Heroic Measures

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A recent report from Jenin got me thinking.

Residents of the West Bank city have hung a large picture of Saddam Hussein in the refugee-quarter’s central square. A local commander of the Fatah-aligned Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades explained that the display was intended to show Palestinian appreciation of the late and (at least in the civilized world) unlamented Iraqi dictator. He pledged that Palestinians “will continue to honor his memory as a symbol of resistance until the American and Israeli occupation is driven out.”

Much is revealed about a person by whom he considers worthy of honor. And much is similarly revealed about a people or a society. One’s heroes reflect one’s aspirations. And so the Jenin example, intended to draw eyes and hearts toward a depiction of someone for whom words like “ruthless,” “cruel” and “murderous” fall pitifully short of the mark, is both telling and depressing, not to mention something vital for would-be international peacemakers to ponder.

It is also, though, nutritious food for broader thought. Who, we might well consider, are our own heroes? To whose examples do we aspire? While no sane and civilized person would ever respond with the names of bloodthirsty tyrants, more than a few of us might still come up with those of writers, entertainers, sports figures or other public personalities, people whose accomplishments, while noteworthy and in some cases perhaps even noble, reflect our limited horizons of hope for ourselves.

What is more, in their private lives, all too many of the figures idolized in contemporary society reveal character flaws that are more than minor. The clay often extends far north of their feet.

In much of the Orthodox Jewish world, those whose examples are aspired to are great rabbinic figures. Their portraits often grace the walls of our homes. And while the men depicted (there are also venerated women, of course, but in their modesty they would consider their visages’ display to be unseemly) are renowned scholars, what makes them our heroes is their personal saintliness.

A good example is the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan), the famed Polish Jewish sage who died at the age of 105 in 1933, and whose image can be found in countless observant Jewish homes (particularly near telephones). Rabbi Kagan wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and otherwise improper speech and was an unquestionable exemplar of righteousness himself. The day after his passing, The New York Times noted how the venerated sage had “lived in poverty all his life.” The long obituary also pointed out that “Despite his fame as ‘the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel,’ the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity, all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.”

The Orthodox community is hardly without its failures. Even some Jews who are punctiliously observant of the Torah’s mandate in most areas of life have at times shown themselves not beyond violating their responsibilities in others – sometimes in quite serious ways. The Chofetz Chaim would not be proud.

And yet the thought remains, and remains significant: While greed and other evil inclinations may find marks even within what should be a rarified community, something more trenchant is said by that community’s aspirations, no matter how elusive – by, in other words, who its heroes are.

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20 Responses

  1. Ahron says:

    Oy! Sorry for the delayed response as I’ve been traveling. But Jacob Haller, I can’t believe I’ve been so misunderstood! (Look what happens when I leave!) Let me respond to your suppositions in order:

    As to point #1, you’re correct.

    >2. Therefore, it appears that according to DMZ/Ahron, if anyone looks up to these Rabbinic figures who happened to be portrayed in one of these hagiographies they ergo are willing participants who aid and abet the creeping intimidation “totalitarian” attitudes forced upon our communities. In other words…the only reason one would admire these figures is if they accepted the hagiographic and revisionist portrayal lock, stock and barrel.

    No, no, no! There are MANY reasons one would admire the rabbanim portrayed in the hagiographies, and there are many angles that admiration could originate from. Most people who admire these leaders (and speaking personally I certainly do have admiration for some of them) are simply looking up to people whom can be viewed as “heroes” who embodied the values that we hold dear in our own lives. Most admirers have no conscious agenda of furthering totalitarian trends in our communities. (That was never my point, as it is very rare to get a majority of people who actively, knowingly wish to perpetrate totalitarianism). Sadly things are a lot more subtle than that; the kind of “admiration” engendered by our new genre of extra-bland “vanilla smoothie life” biography is usually going to be a kind of projection that is inherently untruthful and also reminiscent of avoda zara. And so we have never really met the people we claim to be “admiring” (which I why I can’t truthfully say that I admire all or even most of them–I’ve never met them!).

