Very few Jews let alone others have heard of him. A few weeks ago Dayan Eliezer Waldenberg, the author of the magisterial compilation of legal opinions, Tzitz Eliezer, died at the age of 89. He was in my opinion the greatest living authority on Jewish Law with particular reference to science and medicine.
He was my halachic mentor. But more than this he was a very modest man who did not allow himself to be used by politicians or indeed get involved in politics. He was not manipulated by hangers on who filtered both questions and answers. He was self effacing and spiritual. He met the criteria that I would apply to a Gadol, the term used to describe the great religious authorities of each generation, but he never allowed people to use it of him. His departure is a great loss.
We live in an era in which Judaism is being re-cast in an almost unrecognizable straightjacket. One of the pieces of this new paradigm is the use of the term ‘Gadol’ ‘Great’ of certain rabbis who alone, it now appears, are the sole arbiters of Jewish Law. The Ultra Orthodox world declares that one can only rely on the Gadol (The Great Authority), for a true and authentic view and opinion on Torah. In theory only someone of great knowledge, wisdom and spirituality, divested of personal ambition, political aspirations and mundane, physical concerns can fathom the depths of Torah as the vehicle of Divine communication with humanity. Most Jews and non Jews only hear of Chief Rabbis or other appointees. Rarely do they hear of the true leader, the real Gadol. But never over the past two thousand years has the law been the exclusive domain of one or two men alone e! ven when, on occasion, one has been head and shoulders above the rest.
Great Jewish spiritual leaders are still human beings and they have never since the days of the prophets been invested with superhuman, infallibility. Yet at the latest Agudah Convention in the USA one key note speaker said that only the Gedolim of today can possibly understand the opinions and teaching of earlier rabbis and only they and they alone have the greatness to mediate and explain them.
Isn’t it surprising that until very recently no great rabbi ever was called or arrogated to himself the title ‘Gadol’? This is really something new. Where did it come from? My cynicism about the way ‘Gedolim’ as a generic term has been purloined and remodelled, began many years ago when I became aware that the Non Zionist Orthodox party Agudah, had earlier established its Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah, Council of Torah Sages, as its supreme religious authority and roped in many of the well known Lithuanian and Hassidic rabbis of the day. But the council over time became the play thing of the Agudah politicians notably Rabbi Menachem Porush the not insubstantial but savvy party boss of Agudah. He used them and lead them a merry dance. My great Rosh Yeshivah Reb Chaim Shmulevitz Z’’L derided the charade and indeed often publicly excoriated! Agudah politics, while sadly accepting their handouts to keep Mir alive in its struggling years during the 1950s and 60’s. Later on Rav Shach ZL the head of Ponevez Yeshivah, set up alternative parties, encouraging Shas to challenge Agudah and then Degel HaTorah when Shas got too big for its boots. I mention this as an example of the quagmire of religion and politics that is Israel, that even great scholars can get caught up in. Then other outstanding rabbis like Rav Eliashiv emerged. One is not allowed to record that he served for many years in the State Rabbinate, because in his new metamorphosis as Big Gun of the Ultras this is considered malicious gossip. But sadly the new leaders allowed themselves to be misquoted and used to humiliate and defame men like Rabbi Slifkin the Zoo Rabbi for quoting rabbinic sources that were taboo to fundamentalists though totally authentic. What is a noble and essential concept has sadly been dragged down through misappropriation an! d manipulation.
In recent weeks the great Lithuanian ( Yeshivish) centre of Lakewood in the USA has been the source of a statement from ‘Gedolim’ calling on any child living in a home where the internet is available to be expelled from their schools for fear of contamination. We are I think by now all aware of the dangers of Television and the Internet. On the one hand they both provide unimagined access to news, opinions, information, texts and resources. On the other they both open up to all and sundry the crudest, most despicable lewdness and corruption imaginable.
I have always believed that censorship never works. I know of many children in London, Antwerp, Bnei Brak and Monsey who are denied these tools of entertainment and information at home and when they escape or find themselves in situations where they can access these forbidden fruits often go overboard like a starving child put in front of a banquet. What worries me is not the desire to ban in the vain hope it will help. It was tried fifty year ago with television. What worries me is the cruel exclusion of children from religious homes simply because of the presence of an inanimate object with no consideration of whether it is being used responsibly or not. If this is symptomatic of the decisions of Gedolim I am mightily concerned.
It was the great Chatam Sofer, (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, born in Frankfurt in 1762 and died in Pressburg 1839) who established modern Ultra Orthodoxy in reaction to ‘The Enlightenment’ with the notorious misuse of a phrase that ‘Anything new is forbidden.’ Its original form referred exclusively to NEW produce before the tithes were taken. This has now been adopted as the motto of Ultra Orthodoxy and its spokesmen. But this point of view was not at all normative.
Here is a quote from the Mishna Eduyot 1.6
Rabbi Judah said ‘Why are opinions of individual rabbis recorded even when they are overruled by majority of others? So that if in the future someone says ‘I have studied and I come to a different opinion and it is based on this individual’ he will have his authority to rely on.’
Clearly in those days they did think that later rabbis could conceivably come to different conclusions. They did not think that if at one moment in time an opinion gained currency that this was the end of the matter. Yet now we are told we can never ever not only overrule but not even understand the past!
There is one other aspect of current Ultra Orthodoxy I find most disturbing. Silence. Again at the Agudah conference it was said that the Gedolim are indeed dealing with issues of drug abuse, marital violence, delinquency and other issues increasingly affected the cloistered world of the ghetto that finds it cannot seal itself hermetically off from the outside world. But this is all going on behind closed doors, quietly and discretely and we must accept this and not question and have faith. Instead of welcoming difference and contrary contributions the current mood of religious mediocrities is to try to suppress all this, very often using great men as mouthpieces and very often presenting to them loaded questions to elicit required answers.
This is typical of all forms of autocracy. Obey and do not challenge. But this is not the Jewish way, the Talmudic way nor in any way the authentic Jewish way. The whole point of the Talmudic method is to challenge, openly and to lay ones arguments openly on the line. This is the very method whereby Jewish law has evolved over the years. To stop it is to betray tour tradition, to betray the rabbis of the Talmud. Why the fear of open discussion if there is nothing to hide?
A good deal of time was also spent at the conference excoriating bloggers. This is clearly the new Devil’s Pass time! More and more Charedi people are expressing their dissatisfaction with leadership. Not openly of course because they still want to belong. But increasingly bloggers are revealing abuses within the Ultra Orthodox world and what hopeful, healthy and hoptimistic thing this is. These are straws of in the wind of change. It is now clear to everyone that the real growth area in Judaism is amongst the Committed Orthodox. It is equally clear that this trend could be counter productive if there is no adaptation.
No one, no leader can turn things round. Most contrary views are simply dismissed with scorn. But as with every revolution, it begins slowly at grass roots level and then slowly permeates either to change attitudes or to overthrow those who seek to suppress them. Those of us who criticize Ultra Orthodoxy do not want to see it overthrown for we feel ourselves to be part of it in most ways. But we do want to see it open up to ideas and debate. The important thing is that our views are there to be discussed and spread. Eventually they will rise to the surface.
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