A Lesson From Smokey

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On their surface, the e-mails had nothing to do with the uncontrolled wildfires then devastating southern California. Yet the confluence of the messages and the maelstrom held a truth worth contemplating.

The topic of the e-mails is of no matter. The writers were urging Agudath Israel of America to take a certain stance on a political issue. It was their tone that stood out. The correspondents had taken for granted that their own judgment on the matter was right, and were writing to insist that the organization come on board, or “get with it,” as one put it. Or, as another wrote: “Your Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages – Agudath Israel’s highest rabbinical body] needs to take a strong stand here…”

Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization’s officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.

It is an approach that rankles some, especially those who might not appreciate the humor in a sign I have that reads: “People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do.”

But the fact remains: Judaism teaches humility, and special respect for the judgment of those most experienced and knowledgeable. The letters of the Hebrew word for “elderly” – zaken – are parsed by the Talmud to yield the phrase “this one has acquired wisdom.”

And so, particularly in matters of Jewish communal welfare, we believe that Jews are exhorted to heed the direction provided by the community’s most Torah-learned elders, those who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes. Even when those elders’ judgment differs from our own. Actually, especially then.

Commenting on the decision made by the Judean King Rechavam (King Solomon’s son) to shun the advice of the elders of his father’s court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Kings I:12), the Talmud remarks: “[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive” (Nedarim, 40a). Rechavam’s wrong choice brought schism to the Jewish kingdom, fanning the flames of rebellion.

Which brings us back to more recent flames, those of the unprecedented California fires – which fire-management experts have dubbed “mega-fires,” since they are ten times larger and more intense than wildfires of a mere decade or two ago. More than eight million acres of American forest have burned this year already.

The reasons suggested for the unprecedented infernos include, of course, the “usual suspect” for all natural disasters these days, global warming. But the fact that Baja Mexico has evidenced only much smaller fires than adjacent San Diego County suggests strongly that something else is at work. That something, experts say, is a decades-old misguided conservation policy in the United States. Put simply, the longtime American approach to fire suppression — extinguishing small fires as soon as they appear, rather than allowing them to run their natural course and create undergrowth-free zones — has created huge swaths of unburned brush that, when fire does break out, serve as rich and abundant fuel for infernos of exceptional scope and intensity. “When,” asked University of California professor of earth sciences and fire-management expert Richard A. Minnich, quoted in The New York Times, “do we declare the policy a failure?”

So the culprit, so to speak, is Smokey the Bear. He seemed like a fine enough, if furry, fellow all those years, delivering his ursine, eminently common-sense message that putting out small fires was the obvious way to prevent larger ones. But he was wrong. precisely wrong,entirely wrong. Nothing personal (or specie-ist), but, in the end, only smarts can prevent mega-fires.

Now, with hindsight, we are wiser. Imagine, though, how the suggestion that forest fires be permitted to burn uncontrolled, would have been received had it been offered fifty years ago. It is not hard to imagine the e-mails (well, telegrams) chiding forest rangers to tell the Forest Service policymakers to “get with it” and “take a strong stand” against the obvious illogic of — goodness! — letting fires just burn!

It’s not only the so-called “Law of Unintended Consequences” that can figure into weighty decisions. A host of factors can make the right decision seem the wrong one, puzzling observers, even outraging them. To be sure, we all have a right to our opinion, and much can be gained by sharing our perspectives with others.

But two vital commodities in all-too-short supply these days are humility and respect for elders. We do well to consider that our confidence — “evidence” and all — that we know what is best no more qualifies us to make the right decision than putting a ranger’s hat on a bear’s head and a shovel in his hand makes him an expert on forest conservation.

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42 Responses

  1. David Farkas says:

    Chaim W. – I actually draw a distinction between dialouge with reform and conservative rabbis, on the one hand, and appearing together with them, on the other. I am against the former, but in favor of the latter.
    But that’s just me. The Agudah Roshei yeshivah, whose views are the ones that matter here, did not make this distinction. And hence I wonder if all the missed opportunities of the past 50 years – in the form of Jews who were never exposed to Torah b/c of the Agudah policy – would have caused the Agudah to reconsider.

    I don’t know how you see this reinforcing Rabbi Shafran. My point is that it’s easy to criticize other people’s policies and suggest they reconsider in light of hindsight. But when you have to do this with your OWN policies, it’s much harder. To use the Talmudic term, “one cannot see his own blemishes”.