    >DMZ, are you saying that since it includes the type of “down-to-earth” anecdotes that would never be included in the hagiographies, therefore they MUST be true? Why is the author of “Making of a Gadol” more or less credible than the hagiographers?

    I’ll speak for myself here. Those who advocated the banning and destruction of that book never claimed that it contained fabricated or inaccurate information. On the contrary, the protest was that such true information should not be included in a hagiography of a rabbi. The author of the book in question is known as a serious talmid chacham and a prime bearer of the legacy of one of the truly noble personages of the recent generation. The accounts in the book itself vibrate with a level of liveliness and reality (and cross-checked sourcing!) that strongly suggest truth.

    Furthermore, they are relevant to real earthly humans. After having read some of these accounts, I have found myself needing to reevaluate several of the subjects towards a more positive or nuanced view. These wonderful and engaging recollections are precisely what enraged the burners and banners. (For the record, news of the book banning made it into the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News newsletter which normally covers efforts by governments and corporations to control the flow of (true) information. (Nice to be recognized?…))

    >So therefore, it’s impossible to internalize admiration for a Rabbinic figure through a more sober and human analysis external to the hagiographies?

    Echoing DMZ, I think you missed the main point here. On the contrary, the point is precisely that “more sober and human analys[e]s” are exactly what would enable truthful and thoughtful people to gain a sense of empathy, admiration and inspiration from these figures. But the fabrications and revisionism have understandably forced people to question even the true histories of our great leaders. In R. Emanuel Feldman’s words, the modern crop of gadol-ographies “cannot be taken seriously by anyone but the most naive and credulous.” Such are the fruits of deception. And so I’d also like to know who first came up with this idea of trying to purèe the life stories of Am Yisrael’s knights of Torah, truth and chessed into a “puerile and cookie-cutter” concoction that seems more appropriate to old stories of Catholic saints.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    There can be no leadership without followership. We were not put here to be a nation of theater critics.

  3. DMZ says:

    “So therefore, it’s impossible to internalize admiration for a Rabbinic figure through a more sober and human analysis external to the hagiographies? Despite the evidence that the Chofetz Chaim for example, was an erudite Torah scholar with his works as evidence or the other anecdotal evidence that he lived a life of simple piety all has to be dismissed as lies because it also happened to be co-opted by the hagiographers as well?”

    You seem to have missed the primary complaint here: when your biographies all read like revisionist history, it is a _short step_ to just treating the biographies as totally false. I am _not_ complaining that these biographies are factually inaccurate; just factually incomplete. Although, honestly, the trend to write that “X figure performed Y miracle”, where X figure is from just long ago that no one knew him or her personally makes me wonder about the factual inaccuracies. Remember what they said about the Vilna Gaon: anyone who believes he did all the miracles attributed to him as a fool; anyone who doesn’t believe they could have happened is also a fool. I have no issue believing, but I don’t want to believe in something that’s not real.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “something more trenchant is said by that community’s aspirations, no matter how elusive – by, in other words, who its heroes are.”

    A couple of observations:

    – I do agree that the klal, flawed as we are, does seem to have an uncanny knack to zero in on real gedolim

    – while it is now fashionable to emulate the CC’s ritual piety, it is not fashionable to emulate his punctilliousness around ehrlechkeit. Interestingly, the term “ehrlich” itself is now even used to mean frum, not honest.

  5. Jacob Haller says:

    Could someone please clarify some of the many points expressed here?

    I’ll start with the disclaimer “please correct if the facts are wrong”

    1. DMZ and Ahron express disapproval with the portrayal of Rabbinic figures in some (fairly) recent publications. The kind of publications which according to some smack of hagiography, revision and selective passages creating an immaculate presentation. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying these terms are necessarily completely unfounded).

