Designated Drivers

by Doron Beckerman

Clearly, the J-blogs have arrived. No event of any significance escapes their scrutiny. Public discourse is shaped, often even created, by those possessing a keyboard, internet access, and a way with words. Unpoliced and unrestricted, the information superhighway, shared by the cautious, the reckless, and the intoxicated, is not going away.

A crossroads is rapidly approaching. Perhaps, nay, likely, we are already there. And there are weighty decisions to be made. A wrong turn spells disaster.

To the right lies a path of passivity, where no questioning or criticism is tolerated, no mistakes acknowledged or allowed for, and frustration is kept in check for the sake of maintaining the status quo. One problem with this, is, of course, the hit counter. A more critical problem – it isn’t healthy. Input from the layman is critical to proper decision-making, and sometimes the best ideas come from them.

I ask the indulgence of the J-blogs – Code Violation #11230 ahead. I am, alas, excerpting from an ArtScroll biography. In the book about Rav Pam zt”l, it is recounted that “[w]hen Mr. Drew returned to America, he visited Rav Pam and suggested what was to become known as the “Kesher Tefillin” Project. Whenever an American Yeshiva student becomes Bar Mitzvah, his family has the opportunity to accomplish a very significant Mitzvah in honor of the occasion by purchasing a pair of tefillin for a Shuvu student. Rav Pam was overjoyed by this suggestion.”

Sara Schneirer, founder of Beis Yaakov, was not a Moetzes member either.

Besides, the status quo may need some fixing.

To the left lies a future where the Torah leadership of the Jewish nation has been completely undermined and discredited. Their mistakes held under the microscope, magnified, and determined by the bloggers to be fatal. No longer can they be trusted to lead, and the best course is Ish Hayashar B’einav Yaaseh. Let each man do what is right in his own eyes.

Taking this turn means adhering to, or adopting, a philosophy of Torah leadership having no inherent value. It is only when they are proven correct that we accept their authority (if ever), but when they are not, maybe after some sort of three strikes rule, then, plainly, the very concept of Torah leadership, in any practical form, is to be jettisoned.

I do not believe this to be the will of the Torah. People familiar with some of my posts on my defunct blog will recall the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish in Bava Metzia 84a, where Rabbi Yochanan is completely impervious to pleas from his sister to spare Reish Lakish’s life. Reish Lakish ultimately passes on, and Rabbi Yochanan is inconsolable over the loss of his study partner, due to his inability to properly clarify his learning.

R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz, in an essay titled Kavod Harav, explains that the reason for Rabbi Yochanan’s seeming callousness was due to the severity of Reish Lakish’s apparent undermining of Rabbi Yochanan’s honor. No, not the personal affront. “The severity of impinging on the honor of the Rabbi is not on account of the honor due the Rabbi per se, but is primarily because the negation of the influence of the Rav. When the Jewish people are not careful regarding the honor due their sages and elders, it is as if they have no sages and elders at all.”

R’ Chaim continues by quoting a Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 11:8) – “Rabbi Akiva said, Israel is compared to a fowl, just as this fowl cannot fly without wings, so Israel can accomplish nothing without their elders.” Therefore, the entire existence of the Jewish nation is imperiled by undermining the Torah leadership.

R’ Chaim concludes with a lament over the situation as it was in 1973, and surely it has not improved since then.

Take the current imbroglio over the Rabbi who allegedly allowed cheating on taxes and gezel Akum. (I strongly emphasize that this is alleged, and those surrounding the Rabbi vehemently deny that these are his positions.) Those who have spoken up about this, say that they consulted with their Roshei Yeshiva who allowed for publicizing this issue. People have commented on various blogs about it, some with their names attached, others anonymously. I respectfully ask here: I don’t understand why it is deemed necessary for people who are not at all considered equals of this Rabbi to act as jury and judge. Torah leadership demands that other Torah leaders take such a stand publicly, not k’tanim. This sort of thing seems to be killing us and may very well destroy us. I realize that Nearim Pnei Zkeinim Yalbeenu is one of the signs of the pre-Messianic era, but that does not mean that we need to institutionalize it. The licenses of those taking this path should be revoked.

Even if we were to disregard the Torah’s outlook on this issue, there is simply no viable alternative to Torah leadership. Who else has any authority to affect any widespread constructive change? No J-blogger, or conglomerate of laypeople, has that kind of clout, even in theory.

