Thursday, September 06, 2007

Not Limited To Pots And Pans - A Response To Chabakuk Elisha

(Picture courtesy of

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen commenting on Leadership:

The holistic wisdom of the Torah relates to all areas of life, and its goal is to develop a holy, caring, and just society. We are the people of the Torah, and the Torah sages of each generation are to guide our people on our journey through history. We therefore have a Divine mandate to bring our difficult ethical and spiritual questions to the leading Torah sages of the generation and to listen to them, as it is written, “You shall do according to the word that they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 17:10).

The “Sefer Ha-Chinuch” is a classical work on the Torah's 613 mitzvos, and in its explanation of the mitzvah to listen to the sages, it states that this precept includes the obligation to listen to the great Torah sages “in each generation.” The Sefer Ha-Chinuch also cites the following teaching of our sages: “Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his generation.” And it adds: “If a person transgresses this and does not heed the counsel of the great ones in Torah wisdom who are in that generation – in all that they teach and rule – he disobeys this mitzvah of action; moreover, his punishment will be very great, since this is the mighty pillar on which the Torah rests. The matter is known to anyone possessed of sense.”(Mitzvah 495)

The Sefer Ha-Chinuch speaks about listening to the “counsel” of the leading sages “in all that they teach and rule.” He does not seem to indicate that their guidance is to be limited to halachic matters, and that with regard to their outlook and views on the crucial issues of the day facing Klal Yisrael, we can ignore their counsel. On the contrary, their counsel is needed on the crucial issues of the day, for the Torah is “a Tree of Life” (Proverbs 3:18), and its life-giving wisdom relates to “all” areas of life.

Gedolim – leading sages – may disagree on an issue, and their followers are free to follow their own gadol, while maintaining respect for the other gadol who has a different view. In addition to respect, one must also have a sense of humility. If one does not understand the view of a gadol, one should not rush to assume that the gadol is naive, playing politics, or ignorant of reaility, chas v’shalom. This arrogant and disrespectful attitude is a legacy of the secular heretics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that mocked the idea that the Jewish people should be led by their Torah sages. These secular ideologues felt that Torah wisdom is limited to the kashrus of pots and pans and has no business addressing the great issues of life, especially the complex issue of life facing the Jewish people. As we approach the Days of Awe, we should tremble before giving support to such a view – one which degrades and diminishes the greatness of Torah and its sages.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld were two gedolim who disagreed about the way in which Torah-committed Jews should relate to the secular Zionist organizations; nevertheless, both would disagree with the view that they should be silent on this issue and that gedolim are not to lead our people on this and other issues facing us.

Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik also disagreed with this secular view. In his poetic eulogy for a gadol, Rav Soloveitchik said:

“The very same priest whose mind was suffused with the holiness of the Torah of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, of Abaye and Rava, of the Rambam and Ravad, of the Beit Yosef and the Rama, could also discern with the holy spirit the solution to all current political questions, to all worldly matters, to all ongoing current demands.”

Those words were written in 1940, as part of a eulogy for a great Lithuanian gadol and leader, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski.

On Rosh Hashana, we pray to the One Who desires life. Let us therefore not limit the power of the Tree of Life, whose branches embrace every area of human existence.


At September 6, 2007 at 5:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Beautiful post, Reb Yosef!!!
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld were two gedolim who disagreed about the way in which Torah-committed Jews should relate to the secular Zionist organizations;
We should also remember that they had tremendous respect for one antoher. Rav Sonnenfeld accompanied Rav Kook & other Rabbanim on the famous "Masa HaTeshuva," an attempt at bringing a little bit of Torah-Judaism to the kibbutzim & moshavim of Eretz Yisrael!
Shana Tova to all!

At September 6, 2007 at 7:19:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pirkei Avos - the book about the ethical and mussar teachings of our sages - was included in the Mishnah, and it opens with the words, "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai..." The Rav (Bartenura) explains that this comes to teach us that the ethical and mussar teachings cited in this work are not of human origin, for they are part of the Divine Teaching given at Sinai. The wisdom of our sages is therefore rooted in the Divine wisdom.

Respecting the wisdom of our sages is especially crucial before the Days of Awe, as the Talmud (Pesachim 22b) teaches that the mitzvah, "You shall have awe for Hashem, your God" (Deuteronomy 10:20), includes the awe due to talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars). This teaching is derived from the addition of the Hebrew word "eth" in the verse. Rebbenu Bachya Ben Asher discusses this mitzvah in his work, "Kad HaKemach," and he writes:

The word "eth" includes talmidei chachamim, for awe of them is truly the awe of Heaven. One who is careful with respect to the awe of chachamim certainly stands in true awe of God, for it is known that the Sages are God's messengers on earth.