    2. Therefore, it appears that according to DMZ/Ahron, if anyone looks up to these Rabbinic figures who happened to be portrayed in one of these hagiographies they ergo are willing participants who aid and abet the creeping intimidation “totalitarian” attitudes forced upon our communities. In other words in DMZ and Ahron’s view, the only reason one would admire these figures is if they accepted the hagiographic and revisionist portrayal lock, stock and barrel. No other explanation for admiration in DMZ/Ahron’s view is palatable or acceptable.

    3. The title of the book that escaped DMZ’s memory “What was that book that presented a less-biased account of the gedolim?” He’s likely referring to “The Making of a Gadol”. DMZ, are you saying that since it includes the type of “down-to-earth” anecdotes that would never be included in the hagiographies, therefore they MUST be true? Why is the author of “Making of a Gadol” more or less credible than the hagiographers? Just because for you it’s a more enjoyable read? Are you also saying that since it’s entered its third print then it must be credible and that somehow you know the exact intentions of the purchasers?

    4. DMZ’s comment in #1 “All of the past Torah leaders look like heroes because anything they did wrong at any point in their life is, frankly, viciously suppressed. It’s not hard to idolize someone when their entire life is presented as perfect”

    So therefore, it’s impossible to internalize admiration for a Rabbinic figure through a more sober and human analysis external to the hagiographies? Despite the evidence that the Chofetz Chaim for example, was an erudite Torah scholar with his works as evidence or the other anecdotal evidence that he lived a life of simple piety all has to be dismissed as lies because it also happened to be co-opted by the hagiographers as well?

  6. Ahron says:

    Bob, for clarity’s sake DMZ’s point is precisely what I was endeavoring to say. I have no problem accepting that all manner of acts–good or bad–may be done with noble motives. But motives are not of interest to me here, since most bad things in the world happen via good motives. The examples are too numerous to list but as close as any history textbook and most days’ newspapers.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    DMZ, your point (January 29, 2007 @ 4:48 pm) is well taken, but I was trying to deal with the extravagant language at hand.

  8. DMZ says:

    “Futhermore, nothing about the type of suppression you described (assuming your facts really are correct) was necessarily done out of nasty or vindictive motives. Excuse me! The burden of proof here is squarely on you.”

    It is entirely possible for someone to do awful things out of pure motives. The ends justify the means comes to mind.

  9. One Christian's perspective says:

    To me heroes are ordinary people who are not perfect but who believe G-d and step out in faith when they had everything to lose but chose to do it anyway, often in spite of not getting recognition from others. I am reminded of Noah who built an ark in the face of decades of ridicule when he had never seen rain, Abraham who left his homeland for a better place that he had not seen while knowing that Ur was very developed and had much to offer, Moses who chose to climb the mountain on which he would die while still in good health and in full view of the Promised Land. John Piper said “G-d is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Ahron,

    No intimidation of the sort you described could work against an author and publisher who truly are in another camp (as opposed to another subgroup of the same camp). This is not just semantics; I think you know exactly what I mean. I don’t need to point to a specific Orthodox author changing publishers lately, everyone has seen this.

    Futhermore, nothing about the type of suppression you described (assuming your facts really are correct) was necessarily done out of nasty or vindictive motives. Excuse me! The burden of proof here is squarely on you.

  11. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “… something more trenchant is said by that community’s aspirations, no matter how elusive – by, in other words, who its heroes are.”

    This would be in accordance with the interpretation of Rabbeinu Yonah of “a man is according to his praise”(Mishlie 27:21). Possible problematic examples of hero-worship in the frum community are relating to Jewish entertainers and sports figures. I believe that Rabbi Shafran wrote an article in a Torah Umesorah publication on the subject of heroes(it mentions a teenager who had a giant picture of a boxer on the wall of his dorm room), and I think the point was as above. I am wondering if the article is available in some form.