Straight ahead lies a path of responsible partnership, where Torah leaders are not undermined by ridicule, open disdain, or even disrespectful disagreement. Correspondence should not be made public without explicit consent, tempting as it may be to get the scoop. Bloggers pining for particular courses of action should certainly state their case, but I believe that actual calls for adherence should be channeled through Torah leaders, whatever camp they may come from. There are lines of communication to all the English-speaking Torah leaders, both in the US and in Eretz Yisrael. I do not think it appropriate for any blogger who is not a Torah authority to be determining practical public policy, whether on Klal issues or how to relate to particular incidents relating to individuals.

People may ask a whopper of a question on this essay. Shouldn’t Gedolim be issuing statements like this? Aren’t you issuing a call for public policy here, in defiance of your own suggested guidelines?

Yes, I am. But only because asking for respect for Torah leadership is, perhaps, the one public policy vehicle the K’tanim should be driving.

[Rabbi Beckerman is a Rebbe at Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim]

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20 comments to Designated Drivers

  • Lawrence

    A loyal opposition, I think, is something leaders would value. When I read the blogs, I get the sense of a call to the entire community to function at its best? Does that not come across to the others on this blog?

  • Nathan

    Doron Beckerman said”

    “Take the current imbroglio over the Rabbi who allegedly
    allowed cheating on taxes and gezel Akum.
    (I strongly emphasize that this is alleged,
    and those surrounding the Rabbi vehemently
    deny that these are his positions.)”
    ==========================================================

    When are Orthodox Jews going to stop buying and reading
    “Jewish” newspapers like the one which published
    the slanderous article that Doron Beckerman refered to?

  • Chardal

    Look, the primary source of blogging which undermines the leadership of various gedolim through blogs is the modern orthodox community. There are no Chareidi bloggers out there that are engaging in the kind of blogging which you critisize here.

    What you need to understand is that you are appealing to a value that simply does not exist in this community. Leaders do not rise in the modern orthodox community due to people seaking legal authority or communal authority. Leaders rise and fall based on their ability to address in their Torah the underlying spiritual issues of the community as well as eoncompass the values that are imprtant to the community – one of these values is freedom of thought and concience. R’ Soloveitchic, for example, was an authority because his views spoke to people and because he was not afraid of people disagreeing with his ideas. He gave his students breathing room to have and form their own opinions on a wide array of issues. The same can be said regarding R’ Kook and a host of other Torah leaders who are role models in the modern community – they made people feel their lives AND their minds were important rather than putting up a brick wall dividing gedolim and ketanim.

    The chareidi gedolim are critisized publicly because there is a cultural chasam between their world and the world of the average MO blogger. The chareidi world is heierarchical where the modern one is largely egalitarian; the chareidi world has strict parameters as to what is admisable as a valid argument where the modern one is more open. etc. There is very little common language. Even common terms such as Torah, Yira’a, Kavod Shamaim have VERY different implicit meaning for members of these communities.

    So it is inevitable that in the information age, statements that are deemed worthy of criticism by a kattan MO blogger WILL be critisized and an appeal to a value that does not exist in said blogger’s world will not change anything. The leaders that understand this will avoid criticism. those who do not will create conflict and machlokes. leaders, just like polititians, will simply have to adapt to this new age we are living in.

  • Chaim Fisher

    I would like to question the implication here that somehow bloggers are having too much influence and power. Why? Blogs don’t have power; ideas have power.

    If some am haaretz with little background writes a fantastic svorah and other people like it, great. And if he writes silliness then nobody’s going to pay any attention to him.

    Even in the highest shiur the guy in the back row is allowed to ask a question. That’s the whole point of yiddishkeit. We start the dalet kushiyas with the littlest child; in beis din the lesser rabbonim ask first.

  • motty

    Dear Rabbi Beckerman,

    A small quibble if I may to a very thought provoking article. In bothe the cases you mention, Mr Drew and Sara Scnerir, the principals seem to have placed their very valuable ideas in front of Torah authorities for approval rather than posting a blog somewhere abd forcing the issue from the bottom up.

  • Aron

    Rabbi Beckerman’s essay is not only true of blogs, but of online Jewish news services as well that allow readers to post comments. The comments at times are classics of loshon hora, rechilus – you name it. They have become gossip groups where commentors freely insulty each other, gedolim and anything else they see fit. Allowing comments in such a way is lifnei iver and I for one have banned myself from viewing such websites.

