Monday, July 28, 2008

Gedolim

When I was a kid, I had a “gedolim album”. I cut out pictures of Rabbis with long beards from magazines and proudly pasted them into my album. But who are these rabbis?

I’m often told, by those who are more to the “right” religiously than I am, that as an Orthodox Jew, I must listen to the “gedolim”. Basically, there are a set of individuals who are culturally agreed upon as the leaders of Jewry of this generation and that their word is law. “Da’as Torah” deems that I have no right to question their decisions since they are naturally on a much higher spiritual plane than I am.

The absurdity of this should be self-evident, but I’ll lay it out nonetheless.

This is a group of men with whom I have very little in common other than the fact that they and I both keep roughly the same set of daily requirements to be an observant Jew (though we don’t even agree on many details of those requirements.)

I know virtually nothing about these individuals on a personal level. I’ve heard a couple of stories that supposedly attest to their greatness – stories that smack of Jewish urban legends.

Additionally, I’ve been told about decisions and statements they’ve made about society & culture – decisions & ideas I fundamentally disagree with and seem to me to be the product of ignorance about the greater world, about the way working people think, about the way women function & think today, and about basic needs of most people who live outside the cloistered yeshiva world.

They have smicha, but then again, so does my accountant.

They may be extremely learned in Talmud, and in the voluminous literature of centuries of rishonim & achronim that came afterwards, far more than I am, but I don’t know this for sure, I only know that there is some sort of community consensus that they are.

However, there is no “Gadol PhD” that assures me that they are experts in all human knowledge and that their wisdom is of the superior sort. There is no agreed upon set of standards that establish them as generational leaders. There is only a vague community consensus that is spread by word of mouth and popularity within certain communities which I am not part of.

They almost certainly, on average, know far less science and classical literature than I do. They know far less about the business world than I do. They know less about economics than I do. They probably know less about politics than I do, other than in areas of specific concern to their communities.

They certainly don’t watch CNN, so when they get information about what’s going on in the world, it’s secondhand at the least, filtered through followers who bring them this news.

I don’t doubt that they are probably kind & generous individuals whose constituents are generally happy with the way they rule. But I am not one of their constituents. I barely know who they are.

So let’s summarize.

The “gedolim” are a group of people who I don’t know, whose halachic knowlege is probably superior to mine, though I only know this through heresay, whose knowledge is almost certainly inferior to my own in most other realms, who I don’t know personally and whose communities am I am not part of, and who have no degree other than that of Rabbi, which is held by many thousands of others.

Exactly why should I be deferring to their opinions about how I should live my life, who I should vote for, where I should live, and how I should raise my children?? Because someone tells me that that is what Orthodox Jews do?

No thank you. I am a thinking being, not a sheep.

If I want to know if a particular pot needs to be kashered I’ll ask my local rabbi. If I want to know why my back hurts, I’ll go to a doctor. If I want to decide who to vote for, I’ll look at the issues and make an informed decision.

And if I want to put my life in anyone’s hands, it’s God’s, not a group of guys I don’t know.
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UPDATE July 30: Harry Maryles just wrote a good post on basically the same topic

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