  2. Noam says:

    Baruch- If you are not going to accept Prof. Kaplan’s scholarly presentation of the facts, I would suggest going to the sources listed by him, or even get a copy of the speech as it was printed in 1944. You can then get a copy of the book “Ha-rav Ha Kodosh miBelz” and see for yourself what is written and what is not. I am not sure what you are going to gain by finding the ‘other side.’ What are they going to tell you? that the speech was not altered? That Prof. Kaplan was wrong? That they hold by Rav Shimon Shwab and that the facts of history should not always be reported if they reflect poorly on gedolei Torah? It appears to me that the facts have already been reported. Obviously if there are any other real facts(as opposed to manufactured facts), then that would be important. On the other hand, I am not sure what is going to be gained by interviewing the ‘other side’, other than more self-justified prevarification.

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Did he say it the context of non-halachic decisions?”

    R Dessler was directly addressing the issue of the Holocaust, as R. Cohen quoted it(it’s in the first volume of MME, pg 75-77).

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Noam,

    R.D. JJ Shacter implied in his TUM article that there are those who see another side to the issue ; as far as the censorship aspect, that in of itself wouldn’t be anything new, but I’d like to first hear both sides myself. Any Belzer chassidim here?

    Chaim,

    I have the volume somewhere in my house, but I don’t think it is online. Here is a related article which you might be interested in:

    http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/observ-on-daat.html

  5. Noam says:

    From “Da’as Torah” in The Orthodox Forum volume, by Lawrence Kaplan, ppg 56-60. the primary sources are taken from the book Hasidut Polin, by Piekarz, pp 373-434.
    (my summary-I just cant type the whole thing)

    ON January 17, 1944, the Belzer Rebe, Rav Aaron Rokeah, and his brother, Rav Mordecai, left Budapest for Israel. One day earlier, Rav Mordecai, “with the approval and as the agent of his brother” deliverd a sermon in the presence of thousands of Jews and great rabbinic scholars. It was printed as a special brochure, ha Derekh, on Feb, 7 1944, and reprinted again and also in an abridged version, titled matzmiah Yeshuah.

    In the sermon, he argues that even though the anti-Zionist policies seem to have brought more, not less destruction, there is only Torah leadership from gedolei Israel, and false ‘priests of Ba’al’. To criticize the wisdom of the true leaders is to side with the priets of Baal, and desecrate the sancta of Israel. “we have naught to do but rely on our Father in heaven and to strengthen our belief in Him.. and our belief in the tzaddikim.”
    Next, in a passage of 22 lines, Rav Mordecai address those who think that they are fleeing and abandoning their flock in a time of trouble. specifically he says

    ” His(the Rebbe’s) heart’s desire…. are to arouse mercy.. on the entire community that they should know no more sorrow, and the remaining camp will be spared..

    And this is alluded to in the verse “And he saw the resting place that it was good and the land that it was delightful.” It would seem that the intention is “And he saw the resting place, the tzaddik sees that rest and tranquility will descend upon the inhabitants of this land(Hungary), “that it was good”- that the tzaddik sees that good, and all good, and only good and grace will befall our Jewish brethren, the inhabitants of this land…”

    On March 19th, 1944, the Germans y’sh occupied Hungary. On May 14th, deportations began. Rebbetzin Hayya Halberstam, wrote before she was murdered in Aushwitz

    “I see the end of Hungarian Jewry. The government had permitted large sections of the Jewish community to flee. The people asked the advice of the Admorim and they always reassured them. The Belzer Rebbe said that Hungary would only endure anxiety….They saved their own lives, but left the people as sheep for slaughter. … I plea before (Hashem) that You pardon them this great hillul haShem.”

    The coverup:

    In 1967, Rabbis Bezalel Landau and Nathan Ortner, in their book, ha-rav ha-kadosh Mi-Belz, reprinted the entire farewell sermon of Rav Mordecai, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE ENTIRE TWENTY TWO LINE PASSAGE which assured that nothing would happen in Hungary. This omission has allowed the ‘authorized’ historians to write how the Rebbe and his brother “on more than one occasioin warned the Jews of Hungary not to decieve themselves with the illusions and not to be at ease regarding their situation.” Indeed one historian has states that “The Jews of Hungary did not wish to understand, and refused to engage in an accounting of their future.”

    I hope that Prof. Kaplan does not mind my excerpting this material. My intention, as stated above, is also not to embarrass anyone from past generations. However, those who have distorted history have much to answer for, especially those who have the unmitigated chutzpah to bad mouth the Jews who followed the Rebbe’s advice.

  6. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Baruch,

    Thank you for the link to Rabbi Cohen’s very interesting article. Can you also provide the link to Professor Kaplan’s response and Rabbi Cohen’s response to that?

