Friday, August 31, 2007

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Leadership

(Picture courtesy of

Recently there was a conversation on this blog where the topic of contemporary frum leadership came up. It's a sticky issue, and we are warned by Chazal in multiple places to use extreme caution before disregarding or disobeying our leaders. In our history we've had many examples of chachomim, Tzadikim, with ruach hakodesh, and we know that Hashem guides true chachomim with Siyata Dishmaya for the sake of Klal Yisroel. We are told that the chachomim of every generation are like Moshe and Aharon in their generation; and in Parshas Shoftim we are told to listen to the chachomim even if we think they're wrong:

"According to the teaching that they teach you and the judgment that they will tell you, so shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will say to you, right or left." (Devarim 17:9-11).

Rashi comments on the words "right or left:

"Even if they say that your right is left and your left is right; how much more so if they tell you that your right is right and your left is left."

This became a rallying cry for the old Aguda in Europe with the catchphrase, "Daas Torah."

But, the question is, how do we apply that? Does that mean that we must go like sheep no matter what, even if we find some things that the rabbonim say extremely troubling? What about the times when the guidance has been poor, or our leaders were shown to have been wrong? What about when rabbonim become enablers for terrible actions (as has been pointed out so often in the blogosphere)? What about if rabbonim don't seem to understand the plight of many Jews? What about the passing campaigns that come and go with all kinds of signatures that just seem so silly and never get to the big issues, or are later exposed as based on faulty information? What about the political maneuvers and pettiness that goes on? What about when the chachomim erode their credibility and people have begun to tune them out and laugh at the latest pronouncements? Does G-d really put us all on notice that we must follow the chachomim in all cases no matter what?

Rabbi Hershel Schechter tells the story that while Herman Wouk taught in YU, he had said that his masterpiece "The Caine Mutiny" was based on that Rashi in Shoftim: That no matter what happens, we are required to respect the chain of command and follow our leadership. To which, Rav Schechter said, they had to inform him that this is not pshat in Rashi.

The simple pshat and the simple meaning of this Rashi and Chazal's warnings doesn't mean that we're required to check our brain at the door whenever rabbonim speak – because it really depends. It depends on the rov, and it depends on the situation, and it depends on the subject matter. When Rashi and Chazal tell us not to deviate from the psak, they are talking about halachic matters. If rabbonim say something in the realm of issur v'heter, if the rov says something is blood, or if something kosher, or if something is assur on Shabbos, we must be sure not to deviate from the psak. If we come to beis din with an argument and the rov rules in favor of a certain party, then that's the psak – we must not deviate. Things that fall under the expertise of the rabbonim we are, without a doubt, obligated to follow. This is the structure of Yiddishkeit, and it has always been so; so, even if I were to disagree in those cases, I remain obligated to follow the psak of the experts who tell me that I'm wrong.

And while we are taught that everything is contained in Torah, most rabbonim in our time have very limited knowledge in many fields; a rov isn't trained to be a scientist, historian, social worker, philosopher, art critic, musician, linguist, engineer, financial planner, doctor or technical expert. And while he may be a good guy, even a smart guy, his field of expertise is Shas and Poskim, and those are the areas that he carries the most weight. Should the rov also be a high level doctor, we would be likely to hold his medical opinions in high regard – but not because he's a rov or a gadol, but because he's a medical expert.

We hope that rabbonim consult with experts before they pasken about the halachic merits of a specific matter (and we assume that they do), therefore, in matters of cold halacha, we must defer to the rabbonim and gedolim inasmuch as this is clearly their territory, but when we are talking about issues that are outside their expertise, outside the psak halacha of issur v'heter, it's another story.

Of course, we must maintain respect for them, and take care not to be flippant about rabbinic proclomations, but if Rabbonim say something or act in a way that is nonsensical or if they have lost touch with the realties and the "amcha" Jew or they don't recognize or (aren't fully aware of) certain realities, if they are playing politics or covering up heinous acts, that's not the case Rashi is talking about. That's not the simple meaning of "Daas Torah." In fact, the contemporary concept of "Daas Torah" was a political slogan that the Aguda used for elections and politics in the Polish government, and its current application is no more than the misapplied concept of a Chassidic Rebbe into the common thinking for even non-chassidic Jews.

A Chossid / Rebbe relationship is another matter entirely, and that's not what we're talking about here. Chassidim follow their Rebbe no matter what and no matter when; that's Chassidus, and it is legitimate, but it's also an entirely different matter. Outside of a Chassidic Rebbe and his Chossid, there are many examples where things are far from simple, and we need a good, honest, caring confidant to speak to – and only such a person is able to help us grow and find happiness and success in those matters.

