Retroactive Prophecy Redux

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As I expected, my critique of some recent writing of Rabbi Berel Wein has generated many comments and communications.  There were, also as expected, yeas and nays

The nays focused on either or both of two complaints.  Paraphrased loosely: 1) How DARE you criticize an elder statesman of the Orthodox Jewish world?  (And a sub-complaint: How DARE you not refer to Rabbi Wein as a Rosh Yeshiva?)

And 2) But Rabbi Wein is right! Gedolim have erred in the past!  So what bothers you about what Rabbi Wein wrote?

The first thing first.  I have great respect for Rabbi Wein as a person and a scholar, and feel enormous personal hakaras hatov to him for several things, among them his wonderful history tapes, which I used back in the 1980s to create a syllabus for a high school Jewish history course I taught then; and his mentorship of, and Torah-study with, a cherished son-in law of mine, who remains close to, and works with, Rabbi Wein to this day.

I meant no insult, chalilah, by not referring to Rabbi Wein as a Rosh Yeshiva (he led Yeshivas Shaarei Torah in Monsey for 20 years).  He has not, however, served in that position since 1997, and his rightful claims to fame are his great knowledge of Jewish history and his writings.  The Wikipedia entry for Rabbi Wein, in fact and accurately, identifies him as “an American-born Orthodox rabbi, scholar, lecturer, and writer… regarded as an expert on Jewish history…”

As to the reason I felt it was acceptable, even required, to publicly criticize his recent essays, I can only say that there are times that “ein cholkin kavod lirav” – “we do not defer to even great men”  This, I felt and feel, was such a time.

As to the second complaint, the complainers need only read – this time, carefully – what Rabbi Wein wrote, and – just as carefully – what I did.

I did not contest the assertion that the religious leaders of Klal Yisrael can err; in fact the Gemara says so, in many places; to the contrary, I clearly stated the fact.

What I contested was the attitude that any of us can be sure, based only on our own lights, that great men in fact erred in specific cases; and – most egregiously – that those judgments allow us to cavalierly reject the current guidance of our own generation’s religious leadership.

To wit, Rabbi Wein insinuates that the Gedolim of today, who are looked to for guidance by the majority of yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and Jewish day schools, are limited by  “a mindset that hunkers back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories.”  That jaundiced judgment is used by Rabbi Wein to explain why those Gedolim don’t endorse the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut or the commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (but rather, instead, in other ways and at times like Tisha B’Av).

“The whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world,” he further writes, “is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.” No one, though, denies those facts, only that they somehow mean that opposition to the creation of Israel before the Second World War is, as a result, somehow retroactively rendered erroneous.

Rabbi Wein also writes that “One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken. But again it is too painful to admit that he was mistaken…”

Perhaps Rabbi Wein is referring to someone else, but if his reference is to the Chazon Ish, it is a tale widely told in some circles that lacks any basis I have been able to find. On the contrary, the contention has been utterly rejected by someone, a talmid of the Chazon Ish who became an academic, who spoke to the Chazon Ish extensively about Israel.  The godol, the talmid writes, expressed his opinion that time would have to tell whether Israel would develop into a positive or negative thing for Klal Yisrael; but the Godol did not, the talmid stresses, ever opine what he felt the future held, much less offer some timeline.

The issue is not whether Gedolim are Nevi’im (they are not) but whether the Gedolim of each generation are, in the end, those to whom the Torah wishes us to turn for guidance, the “einei ha’eidah,” the “eyes of the people.”  Or just some righteous but out-of-touch ivory tower scholars who cannot be relied upon for anything but issues concerning kashrus or Shabbos.

I make no apologies for standing up for the former conviction.  And I would welcome Rabbi Wein proclaiming a similar stance.  But, alas, words he has written have struck me, and many, many others (including both those upset at those words and others who welcomed them with glee) as implying the latter.

I truly wish I hadn’t felt the need to address those words, but I did.