    “In the context of non-halachic decisions, this was a breathtakingly new application of the doctrine of Da’at Torah, essentially unprecedented(and indeed Rav Cohen does not supply any particular precedents for this statement).” (Comment by Noam — November 12, 2007 @ 9:54 am).

    Noam, can you let me know where Rav Dessler’s statement is printed? I’d like to see it inside so I can judge the context for myself. Did he say it the context of non-halachic decisions? Was he referring to “pure halachic” issues, “meta-halachic” issues, questions about what color to paint one’s house (to use Rabbi Cohen’s example), or something in between? Also, it does seem to have a precedent in the Meiri in Avos 6:1 that Rabbi Cohen cites.

    “In 1943 or 44, I don’t remember exactly, a rebbe left Europe for Israel. He gave a farewell speech in which he assured the listeners that they would not be harmed by the Nazis, yemach shemam.”

    I think I can guess who you are referring to. Not having seen Professor Kaplan’s essay or the biography in question, I can’t comment. But I did recently read an account of that Rebbe’s escape from Europe, according to which his brother and right hand, an “adam gadol” in his own right, did warn people of the danger and urged them to escape. (Of course, since the book was published by Artscroll, I’m sure many of the commenters here will discount it.) If I’m not mistaken, the Rebbe’s farewell speech was published at the time, so it should be fairly easy to check what he actually said.

    “In that spirit, perhaps the Agudah world should reconsider it’s thoughts on dialougue with Reform and conservative Jews? Coincidentally – or not – that policy is also just about 50 years old.” (Comment by David Farkas — November 12, 2007 @ 12:08 pm).

    David, from the tone of your comment I presume that you personally are for dialogue with Reform and Conservative, and you seem fairly certain that if the Agudah would reevaluate their policy they would come to the same conclusion as you. It may have been inadvertant, but you just proved Rabbi Shafran’s point.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Isn’t it logical to go to the most Torah-informed sources of advice for life even if, being human, they are not perfect predictors of the future?

  8. Noam says:

    I would not be overly surprised that the MO have also censored. However, just because they do it does not make it right. :-)

    From the Littman Library website, Prof. Shapiro’s book on the topic is due out in 2011.

    http://www.littman.co.uk/cat/shapiro-orthodox.html

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Noam,

    “In a later biography of the rebbe 10-15 years later, the lines assuring safety were missing.”

    I remember reading the example in Dr. Kaplan’s essay, but it was a while ago, so I can’t comment on it. I noticed that in Note #108 of “Facing the Truths of History” there are sources referenced which are in defense of the rebbe whom you mention.

    More significant would be the lines which are missing in the biography. Assuming the facts are as you say, covering up information ultimately does not work, especially in today’s internet age; better to “Face the Truths in History” and deal with them in a mature way. Again, I don’t recall that issue, so I’m only commenting generally. It is also interesting to note that according to an interview with Marc Shapiro I heard on the radio who is researching examples of censorship, there are examples when Modern Orthodox writers have censored things as well.

  10. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Leaving aside historical debate on the fallibility of daat torah, i saw a recent study on charedi poverty in Israel, published in Haaretz, which even if reasonably inaccurate, strikes me as sadly relevant to the issue.

  11. Noam says:

    I dont have a link, but I can tell you generally what it says. In 1943 or 44, I don’t remember exactly, a rebbe left Europe for Israel. He gave a farewell speech in which he assured the listeners that they would not be harmed by the Nazis, yemach shemam. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be accurate, and many of his chassidim perished. In a later biography of the rebbe 10-15 years later, the lines assuring safety were missing.

    I am not writing this to be critical of the advice, and indeed have left out names. No one can know the future. However, it is a very graphic(and very extensively documented by Prof. Kaplan) example of Da’as Torah and bad outcomes.

  12. David Farkas says:

    This is a good article. Rabbi Shafran is quite right, of course, to observe that sometimes policies that seemed correct 50 years ago, might not have been the best course of action after all. In that spirit, perhaps the Agudah world should reconsider it’s thoughts on dialougue with Reform and conservative Jews? Coincidentally – or not – that policy is also just about 50 years old.

  13. Michoel says:

    Noam,
    Thanks. I see that it is available for purchase on line but I cannot budget for it at the moment. If you (or Lawrence Kaplan) have a link to at least something that conveys the main points, I’d appreciate it.

