “gadol biography.”

At the same time, specific biographies will have a different impact on particular readers, depending on the nature and interests of the reader. Someone who aspires to be an askan (community activist) will get much more out of the biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer than one who does not. Someone who knows Michtav M’Eliyahu will gain more from a biography of Rabbi Dessler than those not familiar with his works. Rabbi Noach Orlowek does a great deal of counseling, and tells me that he returns to Reb Yaakov for its reminder that gadlus and normalcy can go together whenever he needs cheering up.

IN ORDER FOR A BIOGRAPHY to have its intended impact, the subject must come through in all his multi-faceted individuality, not as if he is being crammed into some cardboard formula of a “gadol biography.” Providing that full portrait is easier said than done. Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, who was the dorm counselor at Torah Vodaas when Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky was Rosh Yeshiva, once told me that many of the incidents I described were accurate as far as they went. But had I known what Reb Yaakov said when the bochur in question left the room, it would have added yet another layer to Reb Yaakov’s pick’hus (sharp insight).

Biographers must avoid the trap of political correctness. If a certain gadol eschewed, for instance, “the Brisker derech” in learning, the biographer should not be afraid to say so, even if that is prevailing approach today. If a subject is worthy of a biography, his opinions are worthy of being quoted, even if they are not those held by other figures of comparable stature.

One of my favorite stories in the Reb Yaakov biography describes a case where Reb Yaakov and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein reacted in a diametrically opposite fashion to a particular incident. The same event is described in the biography of Reb Moshe to illustrate an aspect of his greatness. And it does. But the juxtaposition reveals that greatness takes many forms and gadolim are not interchangeable.

THE LESS THAT THE BIOGRAPHY reads as a predestined march m’chayil l’chayil (from strength to strength) – at six, he knew all Tanach; at ten, he completed Shas; at 14, he married the daughter of the richest Jew in the world — the more readers will identify with the subject. For that reason, I try not to focus on superhuman intellectual gifts or yichus (geneology), though both have their place in a full portrait. First, overemphasis on those gifts can cause readers to think that the lives portrayed are irrelevant to their own. Second, not all great leaders, even great Torah scholars, were preternaturally gifted.

Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman reacted sharply to being called an ilui (genius) because he thought it diminished his ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah). For every Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky in Slabodka Yeshiva, there were other geniuses of whom we have never heard – sometimes because they died or were killed prematurely and sometimes because of the lack of other qualities no less important than innate intelligence.

Showing the wisdom of gedolim is another matter. Readers should know that we have been blessed with many leaders who were capable of playing three-dimensional chess, and saw things we would not have.

Every popular biography of a gadol b’Torah inevitably diminishes what may have been most noteworthy about that gadol – his greatness in Torah. Let’s face it, there are only so many to superlatives to distinguish between the Vilna Gaon and a brilliant contemporary maggid shiur, even though there exists a chasm between the two. Only Torah scholars themselves can make the distinctions, and they are far more likely to be interested in the subject’s chiddushim (novellae) than his biography. (Gadlus b’Torah alone does not lend itself to a compelling book length biography.)

Most great figures also experienced struggles and challenges in life, and these are often more instructive than their successes. I deliberately started Rav Dessler by noting that had he passed away the year he received a letter from Reb Dovid Dryan inviting him to head a proposed Kollel in Gateshead, rather than twelve years later, his name would be virtually unknown today, even though he had already shared many of his most influential ideas with the public school boys he tutored in London.

Readers should know that Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky was so poor as a young rav in Tzitevian that he only owned one shirt and that he was turned down for the post of gabbai in a San Francisco shul. One of the attractions of the upcoming biography of Rabbi Noach Weinberg is that he was so open about his many failures.

RABBI SHIMON SCHWAB, ZT”L, has an important essay in his Collected Writings on a Torah approach to biography. He stresses that the goal of a Torah biography is not to meet the historian’s “warts and all” criteria – biographers have no p’tur from the prohibitions against lashon hara and rechilus. Rather the proper goal is didactic — to instruct and edify.

I have omitted material, but never anything that would have changed the overall portrait of my subject. In one case, an adam gadol told me that I would be unable to explain something to today’s generation, and therefore it would be better to leave it out rather than confuse. 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.

On the other hand, when I adapted Rabbi Betzalel Landau’s biography of the Vilna Gaon into English, I added a chapter on the Gaon’s fierce opposition to the early Chassidic movement, which the Hebrew publisher had omitted. Here the issue was ideological/theological, and to omit it would have left out a significant chapter of the Gaon’s life. Better to put the Gaon’s opposition in context and provide the reader with key documents from the dispute. Here too, I would have trembled to rely on my own judgment, and ArtScroll arranged for two members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah – one Litvish and one Chassidic – to review the chapter.

ONE POSSIBLE DANGER of gadol biographies is that we will come to view Jewish history as nothing more than the decisions of a few great men. That is a distortion of a much more complicated process, which involves movements from below as well as from above. For better or worse, leadership within Jewish communities in galus never rested exclusively with the rabbonim. And gadol biographies should not become the exclusive form through which Jewish history is taught.

One possible consequence, of a “great man” view of history is that it can lead to a certain passivity among “ordinary” Jews. They may see problems and have ideas for their correction, but hesitate to act on the grounds that greater people than they must have also noticed the problem and if they are not doing anything, then there is nothing to be done. An antidote to this mindset would be biographical sketches of those who had a major impact on the Jewish world despite being blessed with no superhuman gifts or great social standing. Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement, would be the paradigm.

A good biography must place the subject in his historical context. By training and inclination, I’m interested in history. My favorite chapter in any of my biographies is one based on a forgotten trove of letters written by Orthodox American soldiers from post-World War II Europe to Reb Elimelech “Mike” Tress, in which they described the state of the survivors they met.

Historical context enables us to see the Hashgachah Pratis (Divine Providence) that sends us particular figures at a particular time. The talents Mike Tress needed to build Agudath Israel into a movement, in a time of crisis for the Jewish people, were not the same talents employed by his cousin Rabbi Moshe Sherer to transform that movement into an effective Klal organization. Early 20thcentury American Jewry required the visionary Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, and the more established community thirty or forty years later the steady guidance of Reb Yaakov. Neither could have performed the role of the other.

FOR ALL THEIR DIFFERENCES, I have found that all the great figures I have written about shared certain characteristics that are of relevance to each of us. They all placed a high emphasis on Kiddush Hashem, both in their personal behavior and in their communal leadership. They used their intelligence to solve problems for others, and developed the empathy to place themselves in the shoes of Jews far different from themselves. They were moser nefesh for Klal Yisrael, and for every individual in it. Just think of the Chazon Ish – someone who learned until he had just enough strength to reach his bed – traveling back and forth by bus to the bedside of an elderly Jew, whom he did not know, because his doctor had told him no one came to visit the man.

Properly written, biographies of the great can inspire each of us to be better Jews.

Yonoson Rosenblum is the author of biographies of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Reb Elimelech “Mike” Tress, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.

This article first appeared in


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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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