We have two obligations: Aseh lecha rav, v'kaneh lecha chaver (Make for yourself a rov, and acquire for yourself a friend). Every Jew needs a rov, he needs to recognize rabbinical authority for halachic matters, but in areas where the rov is not as up to speed, on matters where the rov may be lacking, there you need a good friend.


At August 31, 2007 at 8:41:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chabakuk Elisha,

It's interesting that you give a Chassidim a "heter" to follow their Rebbeim without reservation---even though this seems to go against the other points in your article.

Are you saying that these Rebbeim are all qualified to be "life coaches? Or that it's OK to take on this degree of "followerhood" voluntarily? If it's the latter, do you extend this "heter" to non-Chassidim who choose to revere their own spiritual leaders to this degree?

In general, can you conceive of a situation in our modern, fully wired world where an inquiring Jew has absolutely no access to the "right" kind of Rav? If not, what did you mean by "but in areas where the rov is not as up to speed, on matters where the rov may be lacking, there you need a good friend." We have often picked up the phone or sent an email or letter to get clarification from a qualified and sympathetic Rav of our choice; he doesn't have to live around the corner.

At August 31, 2007 at 10:42:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me clarify: when I say chossid, I am not referring to political definitions; rather, I am speaking about more of a philosophical definition. If someone is a chossid, and has a classical Chossid-Rebbe relationship with his Rebbe, than he also accepts the Chassidic definition of his Rebbe, and therefore his Rebbe IS Moshe Rabbeinu to him, and he follows him in all matters. The chossid is not required to be a chossid of anyone, but if he chooses to be so, it�s completely allowed, understandable, normal and wonderful.
I also have no problem with anyone who chooses to have such a relationship with their rov � that�s their business. For a Chossid, who adheres to Chassidic philosophy and thought, the Tzaddik, and his connection to him, is an essential component of his Yiddishkeit. Therefore, it only makes sense for him to follow his Rebbe with complete devotion. For a non-Chossid, the place of Tzaddik figure is different (as are some of the priorities and flavor of his Yiddishkeit) and therefore the relationship is different.

But really, it�s not about �heter� to follow chachomim, to the contrary, it�s the other way around: I am merely saying that if an individual is struggling or frustrated by the rabbonim, it places him in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between what he sees or thinks is right on the one hand, and what he�s being told on the other. And I am simply saying that the statements that direct us to follow the chachomim of out time are not all inclusive, and we have the right to recognize when something runs contrary to someone�s reality then there is room for that too.

In cases like that, I believe wholeheartedly in discussing it with good friends that understand and can relate and to the individual situation (I am avoiding specific cases so as not to get sidetracked into whatever details may be involved).

At August 31, 2007 at 12:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem of "mefursomim shel sheker" is all the more actual in these days.

At August 31, 2007 at 1:28:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) The posuk of Lo sosur is talking about the beis din hagodol (Supreme Rabbinic Court), a large group of great men, not about individual Rabbis or lower courts.

2) See the Torah Temimah on lo sosur, where he cites a Yerushalmi that says that when there is a clear error it does not apply.

3) I think Bob Miller made an important point. Maybe CE felt he had to throw in a Hassidic exemption due to his background. Nevertheless, I think the article overall is a step forward for those who are confused about this and are vulnerable to falling for the wrong pshat.

At August 31, 2007 at 2:02:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...if an individual is struggling or frustrated by the rabbonim..."

If this individual is frustrated on a point of Jewish theory or practice, not only by some but by ALL rabbonim, he has to consider that he could be wrong. If his supportive friends don't talk sense to him, they could reinforce and not correct his wrong judgment.

At September 1, 2007 at 9:58:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember that many years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe zatzal attended an exhibit of the art of Boruch Nachshon, one of his Chassidim. As the Rebbe and the artist stood together in front the first painting, the Rebbe said, "Now you must be the teacher, and I am the student!"

I don't believe this was simply an expression of modesty. The Rebbe really felt that this was not his area of expertise and wished to learn more.

No doubt this applies to many areas of knowledge. Great rabbonim don't fool themselves (or others) but seek instruction from experts when they need it.

We find that Chazal consulted with medical experts, as did our gedolei ha-poskim throughout the doros, etc. Chabakuk Elisha's analysis makes a lot of sense!

At September 2, 2007 at 12:51:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Nice and important posting, CE.

I believe that R Yisrael Salanter was one of the first to coin the phrase, "Daas Torah".
R Micah Berger has a nice post about it herehere

At September 2, 2007 at 9:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

I think there's an important point to be made here that might have been left out.