  14. Noam says:

    Rav Dessler’s statement

    “Our Sages (Chazal) have already told us to follow
    the words of our rabbis, even “if they tell us about
    right that it is left and that left is right”, and not to
    say, G-d forbid, that they certainly erred…but rather,
    [one should say that] my understanding is nullified
    like the dust of the earth in comparison to the clarity
    of their intellect and the Heavenly support they have
    (siyata d’shemaya)…this is Daat Torah in the rubric
    of Emunat Chachamim. (emphasis added)”

    In the context of non-halachic decisions, this was a breathtakingly new application of the doctrine of Da’at Torah, essentially unprecedented(and indeed Rav Cohen does not supply any particular precedents for this statement). Therefore, we have a choice: to follow Rav Dessler and his ‘new’ definition of Da’at Torah/Emunat Chachamim, or the definition that has more than 2000 years of Mesorah. As Rav Cohen notes, even the first Lubavitcher Rebbe could not imagine this statement.

  15. Boruch Horowitz says:

    “First, the very concept of “Gedolei Hador” as something to be reckoned with is only an Agudah viewpoint, and a relatively recent one at that. ”

    This is not an Agudah concept, but rather each generation, even when there was no Beis Din Hagadol, has senior leaders and a hierarchy for determining halachic and meta-halachic issues. I think one needs to distinguish between the stature of a poseik or a gadol which is widely-recognized and undisputed, versus a community’s following him as the final authority on most or all community decisions. There are different leaders for each community, Charedi or Modern Orthodox, but all competent rabbonim and poskim definitely recognize a hierarchy in leadership, and will themselves take seriously the words of a rabbi who is at a more senior level, rather than cavalierly dismissing his halachic or meta-halachic positions.

    A RIETS rosh yeshivah developed the idea in a shiur I heard that there is a halachic concept of “gedolie hador”(based on Tosophos Berachos 31b regarding “moreh halacha l’fnie rabbo”; I’ve read that it’s quoted in the Terumas Hadeshen, and that it’s in Shulchan Aruch YD as well, although I myself couldn’t find the latter reference; Rabbi A. Kaplan in “Handbook of Jewish Thought, Vol I” has other sources regarding this general point), notwithstanding that diversity in psak and communal minhagim is a good thing, and that the term “gedolim” can be politicized. As far has meta-halachic issues specifically, I link below to an article in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, not written necessarily from an Agudah perspective, that is supportive of a nuanced form of Daas Torah.

    As far as Rabbi Elyashiv, specifically, I believe that he is respected by competent poskim from any camp. I once spoke to a rabbi, who while he told me that his perspective on certain issues is not identical with that of the Agudah/Charedi world, mentioned that he(like myself) had visited R. Elyashiv when he was in Eretz Yisrael, and of course respected him.

    I would separate essential concepts of “gedolie hador” from any non-essential concepts, or those which are adapted by particular communities. For example, I can understand why some people would feel the concept of “gedolim cards” or “gedolim calendars” would have merit from an educational point of view. The downside, though, to such enterprises is that someone inevitably needs to make decisions about “who is a gadol”– who gets a card, and who doesn’t. Although every group and sub-group is entitled to venerate their leaders, I think that this phenomenon may have its drawbacks which should be considered. Note as well that the American Yated, although they publish pictures of Gedolim, had an article which opined that putting pictures of gedolim on lamppost could have a tinge of hero-worship to it(although it is done to raise much-needed funds for organizations).

    http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/cohen_DaatTorah.pdf

  16. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Further to my previous comment, I was referring to the general thrust of Rabbi Cohen’s article, and not to any of his specific critiques of articles, or to any specific contemporary examples mentioned throughout the article(there was, by the way, a communication from Dr. Kaplan published in a subsequent issue of Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, and a response by Rabbi Cohen).

    I would add that I am in complete and absolute agreement with Rabbi Cohen’s general point mentioned in Note 2:

    “It strikes me that this is indicative of one of the major problems in the Jewish community – there is precious little objective examination of principles, but rather defensive polemic to protect a particular position. The unwillingness to consider other points of view and the lack of preparedness to counter objections with facts is an unhealthy feature of our polarized Jewish society. This turns a sober, serious inquiry about the deeper requirements of Jewish hashkafa into dogmatic argumentation, which in the long run weakens, rather than strengthens, belief”.

    Finally, I think that Rabbi Cohen’s very respectful remarks in the “Conclusion” section (pg 37-39) warrant discussion in all circles. In that vein, I note, positively, the remarks made at last years’s Agudah Convention that “we have no complaint against anyone asking questions about our convictions, or even disagreeing — agreeably — with stances we have seen fit to take”.

  17. Baruch Horowitz says:

    ” hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. You are critical of Smokey the Bear because 50 years later his advice turned out to have bad consequences, and therefore you label his advice as wrong. One could apply the same criteria to certain advice given by gedolim of the past and show how that advice turned out to have even worse consequences. would you also label that advice as wrong? And, if they were wrong, how can you continue to rely on the same decision making process? ”

    Rav Hutner’s zt’l perspective on this question is quoted on pages 29-30 of Rabbi Alfred Cohen’s article in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society(see also footnotes 42-43). I found his essay to be a nuanced and “moderate” presentation in favor of daas Torah, and I link to it at the end.