    Regarding comments above, I also believe in better balance in Gedolim biographies of the past, and also that we need to make sure that the fact that we rightfully place gedolim on pedastel’s is not taken to an extreme. I think that the concept of Gedolim cards cheapen the concept of kavod hatorah, at a time when a portion of the Orthodox world questions who is considered a Gadol. Interestingly, the American Yated published a careful critique of the phenomenon of some charities using phto-ops of gedolim to raise much-needed money.

  12. Menachem Petrushka says:

    The Orthodox Jewish Community is not exceptional in its choice of heroes.

    “Relogionists” in most religions try to pattern their lives after the good deeds of their heroes.

    Devout Roman Cathilics look to their saints for inspiration. Mother Teressa who cared for the poor in India comes to mind. She is on her way to becoming a saint. Other saints were martyrs for the RC faith. Others “spread” the faith to save those who the RCs believed were going to hell.

  13. Ahron says:

    >“If Camp X wants to unduly glorify a present or past leader, and distortion is objectionable to Camp Y, why can’t a responsible writer from Camp Y write a complete, balanced biography to fill the void?”

    I couldn’t agree more. In the last several years at least one author (the scion and namesake of a justifiably revered adam gadol and a distinguished Rav in his own right) attempted to do just that–in fact he wrote his meticulously sourced and documented book, discussing the lives and antecedent growth of several great rabbonim of the modern and near-modern era, without seeking any manner of conflict or confrontation or waiting for “Camp X” to commit provocation via falsification. In other words: he wrote the truth because it was true.

    But alas: the truth was deemed dangerous. Too dangerous. This distinguished Rav was ostracized, slandered and demonized. His book was “banned”. His person and his writings were denounced by known rabbis and in prominent yeshivos, and in at least one known American center of Torah learning copies of his book were burned. Other forms of vandalism took place in other locales. (I’m refraining from mentioning the name of the author or his book in the hopes of averting a full scale blog-style ‘flame’ war that would anyway distract from the broader issue at hand.)

    >“Ahron’s use of “nasty and vindictive”…attempts to bang into us an assumption that is not proven or provable.”

    Really Bob? If the above doesn’t count as “sometimes with a kind of nasty and vindictive enforcement” then please notify me about what might. It certainly doesn’t strike me as very warm and fluffy. I chose my words carefully and accurately, but if you have a better description available I remain open to modifying my adjectives. The incident cited above was only the most blatant so far.

    One well-known event in the 1980s witnessed a yeshiva issue an emergency “recall” on a biography of the Netziv (written by his nephew) that it had distributed as a ‘thank you’ greeting to supporters and associates. Among the fearsome enigmas uncovered by the yeshiva’s far-ranging investigation: The Netziv used to read newspapers. And his wife used to learn Torah. These shocking revelations (sic!) led to the book’s rapid withdrawal and the publisher printed a “revised” (and undoubtedly “improved”) second edition… This example is not quite nasty or vindictive. It just illustrates a totalitarian mode of thought and the pernicious infiltration of its behavior patterns into the community of shomrei Torah.

    Look, don’t feel like we’re being singled out. All sorts of Jewish communities were invaded by all manner of totalitarian social/political ideologies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now it is our turn to deal with a latent infection. The totalitarian strain in human psychology is very strong–and yes the Torah speaks about it, and in ways that make it clear that its temptations also fall upon “the frum” (as if there’s anything mentioned in Torah that doesn’t!). This is all frankly obvious.

    There have been other instances of vandalism and demonization in recent years in our community all in an effort to suppress biographies, parts of Torah and “dangerous” discussions thereof. More broadly the recent internally produced “accounts” of various great rabbis’ lives tend to read like variations 17a, 17b, and 17c of some assembly line’s Master Copy–the output of a reliable computer algorithm with last names and locations randomly selected for consistency. These productions often end up reading as saccharine soliloquies: fantastical, unverifiable and irrelevant to anybody’s real life anyway. (See R. Emanuel Feldman’s pained reflections on this “gadol-ography” phenomenon in the OU’s magazine (PDF format).)

