Who Deserves to be Our Hero?
You find yourself standing in a vast convention hall, larger than any you’ve seen before. A cacophony of different languages and dialects pounds at your eardrums, but the sounds are all happy sounds. Multiply Citifield by a hundred, and you begin to get the vibe of the gathering.
From the name tags that identify everyone milling about, you gather that many of the attendees had at one point been dead, some for a very long time. What seems to be happening is that people are seeking out “celebrities” of the past, and stop to interact with the ones they find particularly interesting. More than photo-ops, people seem intent on walking away with some inspiration from the serial encounters.
They’ve made it easier by grouping the attractions by century. You spot R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik (the American one from YU) and immediately walk towards him. You heard oodles of his denigration when he was (first) alive, but in the decades since, you’ve furtively picked up a number of his works and been impressed each time. This would be a good opportunity to gain some clarity. But then you spot the head of the seminary your daughter has applied to, and think the better of it. R. Soloveitchik did earn a PhD, and left Aguda for Mizrachi. You don’t want the seminary to get the wrong impression of the home your daughter grew up in, right? No need to rock the boat. Why not stick to those who are free of any taint of being on the wrong side? You can’t be too careful these days.
The crowd around Rav Kook and the Satmar Rov – amazingly engaged in amiable, if animated, conversation with each other – is larger than the lines at Disneyland, so you move on, practically bumping into R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Wow! Mesilas Yesharim in person! Then you remember the article your somewhat nerdy intellectual friend showed you years before, when discussing – purely academically, of course – the outrageous idea that you-know-who might have thought that he was Moshiach. Your friend showed you the lines in the Ramchal’s poetry that suggested that similar thoughts had crossed his mind. OK – Mesilas Yesharim has been sanitized by history. But, spotting a few people from your shul who recognize you, you don’t want people to think you are soft on mainstream hashkafa, so you move on without stopping.
You always had a weakness for halacha, so you are initially excited when you spot R. Yaakov Emden, who was certainly one of the pillars of halacha in the centuries after the Shulchan Aruch. The excitement turns into urgent prudence. The Yaavetz (as he is known) would be great to talk to, but he did have a few black marks. He questioned the authorship of parts of the Zohar. That’s not going to sit well with the rebbe of the shtibel where you daven mincha on Shabbos. His personality was – how should we say this? – a bit argumentative. Reportedly, he wrote about himself that he did not really like people. How his mussar chabura let him get away with that, you have no idea, but it is not your business. And then there was the way he dealt with the epidemic of male marital extra-curricular activity (this is a family blog!!!) that he witnessed. He thought that bringing back the institution of pilegesh/ concubine might be a better way of handling male libido than the commonplace trysts with the domestic workers. (Hard to believe, you think, that they never expunged that responsum from the volume. Probably by the next printing, they will.) You determine to avoid him, not wanting to offend some of the more outspoken women, and look for his great adversary, R. Yonoson Eybeschutz, instead. Ummm. Maybe not, as you remember about his son Wolf. Like, how did that happen? Did his father let him have a smartphone? You know that parents aren’t perfect, but he was supposed to be an adam gadol! What kind of gadol would have a son like that?
You think, briefly, of heading over to the Chasam Sofer. But wait. What do we make of that teshuvah he wrote claiming that scientific evidence obtained by studying the general population was irrelevant to Jews, whose physiologies are different? Will your chavrusa – who happens to be a physician – give you a hard time for that? Maybe things will be better as you move much further back in time. But you keep passing up opportunities, worried that the great weren’t really that great, or that you would be affected by some errant teaching of theirs, or – perish the thought – your neighbors would get the wrong impression. As much as he was an important part of your life, you stayed clear of the Rambam. (There were these rumors – unsubstantiated, you hoped – that he wrote a heretical book called Moreh Nevuchim that no one studies any more because it is not our derech. And he didn’t seem to know much about kabbalah, did he?) Ibn Ezra – fuhgedaboudit. That same nerdy friend told you the dark secret about the twelve verses in Devarim.
Better, you think, to head to the Tanach section. You are trembling with reverence – but you give Dovid HaMelech a wide berth nonetheless. (Never did get that thing with Batsheva straight, even after the gemara in Shabbos.) Yitzchok Avinu? So tell me again how he managed to father an Esav? Avraham Avinu? You really, really want to ask him what it was like taking his son up the mountain to the Akeidah. But then you remember Ramban’s criticism of him for compromising Soro’s safety. You don’t want any trouble from the #metoo feminists in the neighborhood, who could shut down your practice.