    Let me add that I am personally very distressed by a number of happenings in the Haredi world, past and recent. Nevertheless, I am not willing to jettison the concept of rabbinic authority totally, and I think Rav Hutner’s idea is helpful regarding your specific point:

    “Sometimes the unexpected does happen, which no one could have predicted. Sometimes surgery must take place – but the patient dies of an allergic reaction to the anesthesia. That doesn’t mean it was a mistake to perform the necessary surgery, it just means that we are not always in control of the consequences of our seemingly wise decisions or even that we can always foresee all the possible results.

    Mulling over this paradox, Rav Hutner offered the following metaphor:

    Assume there are two people poised to jump from the roof of a building; horrified onlookers beg them not to. One agrees, and proceeds to take the stairs in order to reach the street, but trips and breaks his neck. The other man decides to jump, but happens to land on a mattress on the back of a truck! Although the outcome for him was miraculously good (and even more so in the face of what happened to the other would-be jumper), yet it would be ridiculous to blame the onlookers for giving bad advice. The advice was wise, and the one who listened to them indeed chose the right path.

    The guidance of our Torah leaders, Rav Hutner concluded, is just that – Torah inspired wisdom, but it is not prophecy, and it is not fail safe. Our rabbis are wise men, not prophets. ”

    http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/cohen_DaatTorah.pdf

  18. Noam says:

    Michoel- please read the end of Dr. Lawrence Kaplan’s essay in the somewhat famous volume of the Orthodox Forum “Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy.” There is a very stark and well documented example of advice and consequences(and subsequent attempts at covering up the advice).

  19. Jewish Observer says:

    “But seriously, where is the arrogance in that? ”

    the tone of being so sure of having “the” answer

  20. Bob Miller says:

    I, like the much-maligned Smokey the Bear, hope anyone who sees a fire burning in the woods will call the appropriate rangers or fire department, and I hope no one will set wildfires through carelessness.

    The whole Smokey thing was to inform ordinary people about safety and had nothing to do with the pros and cons of government forest management policy.

    In any case, we all know of policies that haven’t worked out in practice despite popular support and know that some policy-makers have succeeded more than others.

  21. Michoel says:

    Noam wrote: “One could apply the same criteria to certain advice given by gedolim of the past and show how that advice turned out to have even worse consequences.”
    It would be beneficial if Noam would site a specific example, with a clear makor for what the g’dolim actually advised.

  22. Dr. E says:

    It seems to me that in many cases these days, the Agudah and the MGH will first put out feelers as to how the Torah personalities in EY and Lakewood feel about it and act accordingly. Today, the Agudah as an organization struggles to remain relevant within the international Chareidi world and is trying to figure out the formula that will accomplish this. One can easily see that many of the second generation of the organization’s current Rabbinic and lay leadership have gravitated toward the more exclusionist circles of Lakewood and EY.

    I do recall several years ago when there was the large solidarity rally in Washington. The organization’s party line was something like “it has been our long-standing policy not to attend political rallies and we do not guide our constituency to do so”. When it became apparent that the rank and file were not following suit in defering to this Daas Torah, the leadership back-pedaled and adopted a more Parve stance. So, I guess one could say that in some scenarios “we report, they sometimes back down”.

    —Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization’s officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.–

  23. joel rich says:

    I would argue that there is much to be said for seeking advice from a man of wisdom
    ===========================================
    Agree – but there’s a world of difference between seeking advice which one then factors into a personal decision making calculus versus asking someone else to make a decision for you.

    KT

  24. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “I was just showing that if Rav Shafran used the same criteria with regard to decisions of gedolim in the past, he would be forced to conclude that they also gave bad advice.” (Comment by Noam — November 8, 2007 @ 12:35 am).

    Noam, that’s precisely my point. You can’t use the same criteria to pass judgement on a gadol’s decision that you use to judge Smokey’s decision, because they have different agendas. The U.S. Forest Service wants to prevent forest fires; as the recent mega-fires demonstrate, they’ve gone about it the wrong way, so they’re clearly mistaken. A gadol is concerned with determining what the Torah requires in a given situation. He’s not trying to shape the future, so the course of subsequent events does not prove his decision wrong. For a theoretical example, we can draw a parallel to the case of forest fires. Let’s say a forest fire broke out on Shabbos, and the only firefighters available to put it out are Jewish. If it is not dealt with right away, the fire will potentially cause massive property damage, but there is no threat to huuman life. Now, I’m not a “posek”, but it seems clear to me that a Rav would rule that the firefighters may not be “mechallel Shabbos” to fight the fire. Does the fact that thousands of acres of forest will be destroyed because of his decision mean that he was wrong? Obviously not, because his “psak” was based on other considerations.