    So although, some healthy dissent may be worthwhile, unfiltered, anonymous forums, where inappropriate speech is commonplace, is not valuable. Thankfully, this blog is exemplary in its comment policy.

  • lacosta

    like it or not, the charedi street [the only one relevant---since when you talk about charedi gdolim, it is their minions who must follow; obviously other factions in Orthodoxy must follow the norms of their own communities] has spoken , or maybe been spoken for.

    the current tech world, with 24 hr news cycles, and instant blogging, must accelerate the reaction time to breaking norms in our society. whereas in the past the Gdolim had a great luxury of time [ie they could in effect ,when in doubt ,shvu v’al taasu , and see what happens in other segments of O society, it’s harder to do that now. then– a kosher scandal, haimishe abuse scandals, haredi indictments, etc were in the news only to selected individuals–the gdolim, the shtadlonim, the machers. but today, within minutes, the whole world– especially the non-haredi world , gets to know too; so inaction leads to greater hillul hashem.

    one suspects that,absent bloggers, there would be many more klai kodesh who either did or are abusing kids, who would still be putting people at risk. now, they are flushed out. curiously, with few false allegations.

    and even bans aren’t helping at this point. this seems to be the Satan’s work beachrit hayamim. the response must be , by both followers and leaders, lihiyot nkiim be’einei elokim veadam…..

  • Neil Harris

    R Beckerman,
    I think that the current trend of lack of Kavod to “the very concept of Torah leadership” is typical of a generation (sadly my generation, those born b/t 1963-1983 who grew up in a society that promoted questioning authority. In American society where everyone is entitled to an opinion, some feel this is a heter to attack Gedolim from the safetly of their keyboards. Hopefully my children’s generation will see the error of this.

  • Doron Beckerman

    Chardal,

    Hesitant as I am to get into another debate with you, since, as very evident from the A.Y. Karelitz thread, we apparently barely speak the same language, and have different scales on how to evaluate facts and ideas, I’ll give it a shot.

    There is a difference between an opposition criticizing and an opposition undermining. Politicians understand this well – only where that line is drawn is different in a situation where the opposition hopes to get elected and ‘trow out dem bums’. That is the crux of the essay.

    If you are saying that Torah leadership has no inherent value in the MO or Rav Kook worlds, and it is just the same if public policy is set and determined by Rav Soloveitchik or by the guy who never shows up for davening, if that’s what the community thinks is right, I can only hope that isn’t the case.

    Chaim Fisher,

    Ideas have alot of power. Sometimes due to their truthfulness, sometimes due to their attractiveness. Sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes they don’t.

    motty,

    That’s exactly why I chose those examples. The proposed model here is channelling of public policy ideas through the Torah leadership in terms of actually calling for their implementation. The blogs are useful to facilitate raising ideas, intelligent discussion of their merits, and for respectful questioning and critique. There’s a wide abyss between that and verbal lynching.

    lacosta,

    I’m not denying bloggers can have a constructive role to play.

    Neil,

    I always love hearing from you. :)

  • Akiva

    When imbalances existed in Jewish society of the past, movements of tens or hundreds of years arose to gradually rebalance society after generations of suffering. The chassidic movement, women’s education, organized yeshiva education – Jewish societal problems solved in lifetimes or multiple lifetimes.

    Now perhaps in an age of communication, where information travels between disparate communities in minutes, the klal is no longer so content to sit and suffer while waiting for a gilgul before improvement. Similarly, the rabbaim of France can’t ban the Rambam while the rabbaim of Egypt have him leading their community – as people talk every day between the communities and move between them every few months.

    The wisdom and need of our gedolim remains. However, manipulators using their words for their own purposes, and criminals hiding under the cover of piousness are not so deserving.

  • Bob Miller

    Much of what passes for information in our media and on the web, and in community gossip, falls into the range between misinformation and disinformation. It has become really hard to judge the quality of information being circulated; it’s as if some anti-Chofetz-Chaim has created the perfect environment for lashon hara and motzi shem ra. Scurrilous rumors can be created and disseminated and take effect long before the victims can respond. The villains in this can dress and behave outwardly just as we do, but they have a concealed (sometimes not-so-concealed) vicious streak. This problem is not restricted to Jewishly ignorant people.

