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.
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