    “The idea that great knowledge of Torah makes one expert in all decision making is fallacious, unless you want to make a claim of ruach haKodesh or other Divine intervention”.

    I would argue that there is much to be said for seeking advice from a man of wisdom, and that intense Torah study does sharpen one’s mind and make one wise beyond mere book knowledge. As David HaMelech wrote: “Edus Hashem ne’emanah, machkimas pesi”. As it so happens, my father once had an experience with the exact type of Queens/Toledo question you refer to, and I can say that we were much the better for his asking the question. The advice he received, while not related to pure halachah, was indeed insightful and to the point. Admittedly, the gadol my father asked knew him well, but even if he hadn’t, a responsible person would presumably only give you as much advice as his knowledge of your specific situation enables him to. If he does not know whether your family is more comfortable in Queens or Toledo, he’ll say so. [I recently read that Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky wouldn’t advise people he didn’t know unless they could communicate with him in Yiddish, because he felt that if they spoke to him in English, a language he did understand but was not fluent in, he could not get a proper sense of their situation.]

    “JO, it is a really strange type of arrogance that admits to one’s limitations and preaches submission to a greater authority.” – agree(Comment by Jewish Observer — November 7, 2007 @ 9:37 pm).

    JO, “touche”. But seriously, where is the arrogance in that?

  25. Jewish Observer says:

    ” I don’t see how a gadol b’Torah is going to have more insight into the situation, especially someone who doesn’t know the family. Knowing Shas and Poskim isn’t neccessarily going to help make the decision.”

    agree that it’s not guaranteed to make any one godol qualified qualified ….. but…. I like to think that the same traits that make someone a godol could be used for this too – the ability to abstract out a situation and reduce it to its component parts, the ability to construct a framework for decision making, the integrity of not factoring in any considerations except for the good of the asker, the aggadic wisdom such as the type in Avot and midrash.

    we would be a weird religion if we didn’t believe that our “gurus” had good insight. if we don’t have a level of trust in those steeped in our treasured Torah, then what’s the whole thing worth??

  26. Noam says:

    Chaim- Rav Shafran used those criteria to declare that Smokey gave bad advice. I was just showing that if Rav Shafran used the same criteria with regard to decisions of gedolim in the past, he would be forced to conclude that they also gave bad advice. I used Rav Shafran’s logic and arguements, not my own.

    There are halachic questions, and there are questions that involve some halacha. When I need to know if my pot is kosher, that is a halachic question. When I am deciding if I should move my family to Toledo Ohio or to Queens, there are some halachic issues involved(can one find kosher food, mikva etc.), but also a large number of other issues that are not directly halachic, such as will my family be happy there, will the job situation work out, housing, etc. The Modern Orthodox are not likely to ask for a psak on where to move. They will want to make sure that religious needs are going to be covered, but beyond that it is a matter of the family deciding what is best for the family. I don’t see how a gadol b’Torah is going to have more insight into the situation, especially someone who doesn’t know the family. Knowing Shas and Poskim isn’t neccessarily going to help make the decision. The idea that great knowledge of Torah makes one expert in all decision making is fallacious, unless you want to make a claim of ruach haKodesh or other Divine intervention. And if that is the claim, I would ask for proof.

  27. Jewish Observer says:

    “JO, it is a really strange type of arrogance that admits to one’s limitations and preaches submission to a greater authority.”

    – agree

  28. saulking says:

    “WE REPORT & THEY DECIDE”, Reminds me of the story asked of Reb Moshe zt”l regarding the brocha on pizza, one rav described it as ‘a cheesy delight with tomato sauce’, another ‘fresh tomatoes with some cheese” and a third ‘a thin layer of bread covered with cheese with tiny bits of tomato”. As imagined the brocha was different for each of the identical items (reported by 3people) , until a PIZZA was brought to the Gadol B’Torah for a perfect pasak. As R. Shafran writes, “we report(each with our specific culture base, from our individual prespective) & they decide”, almost exactly what the emailers are asking!!!!

  29. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “I do not see how requesting ‘action’ is lacking respect for our zekanim, elders, and leadership. If anything it shows the connection that the lay person has to the expert by demanding to hear his perspective.” (Comment by sima irkodesh — November 4, 2007 @ 12:25 am).