  • Shades of Gray

    “The chareidi world is heierarchical where the modern one is largely egalitarian; the chareidi world has strict parameters as to what is admisable as a valid argument where the modern one is more open. etc. There is very little common language. Even common terms such as Torah, Yira’a, Kavod Shamaim have VERY different implicit meaning for members of these communities.”

    I agree one can emphasize the differences, and the past few years of the bans have emphasizsed that.

    However, historically, different groups within Orthodoxy have come together when they’ve seen that outside threats are more potent than what internally divides them.

    Also, a RIETS RY noted the following in a recent Kol Hamevasar interview(vol II, issue 7, Pg 11) :

    ” While I am not a sociologist, my impression is that the past twenty years has seen a narrowing of the ideological divide between YU and the Yeshivah World. Some of the “hotbutton” issues that played out in the ‘60s and ‘70s have since run their course, and, with it, much of the stridency in rhetoric.”

  • Dov

    I don’t agree with previous comment writers that this is a difference between the modern and chareidi worlds. I think that the modern Orthodox world had (and has) as much respect for leaders, not only Rav Solovetchic and Rav Kook but also Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (all Zichronam Tzadik Livracha).

    The difference is the leaders. The Torah tells us that it’s fine to question leaders and hold them up to high standards that they need to meet. Bnos Tzlafchad questioned Moshe Rabbeinu, Neshei Lemesh questioned Adam HaRishon. Gedolim need to admit to being human, Gedolim need to admit mistakes and accept correction when the correction is correct. Gedolim also need to give tochacha to the Jewish World, not just the non-religious Jewish world but also the religious Jewish world. If these things would happen, I think the MO world would respect gedolim as much as anyone else (even if they would then select which gedolim to follow in practice).

  • Shalom Rosenfeld

    “there is simply no viable alternative to Torah leadership. Who else has any authority to affect any widespread constructive change? No … conglomerate of laypeople, has that kind of clout, even in theory.”

    Um, there’s a little Gemara in Pesachim about the reigning Bnei Beseira being clueless, but “hanach lahem l’yisrael, im lav neviim hem, bnei neviim hem.” (Loosely: ‘Leave the ordinary Jews to their own devices; they may not be prophets, but they’re close.’)

    Or the one in Sanhedrin; Raban Gamliel, having seen his world shattered and destroyed by the Romans, says he would have the Jewish people give up, stop having children, and lay down and die; but the Jews aren’t listening to him …

    What practically serves as leadership is certainly debatable, and we can all agree that “hayashar b’eynav ya’aseh” is an abhorrent extreme. But I strongly believe that the Talmudic theory on this subject is far richer, nuanced, and polychromatic than you propose, and worthy of more discussion. Rabi Yochanan’s view on leadership may not be the same as, say, Hillel’s. (Alas, Aggadata is understressed today).

    Let’s please have a deeper discussion here — preferably with a breadth of Talmudic thought.

  • Doron Beckerman

    R’ Shalom,

    The story of the Bnei Beseira has many interesting applications (such as willingly passing the mantle of leadership to someone who knows even one Halachah more than the incumbent sages; not to belittle lesser lesser Battei Din; Hanhagas Haklal may depend more on Mesorah than Sevara – see Meiri there (Pesachim 66a) for all of this).

    In the case of Hanach etc., there are particular parameters to the story. The Bnei Beseira (and Hillel) were intentionally deprived by G-d of a particular tidbit of Torah knowledge that they certainly knew. (See Yerushlami there) In terms of determining practical Halachah, there is an axiom that all of Klal Yisrael does not get it wrong, and it was relied upon. But when Bnei Beseira realized they knew less than Hillel, they handed over the reins to Hillel. In contrast, when Hillel saw that Klal Yisrael knew how to bring their knives on Erev Pesach which falls on Shabbos, he didn’t abdicate to Klal Yisrael.

    Pardon my ignorance, but I’m not familiar with the story of Rabban Gamliel in Sanhedrin. Could you cite the precise location?

  • Bob Miller

    Regarding the comment by Shalom Rosenfeld — July 6, 2009 @ 11:28 am :

    Shalom,

    Can you propose a counter-model grounded in “the Talmudic theory on this subject” as you see it that will give practical guidance for effective Jewish leadership today, taking our current resource people (leaders, followers) into account?

  • Chaim Fisher

    Rabbi Beckerman,

    Of course ideas can be untrue and still attractive.

    But how do you block one without blocking the other? Any editor is going to have a huge negia to block ideas that disagree with him because in his opinion they are indeed “untrue.” Well, that’s surely wrong.