Come to think of it, Tanach always made you nervous. So you head over to the Tanaim. Unbelievable – R. Elazar ben Arach! You can have him all to yourself! But then you remember what happened to him after the death of R. Yochanan ben Zakai. How the talmidim split up, and he went up north where the water was better, and life a bit more comfortable. How his own talmidim did not follow, and how in the course of time he forgot all his learning because he did not have the stimulation of combative students. It got so bad that when he found himself with some of his old Tanaim-friends, he could not read “Ha-chodesh hazeh lachem,” reading it instead “hachresh haya libam.” How terrible he felt, and how he repented, and his friends prayed for him, and his learning was restored. And how did all of this happen? Because he listened to his wife, who pushed for the move up north. “Does the cheese go to the mice, or the mice to the cheese,” she asked. What kind of adam gadol makes mistakes because he is influenced by his wife?
Then you wake up. Was this a dream? Or a nightmare?
The reaction to my recent piece on the measles and anti-vaxxers was a nightmare for me. The vast majority of the response was positive, but one kind of minority response was very disturbing. “Why won’t you call him out by name?” they asked/demanded. Those readers pointed to several (but very few) prominent rabbinic names who were complicit in lending support to the anti-vaxxers, who now can take credit for hundreds of cases of the disease, for disrupting the lives of thousands, and for creating one of the worst cases of chilul Hashem in memory, reverberating around the world. Knowing my feelings of closeness to one of them – a genuine adam gadol who has benefitted countless individuals and institutions with decades of insight and guidance – they wanted to see him called out, repudiated.
No matter that, despite my reverence and loyalty to him, I had publicly distanced myself (albeit reverentially) from his position on vaccines years ago. No matter that the public pronouncements of many people and organizations, and the action plans they implemented, amounted to a full-throated declaration: Halacha follows the majority. The majorities of medical and halachic experts have determined that vaccination is essential, required. Schools and shuls can and should bar the unvaccinated. Yes, you can throw them out. Yes, the majority prevails even against the opinion of a very great man (consistent with the humility that is well-known to his admirers, he does not even impose his view on his own yeshiva) who is in this case in the minority.
We all know who that is, and I am still not going to mention his name. What’s the point? To gleefully embarrass him? Are there sane, non-conspiratorialists who still hide behind his position, who will change their behavior because of our warning? Not anymore. The hardcore believers will go on with their nonsense with or without his backing. And the vast majority of the community has made it clear through their actions that we do not follow him in this matter. Calling him out will not protect one more child.
But shouldn’t we do it, just to be safe? No, I say. It flies in the face of the Mishna. “Be cautious concerning the hot coal [of the chachamim], lest you be burnt.” That is the warning label attached to the honor of the great talmid chacham. It is painful to see how many people disregard the warning. It is necessary at times to take exception with the position of a great talmid chacham. Both the danger to health, and the possibility (and by now, the certainty) of a desecration of Hashem’s Name make it imperative to disagree. “Ein chochmah v’ein tevunah v’ein eitzah, etc.” That disagreement must come with restraint, dignity and maximize the honor of the talmid chacham.
None of the above, however, is what made this a nightmare. What did it was the realization that many, many people had a related reaction – namely that if they discovered a flaw or imperfection in a person, they could no longer look up to him. Period. That is tragic. These people – and likely their children as well – will never have Torah heroes. They will not be able to look up to, and gain from, people who should be admired. They confuse greatness with perfection.
Heroes need not be perfect. Gedolim need not be perfect. They never were, and they never will be. A person who demands never to find fault in his or her mentor will never have a meaningful mentor.
We don’t unseat gedolim for writing a “wrong” teshuvah, or taking an unpopular position. We should not withhold our esteem from those with whom we have to disagree at times, or in whom we find some flaw. Sitting in front of me is a sefer sent to me a few days ago, the hashkafic conversations of R. Yaakov Ariel, shlit”a, one of the gedolei roshei yeshiva of the Dati Leumi world. (Yes, they exist.) Are we obligated, asks his interlocutor, to study the Torah of the Satmar Rov, who invalidated so much that is central to our thought. His answer: “Why not? He was a great talmid chacham.”
There are fatal flaws, but not every flaw is fatal. A talmid chacham who shows shallow thinking in one area should not be consulted in that area. It does not follow – and experience shows otherwise – that great people cannot be insightful and incisive in some areas, and not in others. (And yes, there can be talmidei chachamim whose Torah depth is astounding, but they are simply not very good about offering advice about practical matters or public policy. Go to a different talmid chacham for those things.)
Understanding that your rebbi is not perfect is initially deflating, but ultimately liberating. You can stop making excuses for this or for that, and accept his greatness in all those other areas.
The exponential growth of the Torah community leaves us crucially short-staffed in inspirational leadership. We are making a bad situation worse by disqualifying some gems, one person at a time. A Torah community of blind followers of people they have no real access to, on the one hand, and cynics who look to one on the other, is not sustainable.
That would be a real nightmare to behold.