Deifying Gedolim

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This summer has been a whirlwind of activity, with hardly any time to formulate a coherent thought in my own head, much less put one down on paper.  However, there have been so many topics that I have wanted to think about and write about.  Perhaps once the school year begins for my kids and yom tov madness dies down I will have time to write again.

In the meantime, before this fleeting thought leaves my wasted brain only to be forgotten forever, I wanted to speak about a concerning phenomenon that I have read about before, but never heard verbalized so directly as in a recent conversation I had with an orthodox woman.  The phenomenon I speak of is that of deifying gedolim.  Taking the torah giants of our age, or that of any age really, and turning them into G-ds in their own right.

I have always been told that there are certain men who have a direct link to Hashem.  Rabbis who can posken difficult shailas (answer questions on life issues based in accordance with Jewish law) on behalf of klal yisroel, and we can be certain that their advice is what Hashem commands because of their deep level of torah knowledge and spirituality.  Their piety puts them on a different madrega (step/level) than the rest of us because of their direct link to the Abishter (G-d).  Apparently this link continues even after their deaths, because a favorite pastime among frum Jews is to daven by the kevers (graves) of our holiest ancestors who can FedEx our prayers up to Olam Ha-Ba (the afterlife/heaven) and get them directly on Hashem’s to-do list ASAP.

This viewpoint that our past and present gedolim are infallible and perfect has been taken to a new level in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Much has been written about Artscroll revisionism.  Many readers have complained that Artscroll’s biographies of gedolim leave out important facts such as college educations, careers, and general worldly knowledge that many of our former leaders had accomplished.  To read their life stories from Artscroll’s perspective is to read examples of lives lived in a Jewish bubble of torah learning, where manna seemingly continued to fall from heaven, and no man ever needed to toil for his daily bread.  Rabbi Harry Maryles wrote an article in which he quotes ArtScroll founder and publisher, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, who was asked about the accuracy of Artscroll’s rabbinic biographies in an interview a few years ago –

“He (Scherman) said it is because ArtScroll isn’t interested in giving a full historical account of a person’s life. They are only interested in reporting that part of a person’s life that portrays him (or her) in ways that will inspire the reader.

How, he asks asks, does saying something (Charedim consider) negative do that? Besides – exposing something (they consider) negative might hurt the surviving family. He said there is absolutely no benefit in knowing unflattering truths of history anyway… What is gained by it?”

For a more in-depth look on Jewish historical revisionism, it pays to read Rabbi Jacob Schacher’s interesting paper.  Through his research, he debunks a number of stories about famous rabbis that serve to validate the lifestyle and goals of the ultra orthodox community today.  It is also interesting to read the interview on the Rationislist Judaism blog of Rav Nosson Kamenetzky, whose 2002 banned book, “The Making of a Godol,” which dealt with the biographies of American Haredi leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries, caused an uproar among the current rabbinic leadership.

Before I get lost in muddle of related research, I’ll get back to the conversation which led me to think about deification of our gedolim.  I was speaking with a woman who I would characterize as “modern haredi.”  To me, she opitimizes the ultimate modern haredi woman.  She is fervently religious, but also well educated and worldly, able to provide for her family in a way most men would be jealous of.  Her husband is an amazing and sincere rabbi who learned for many years, but now also works in a professional capacity.

Although I know that she and her family rely on daas torah (the rulings of rabbis) for many decisions in their lives, I was surprised to find how much she vehemently defended any position the gedolim in her community took on any issue.  She expressed an unthinking agreement and blind following of any psak her gedolim made – even though she had never met most personally and only saw one speak in person one time.  I was surprised by her blind allegiance because she is in a position of authority at work and very influential in local community organizations.   She can be a very take charge and opinionated person in her daily life.  This isn’t to say she isn’t also kind and soft spoken and that her family isn’t first on her priority list.  She is multidimensional.

She spoke of one rabbi who she unquestioningly follows on any opinion.  When someone else brought up the suspicion that this rabbi was of very advanced age and possibly suffering from dementia or a failing memory, she dismissed it as nonsense and said that she had heard him speak and that he was sharp as a tack.  When someone suggested that there was talk that those close to the rav were using him to pursue their own agendas and issuing psaks in his name, she became incredibly angry and agitated.  When I suggested that these great rabbis were also human beings, and as such, subject to human infirmities and failings, she told me that the gedolim were not subject to age, infirmity, and illness the way the rest of us are.  They remained completely coherent and clear headed right up until the end because of their connection to Hashem.  We cannot possibly comprehend the high level that they are on.

This conversation scared me.  I don’t think that I would have been as concerned if I were talking to a brand new Breslover Na Nach baal teshuva in Jerusalem (no disrespect intended).  However, I was talking to a frum-from-birth educated woman who I respect and admire, and who is rational in all other areas of her life.  Where does the line get crossed between faith in our leaders and avodah zarah (idol worship)?  Is it ok to make our rabbinic leadership into idols or G-ds in their own right?  I have suddenly found myself in a world where to question or critique the rabbinic leadership of our generation or past generations is akin to blasphemy.  Is this Judaism we are practicing or some new religion ruled by multiple deities to be blindly obeyed under threat of being labelled a heretic?