    Further examples abound, and the preference for producing vanilla yogurt hagiographies–over the delicious, nourishing and textured narratives of real life!–has substantially exacerbated our leadership vacuums: first by making truthful people unable to pledge allegiance to plastic-wrapped “heroes” and their self-declared followers; and second by leading to a painful but necessary conclusion: If XYZ isn’t able to tell the truth, then seek the truth from sources other than XYZ.

    I’m glad we admire whom we admire. It says something positive about our hearts and our morals. But I don’t think we’ve ever met some of these people whom we believe we’re admiring.

  14. Joel Rich says:

    See my comment on http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2007/01/17/the-price-of-deception/

    I do agree with R’ Shafran that we do define ourselves by who our heroes
    are but even more so who we really emulate.

    KT

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Ahron’s use of “nasty and vindictive”, as with DMZ’s earlier use of “vicious” that I objected to above, attempts to bang into us an assumption that is not proven or provable.

    Rather than speculating about the motivation of people you disagree with, how about sticking to the facts about the biographical works themselves that support your position?

    If Camp X wants to unduly glorify a present or past leader, and distortion is objectionable to Camp Y, why can’t a responsible writer from Camp Y write a complete, balanced biography to fill the void? It seems to me that every faction operates one or more publishing houses of its own. Show me this can’t be done.

  16. Ahron says:

    >“If DMZ really meant “viciously” in his comment of 1:34 pm today, I’d regard that comment itself as vicious.”

    Sorry Bob, but the reality is that the history of our noble rabbinic figures has often –at least in recent years–been rewritten, and sometimes with a kind of nasty and vindictive enforcement that disturbingly suggests the infiltration of totalitarian ideologies into Am Yisrael (the Shomer Torah part of Am Yisrael that is).

    Because of the propagandization and politicization of the great rabbis of the recent past and their life stories (those in the farther past, like the rishonim, would have mocked this modern insanity of ours) I am no longer confident in the veracity of nearly any such story unless I can independently verify it through several other sources. Perhaps it is tragic. But it is a tragic result born of previous and recurring patterns of deception. Accepting untruths would be even more tragic.

    Certainly our reverence of scholars and giants of human sensitivity and dignity is a far step–if not a mountain!–above the beatification of a mass-killer. We have certainly not been degraded to that level of sanctified savagery. But by our own standards of truthfulness–by the Torah’s and the Sages’s standards of truthfulness, of emes above all–we have fallen low indeed.

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Maybe we should look for role models in the Tanakh? Barak wasn’t certain that G-d will help him, David succumbed to his Yetzer Hara once and then had a man killed to keep it a secret, and even Moshe lost his temper.

  18. DMZ says:

    “If DMZ really meant “viciously” in his comment of 1:34 pm today, I’d regard that comment itself as vicious.”

    What was that book that presented a less-biased account of the gedolim? I forget the title, but, IIRC, it’s on its third revision because the author kept having to revise it because of the outcry for the “lashon hara” it spread. I don’t know whether that counts as vicious or not (I used it in the “dangerously aggressive” sense), but it sure is suppression. So, hey, call me vicious – we all now know the truth, which is that I’M NOT PERFECT, and we don’t need to lie to my (so-far theoretical) children about my perfection, or lack thereof.

  19. Bob Miller says:

    If DMZ really meant “viciously” in his comment of 1:34 pm today, I’d regard that comment itself as vicious.

  20. DMZ says:

    All of the past Torah leaders look like heroes because anything they did wrong at any point in their life is, frankly, viciously suppressed. It’s not hard to idolize someone when their entire life is presented as perfect. Unfortunately, it also deprives us of people who we can realistically look up to as role models.

    We may have the right heroes, but I feel as if we can’t verify that anymore.