We discussed on this very blog this difference between learning a narrow range of Torah to the depth and learning all of Torah in greater breadth.

The result of the Talmid Chacham only knowing "shas and poskim" is a result of the "narrow range of Torah in great depth" philosophy.

Sepharadi Hachamim, were/are expected to be knowledgeable in all areas of life. (and of course to seek insight from experts when they were ignorant of something)

I'll reverse the question that is the basis of the article though: Could it be possible to really know shas and poskim if you don't also know science/medicine/psychology/history etc???

At September 3, 2007 at 3:38:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are you asking about the metzius or are you asking in theory?

Because I would say that although you might be right in theory, I don't think it's true in fact...

At September 4, 2007 at 5:11:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

CE, you wrote: Of course, we must maintain respect for them, and take care not to be flippant about rabbinic proclamations, but if Rabbanim say something or act in a way that is nonsensical or if they have lost touch with the realties and the "amcha" Jew or they don't recognize or (aren't fully aware of) certain realities, if they are playing politics or covering up heinous acts, that's not the case Rashi is talking about.

I have to take strong issue with this statement. Who are you to judge that a statement made is "nonsensical", or that the Gedolei HaDor have "lost touch with reality?" Playing politics? Covering up heinous acts? What are you saying?

I'm afraid that too many of us have been influenced by today's media, including the Internet and yes, the J-Blogosphere. Are we aware of how much damage is being caused by the Lashon Hara [disparaging speech, gossip] and outright Motzi Shem Ra [libel] via all of these so-called "jewish" websites, blogs, etc. out there?

Allow me to repeat the famous mashal [parable] about the seriousness of Lashon Hara, and the difficulty involved in atoning for it:
The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially: money lost can be repaid, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired. For this reason, some sources indicate that there is no forgiveness for lashon hara. This is probably hyperbole, but it illustrates the seriousness of improper speech. A Chassidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, "Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds." The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, "Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers."

And one more thing. Chazal [our Sages] put into Mishnayos a Masechta called Pirkei Avos, �Ethics of the Fathers.� This is not Halacha, but ethical teachings of our Sages. Shas is enriched by the Aggados, the ethical and philosophical teachings, that are sprinkled throughout it. Is it not part of Torah? We only need to follow our Sages in areas of Halacha? What a narrow view of Yiddishkeit [Judaism] you are presenting!

At September 4, 2007 at 10:08:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reb Yitz,
Although I hear this often, and your point of view is a commonly held one, I think there is an element of “head-in-the-sandism” in it.
I don't want to get into a discussion about particular issues for a number of reasons – first and foremost because I don't want to put myself in the position of bringing embarrassment to Yidden – but I do think that honest people can find plenty of cases where the leadership has left much to be desired. That said, I maintain that we need to respect the Jewish leadership, and not jump to conclusions. And that’s why I said we need a good friend to talk to – a friend that can show us how we may be wrong or at least help us deal with the curveballs that our realities throw at us.
If someone finds a figure, an "Ish asher ruach bo," then kol hakavod! Follow him! I'm not telling anyone not to do so – I am merely saying that those of us who become disappointed at our leadership need not feel as if "something is rotten in Judaism," rather, we can make peace with this by recognizing that our leadership isn’t perfect, and we are not required to blindly march in line when things don’t add up…
Sorry, but that's the way I see it; only G-d is perfect.

At September 4, 2007 at 11:59:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

CE: You said, but I do think that honest people can find plenty of cases where the leadership has left much to be desired.

This statement indicates that you have already concluded in your mind that when the leading Sages do not respond in the way you think they should respond, the problem is with them. Your statement also claims that "honest" people would agree with you; thus, you are accusing those who respect the greater wisdom of our leading Sages as being dishonest! You fail to recognize that the vast and deep Torah knowledge of these Sages may lead them to have different views than you have. Yes, you mention the idea of talking things over with a friend, but why should one wait for a friend to show him that the leading sages may know better? This respectful attitude towards the leading Sages of Torah should be at the beginning of the process.

At September 5, 2007 at 12:13:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have thought carefully about how to respond here, but out of respect for our leaders I have decided not to reply, since any reply would include further criticism that has no real benefit to anyone.
All I will say is that I don’t mean to take away your emunas chachomim, so if you are happy with the matzav, I give you my brocho you that should remain happy with it – and I give a brocho to all leaders that they should lead Klal Yisroel wisely & successfully.

At September 6, 2007 at 7:43:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...


why not take up your issues with the gedolim in question? all of them are approachable, they all pray somewhere (where you can show up and ask them whatever you like, be hutzpadic if you need to) and/or accept visitors/she'eilot.

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