    I don’t see how “demanding” anything from a gadol demonstrates respects for him. Besides, Rabbi Shafran’s point was not that people “demand to hear” the gadol’s perspective, but that they “demand that said gadol HEAR THEM” and “get with it”.

    “One could apply the same criteria to certain advice given by gedolim of the past and show how that advice turned out to have even worse consequences. would you also label that advice as wrong? And, if they were wrong, how can you continue to rely on the same decision making process?” (Comment by Noam — November 4, 2007 @ 10:12 am ).

    We seem to have a difference of opinion here as to what exactly constitutes “daaas Torah”. I don’t think “daas Torah” means the ability to predict the future. I am not aware that the gedolim — past or present — ever claimed to posses the gift of prophecy. What they undoubtedly DO posses is a Torah outlook molded by decades of intense Torah study and vast Torah knowledge. Given that how we must live our lives is dictated by the Torah, the primary question one must ask himself when faced with making a decision is “what does the Torah require of me in these circumstances”. It seems obvious that the greater one’s Torah outlook, the more qualified he is to answer that question. Only G-d knows what the future holds. A gadol can simply determine a Torah-based course of action for the present. Can he make the wrong decision? Perhaps, just like a “posek” can sometimes make a mistake when deciding a question of “halachah”. But presumably only someone with similar qualifications is able to say he is mistaken.

    “I think you have very neatly identified one of the major differences between the chareidi hashkafa and the modern orthodox. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, in his sichot for the month of Elul, writes that the ideal situation is where each person uses his learning and God given intellect to come to the proper decisions, and it is in fact an insult to God to bypass the intellect that He bestowed on man.”

    The key word here, I think, is “ideal”. Certainly, in an ideal world everyone would posses enough Torah knowledge and “yiras shamayim” to properly decide what G-d expects of him. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Most of us do not have enough learning to ensure that we come to the proper decision, nor can we claim to be entirely free of outside influences that might adversly affect our decision making.

    Rav Nebenzahl’s point sounds very similar to a point his Rebbi, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, would often make: A Rav was not intended to be a substitute for one’s own efforts. Rav Shlomo Zalman would often ask people who came to him with halachic questions whether they had researched the sources and attempted to resolve the question on their own. He felt that with a little toil and effort, they could find the answer to their questions themselves, and were shirking their responsibility when they came to ask him instead. Obviously, though, Rav Shlomo Zalman would not want a layman to rule on, say, the status of an “agunah” by himself. There are some questions that are too complex to be answered by anyone other than an expert “posek”. I am pretty sure that Rav Nebenzahl would agree that the same can be said with regard to life decisions. There are certain questions we should be able to answer ourselves, but it would be presumptious to think that we are competent enough to answer ALL questions. Some questions simply call for more expertise than the average person posseses. Seeking that expert opinion in such cases doesn’t seem to me to be an “insult to G-d”; it’s just common sense, and I would be very surprised if in fact it is a point of difference between Chareidi and Modern Orthodox “hashkafah”. I agree “a gadol is not a substitute for God”; but I would add, “kal ve’chomer” a layman isn’t.

    “if I were to sit down and compose a post whose purpose was to influence my readers toward humility, i would, if only for pragmatic reasons, try to employ such a tone myself” (Comment by Jewish Observer — November 4, 2007 @ 2:24 am).

    JO, it is a really strange type of arrogance that admits to one’s limitations and preaches submission to a greater authority.

  30. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Shafran wrote in the above article,
    “Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization’s officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue.”

    Rabbi Shafran, do Agudath Israel’s officers and executive staff also provide the Council members with such information and optional approaches proactively? (that is, because of a perceived need but not in response to a specific request). That would not presume to tell the members how to decide.

  31. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “Could the earth be getting warmer because we are getting closer to Gehinom?” (Comment by Yehoshua Friedman — November 5, 2007 @ 4:03 am).

    Yehoshua, maybe it’s because of all the hot air coming out of people’s mouths these days. (Disclaimer: I have no one particular in mind)

  32. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Could the earth be getting warmer because we are getting closer to Gehinom?

  33. Charles B. Hall says:

    S. Dym,

    The policy you mention is not “new”. It was specified in the infamous “Road Map” in April 2003:

    http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/20062.htm

    It is the policy not just of the State Department but of the entire United States government, from the President on down:

    http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/rls/22520.htm

    If you read it carefully you will see that calls for Palestinian statments, but Israeli actions, a distinction that few seem to have caught.

    That said, we should remember that eight US Presidents — five Republican and three Democratic — have supported Land for Peace. It is almost certain that a ninth will be elected in 2008.