    Attractive and untrue ideas almost always get pounded down by the end of a blog. And I’m not talking about smearing leaders or other lashon hara, which surely can be stopped by posting rules right at the start.

    Don’t forget, the idea that the blogger is criticizing can also be untrue. Blog criticism serves the great purpose of stopping writers from overstepping their bounds…it’s not just a favor to the posters.

    By the way, every blog has it’s unwritten rules anyway. This blog is for people who all agree that Torah is from Har Sinai and so on…

  • Chaim Wolfson

    Reading this post reminds me of a story my brother-in-law once told me. He was learning in an out-of-town community kollel, and one of the people who use to stop by the kollel was an old man who was born in the town of Navardok. He told my brother-in-law that as a young boy he had once heard the Chofetz Chaim speak. It seems that with the deterioration of the communal structure in the aftermath of the first World War, many parents — this man’s included — began sending their children to Polish “gymnasiums” (i.e., public schools). The Chofetz Chaim, who was in his eighties at the time, traveled from town to town exhorting parents to send their children to Talmud Torahs instead, and one of the towns he spoke in was Navardok, where this fellow heard him. When my brother-in-law asked the man if his parents listened to the Chofetz Chaim and switched him to a Talmud Torah, he answered in Yiddish, “Nein. Mein Tatta hat g’halten az er veis nisht vos er redt” ["No. My father held that he (the Chofetz Chaim) does not know what he's talking about!"] So, there really is nothing new under the sun.

  • Shalom Rosenfeld

    My amaaratzus is showing! How embarrasing!

    There’s the Sholom Aleichem story of the women who asks her neighbor about the large copper pot she’d borrowed: “first of all it was small, second of all it wasn’t copper it was iron, and third, what do you mean borrowed, it was mine all along!”

    The Gemara is Bava Basra 60b, regarding R’ Yishmael ben Elisha (who a few years back had served in the Temple on Yom Kippur and had G-d ask him for a blessing, and a few years later, had his son and daughter taken by the Romans); afraid I can’t cut-paste Hebrew here:

    “From the day the evil kingdom [of Rome] has spread, which decrees evil,harsh decrees against us; and eradicates Torah and Mitzvos from us, and won’t let us do circumcision, it would be proper that we decree upon ourselves not to marry or have children, and thus the offspring of Abraham would die out on its own; but leave the Jews alone, better they violate by mistake than on purpose.”

    Whoah.

    Other thoughts on leadership; again, there are individual poskim vs. a sanhedrin, but these at least inform the issue somewhat:

    1.) Shmuel, in Pesachim 30a, declares: “right now the standard practice is to be machmir like X. But if this leads to price-gouging, forget it, I’ll get up and pasken that you can get away with Y instead.” (Similar case in Sukkah, if I recall.)

    2.) Rambam Mamrim 2:5 — before an enactment is made, the rabbis must spend serious deliberation on whether people will be able to handle the new rule.

    3.) Raban Gamliel had been the Nassi in Jerusalem shortly before the year 70, then suddenly Raban Yochanan ben Zakai appears on the scene. I was taught (from R’ Herschel Welcher shlita, I don’t recall who he was quoting) that Raban Gamliel realized he was not the right person for handling a crisis like the Roman siege, so he handed over the keys to [Raban] Yochanan ben Zakai. (Note that the former had been raised privileged, and the latter had a business background.)

    4.) A few years later in Yavneh, when “they” see that Raban Gamliel is overstepping his bounds in humiliating those who disagree with him, “they” have him removed from his position as Nasi. (Again, who is “they”, is an interesting question.)

    5.) One more interesting topic — for another time — the role of raish galusa in Talmudic times. Did they always ask a rabbi everything?

  • Doron Beckerman

    In light of a discussion I have been participating in with a blogger, I want to add the following:

    I am not under the impression that the blogosphere is a monolith. In addressing the J-blogosphere as a whole in my essay, the intent was for each blog to make their own Cheshbon Hanefesh as to whether they comport, or want to comport, with the suggested guidelines. I do not think that they all violate these guidelines, which is plainly obvious. I thought this was clear enough by stating that “The licenses of those who take this path” as limiting those who do. But apparently it has been misconstrued by some as an attack on all J-blogs as taking the left turn, where the truth is obviously not so, so I am issuing this clarification.