Monday, August 14, 2006

Gadol- Gadol On The Wall

A comment by a R. Shmuel on the blog The Jewish Worker says this: “These rabbis make pronouncements and the Jewish world just walks right by them. Then the rabbis move in lock step, catch up and still want to argue that they're LEADERS?”

My answer is yes. The rabbis get to go first in Jewish religious life, and it is for the rabbis to say we must follow and obey. It is for us, the individuals that make up the Jewish people to do what we must do. Here are some examples:

A woman in good health is platzing because she has too many children. She doesn’t want any more. She would not have a nervous breakdown if she had another child, and although it would be a strain, she and her husband could afford to have another child. They already have many children, including a boy and a girl. Their Rabbi would say they cannot practice birth control. I would say they should do what makes sense to them, and if they don’t want more kids, don’t pick up the phone to ask the question.

The aforementioned R. Shmuel says “When the chips were down the gedolim couldn’t even see 10 years down the road. When Hitler was screaming he was going to kill every Jew he could find, they simply ignored him ("Noch a mishigeneh" they probably thought). In a short span of no more than 13 years or so, from his rise as the leader of Germany until his death, he took down 6 million Jews and erased, probably forever, European Jewry, which had been around for 1600 years.” I say the same deal. It is for the rabbis to have said America is treife, because such was their sincere and firm conviction, and for religious Jews to have listened and thought it over. In the last analysis each and every Jew must take responsibility for himself. Only an idiot would have given up a chance to go to America in the 1930’s. No mitzvah to be an idiot.

There is some conflict between Science and Orthodoxy, or Orthodoxy and Wissenschaft. The rabbis weigh in, and as is their duty issue some Neanderthal opinion. A Jew is obligated to listen and study, weigh all the evidence and in the fullness of time decide what he believes. If he thinks the rabbis are wrong, no big deal. There is no mitzvah to go brain dead just because the rabbis have spoken. The rabbis go first even if when they claim left is right and right is left. If we all then believed left is right and right is left we’d be living in Chelm or dead from a traffic accident.

My opinions with respect to these three examples are not particularly idiosyncratic. I am describing actual practice. Many Orthodox Jewish couples practice birth control, many religious Jews emigrated from Europe and many do not believe every ideological and uneducated opinion of the rabbinical leadership. We are here today because our parents and grandparents didn’t listen to the rabbis, went their own way and came to America. Many of these same parents kept the faith, and after the war attached themselves to these same rabbis. Our parents were clever, sophisticated people. We should learn from them.

There are many other such examples. Without spelling out the details there are many end of life issues where halacha and the rabbis say what they say, and children and doctors do what they feel is best. There are various sexual questions that are frequently decided in a way that had a question been asked the decision would have been different. Some Ultra Orthodox go to college even when their rabbis advise against it. Many an Ultra Orthodox Jew in Israel has voted for Likud and not for UTJ, the charedi party, because they had strong feelings on some particular issue.

There are different ways of saying this: The rabbis get to cut the cake, the laity get to take the first piece. If the ruling is too stringent people won’t accept it. There is a fifth invisible shulcan aruch (there are 4 traditional statute or rule books), which tell us when to ask for a ruling and when not, when to obey and when not. Gedolim rule, but we get to choose which gadol to follow. In accepting rabbinical leadership a Jew need not give up all autonomy and critical intelligence.

It might appear at first glance that what I am describing is true of left wing MO or Conservadox, but not of UO. I say it happens everywhere to some greater or lesser degree. The genius of the UO is to be sufficiently grown up and mature not to go on about these things in a vulgar way. People do what they have to do, and then kvell how wonderful it is to have the benefit of such an exceptional rabbinate. As I said these are clever, grown- up, sophisticated people. The critics who keep on jumping all over the Daas Torah ideology simply don’t appreciate how many frum Orthodox Jews game the system when necessary. And even if there are some sheep who don’t get out of bed without a rabbinical authorization, so what? Does anyone think passive, heteronomous people do not exist everywhere? When was the last time you saw a critical historically accurate biography of Rabbi Kook or Rabbi Soleveitchik? How many Jews are willing to look at right wing Zionism with a critical objective eye?

Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t need any justification for being itself; any more than Conservatives or Reform needs a hechsher, (a kosher certificate) from the Ultra Orthodox. Nobody OWNS the religion, nobody has the authority to legitimize some other stripe, If the MO stopped pining for Ultra Orthodox approval and respect, and simply went their own way and built their own communities they would stop being so defensive. If they were less defensive they would have less of a need to be so angry and aggressive towards Ultra Orthodoxy.

One last point: Underneath all this anti rabbinical tumult is the wish there should be this ideal father, who never makes mistakes and will lead us down the right path provided we are obedient and respectful. It is part of the motivation for being Chassidic. A sad truth about life is that as we age we see that we are now the fathers, and we know all too well our own imperfections. We come to see there are no perfect fathers. Some people react in rage and anger when they realize they will never find the fathers they wish they had. Others use their imagination and powers of idealization to accept and live with the father figures that are available. Some people, secular types generally, become their own fathers. On the internet there is now a fourth possibility, beat up on the other guy’s father figures. If that doesn’t work there is always the old standby …beat up on the guys that write and publish stories cum biographies about the other guy’s ideal fathers.


At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is brilliant

"The genius of the UO is to be sufficiently grown up and mature not to go on about these things in a vulgar way."

:-) But it does influence them over time.


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