  34. TheAnswer says:

    It is clear that R. Shafran is promoting the idea that Gdolim are insightful beyond our abilities and should command respect. To this I agree. Where I differ is the reality on the ground. Some of the big issues of the day are not addressed publicly. One example is the the problematic chinuch system addressed by R. Yaakov Horowitz, another is the coming (current?) socio-economic disaster the Charedi community faces in E”Y, and a third is the lack of a abuse registry.

    The problems, current and developing, are so clear, yet the Gdolim don’t address them publicly. What do they think about these things?

    People want to know.

  35. S. Dym says:

    If there is a concern in the minds of the Public Affairs Dept. of Agudas Yisroel USA, as evidenced by this posting, it is possible that the correct response would be for the appropriate emissary from Agudas Yisroel USA to travel urgently to Eretz Yisroel and present the issue to the Gedolim.

    One issue, among others, that perhaps should be presented, is the new policy of the US State Dept. to establish a new state immediately adjacent to Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak WITHOUT waiting for this new state to wean itself from terror — as evidenced by the 70% approval of suicide bombings found recently in the Palestinian public. The question that perhaps should be presented, is whether Agudas Yisroel USA should indicate, to the Jewish Affairs Liason at the White House, and to the Hareidi press (since otherwise it would be possible to ignore the message) that the Gedolim have expressed concern that this policy might be fraught with danger. The reason why this question should be presented is that shtika ke-hodaa (Jewish tradition regards silence as acquiescence) hence if the Gedolim were to do this it might alleviate the pikuach nefesh, relative to a situation in which the Gedolim were not to do this. Agudas Yisroel’s public affairs dept. is the appropriate entity to submit this type of fact for the very urgent and detailed consideration of the Gedolim.

  36. dr. william gewirtz says:

    cvmay – the issues within one’s purview that one (and particularly a leader) chooses to address is often indicative of a value system as important as the positions one takes, and perhaps even more so. Boards of public companies are often faulted for areas they do not address perhaps even more so than for poor decisions. The analogy from milei chol to milei kodesh is worth thinking about.

  37. Noam says:

    Dear Rabbi Shafran,

    hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. You are critical of Smokey the Bear because 50 years later his advice turned out to have bad consequences, and therefore you label his advice as wrong. One could apply the same criteria to certain advice given by gedolim of the past and show how that advice turned out to have even worse consequences. would you also label that advice as wrong? And, if they were wrong, how can you continue to rely on the same decision making process?

    I think you have very neatly identified one of the major differences between the chareidi hashkafa and the modern orthodox. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, in his sichot for the month of Elul, writes that the ideal situation is where each person uses his learning and God given intellect to come to the proper decisions, and it is in fact an insult to God to bypass the intellect that He bestowed on man. Even worse, it also is a negation of the free choice that God has given man. A gadol is not a substitute for God.

  38. Jewish Observer says:

    if I were to sit down and compose a post whose purpose was to influence my readers toward humility, i would, if only for pragmatic reasons, try to employ such a tone myself

  39. Charles B. Hall says:

    A misguided fire supression program may well be the cause of the fires. But the earth still has been getting warmer.

  40. sima irkodesh says:

    I do not see how requesting ‘action’ is lacking respect for our zekanim, elders, and leadership. If anything it shows the connection that the lay person has to the expert by demanding to hear his perspective.

  41. cvmay says:

    Moetzes Hag’dolim of Agudah is a conference of TORAH LEADERS, (chosen ? appointed?) who decide policy on specific issues. There are 5-7 rabbanim on the Moetzes, and conclusions are based on majority opinion. When it comes to issues in Israel, the American MH is silent, delegating the bottom line decision to Israeli Gedolim (ashkenazim).
    There is a difference between not following the directive of Gedolim, and when no directive is given. Israeli Gedolim avoid declaring psak on Jewish national issues that effect klal yisroel due to many reasons, one being hashkafa and second due to political intanglements, THEREFORE essential issues (pikuach nefesh, kavod shem shamayim, etc.) that need a pasak of direction can become totally ignored. Individuals will then ask their community rav, rosh yeshiva, posak for advise of how to react in a particular situation.
    To know that people find it essential and important enough to email the Agudah with requests for action can be viewed as a ‘check and balance’ system. May we as a nation be zocheh for leadership to help forge forward to a geulah shelama.

  42. Moshe P. Mann says:

    Rabbi Shafran, this is no time for the Agudah to be mocking anything, let alone global warming. With the increasing phenomenon of budget cuts to Torah institutions and young men (like myself) going off the derech, the haughty one-upmanship that Chareidi spokesman display will only backfire.