At September 6, 2007 at 11:44:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yayashar Koach R'Yosef,
There was a time when I would have been fully in agreement with what you wrote. Unfortunately, for soem time now, I don't think it applies to all times and places. Yet, we most surely get the leaders we deserve, so the fault is probably ours...

But I wish I felt as you do.

At September 6, 2007 at 12:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

"When G-d is angry with Israel he appoints leaders for them who guide them into pitfalls."

(Talmud - Bava Kamma 52a)

At September 6, 2007 at 12:07:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Readers may also recall this story this story about the Baal Shem Tov decrying the quality of leadership in the future. I think this is what my good friend Chabakuk Elisha is referring to.

At September 6, 2007 at 12:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, like the The Gemara in Sota (49a): Mashiach will come to a generation whose pnei hador are like the pnei hakelev...

And along those lines:

At September 6, 2007 at 12:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are leaders and there are leaders. Humans are fallible with all the best intetions. B"H we are always blessed with men of wisdom and discernement but in the past there were false leaders like: Doeg, Ahisophel, Shekhna, Chanania ben Azur, Elimelech, etc.

I agree that until you know incontrovertibly that a leader is failing, we must follow him and avoid machlokes like fire.

Not exactly the same issue but the midrash quoted therein is, I believe, fully applicable. See,

At September 6, 2007 at 7:17:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As we know, we are to avoid "loshon hara" - derogatory speech which may be true, and we are to certainly avoid "motzi shem rah" - slander - derogatory speech which is not true. We can speak loshon hara for certain constructive reasons according to specific guidelines which the Chofetz Chaim outlines. What, however, should a person do if he is not sure if the derogatory comments he wants to say is really constructive? The Chofetz Chaim teaches that in such a case, say nothing! He also teaches that if we are to be careful about the way we speak about any Jew, how much more so we should be careful about the way we speak about Torah sages, especially in public!

Like many of us, I grew up with American western culture, and it wasn't always easy to understand and accept Torah values, including the Torah values and opinions expressed by our leading sages. I discovered that the more I studied Torah, the more I was able to understand and accept what previously bothered me. This is a life-long process for those of us who grew up with modern western culture.

When I had questions about the views of our leading sages, I would ask my rebbe to help me understand their viewpoint. I am a simple Jew, but I had the ability to recognize that their vast and deep Torah knowledge and understanding could lead them to have a different view than my view.

Just as I try to judge each Jew on the scale of merit, I centainly try to judge the leading sages on the scale of merit. For example, I do not agree with most of the views expressed by Chabakuk Elisha on this issue, and I cited sources to support my view. I never, however, attacked his personality or his motives.Why then can't my brother, Chabakuk Elisha, judge the great sages of the past 50 years, including great Chassidic rebbes, on the scale of merit?

As we approach Yom Hadin - the Day of Judgement - I want to be especially careful about the honor of Torah and its sages. As the Sefer Ha-Chinuch stated, respect for the teachings and counsel of our sages "is the mighty pillar upon which the Torah rests."

For the sake of truth and shalom, I wish to cite a statement by Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America regarding our issue. Chabakuk Elisha would probably agree with his opening statement, while the rest of his remarks support the respectful approach I suggested. He writes:

"Da'at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters.

What Da'at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews - just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice.

Jewish tradition refers to Torah leaders as the "eyes of the community." That is because they see things more clearly than the rest of us. Not necessarily perfectly. And there are times when G-d purposefully hides things from even His most accomplished disciples. But more clearly all the same.

What compels the concept of Da'at Torah is nothing less than belief in the transcendence of Torah.

In Jewish theology, Torah encompasses every corner of life. It is not limited to matters of Jewish law and practice. It extends to how one is to view happenings and face challenges, in one's community, in one's country, on one's planet.

The phrase Da'at Torah may be a relatively new one, but the insinuation that the concept it reflects is some sort of modern invention by "unmodern" Jews is absurd. "Emunat chachamim," or "trust in the judgment of the Torah-wise," has been part and parcel of Jewish tradition for millennia. The Talmud and Jewish history are replete with examples of how the Jewish community looked to their religious leaders for guidance about social, political and personal decisions - decisions that, as believing Jews, they understood must be based on authentic Torah values."


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