Looking for Gedolim in All the Wrong Places?

Ethan Tucker

I am grateful to the editors of Lehrhaus for inviting me into this discussion and to my friend and colleague, Chaim Saiman, for offering his intriguing analysis about the role of gedolim in the leadership of various Jewish communities.  Overall, I am very much in agreement with Chaim’s theory: we must ask ourselves not just who qualifies as a gadol in objective terms—if this is even possible to answer—but also determine which communities even truly want such figures to guide them in the first place.

If I understand Chaim’s terminology correctly, he is speaking about gedolim largely in their halakhic capacity to grant certain positions legitimacy such that following them locates one squarely within acceptable communal boundaries.  So let us state at the outset that there are entire communities of Jews who are not really interested in this sort of boundary policing of Jewish life by leaders at all.  This group, interestingly, includes Jews of the “social Orthodox” variety, for whom Orthodoxy is a sociological space they wish to live in, devoid of any objective theological or normative weight.  For this group, which comprises the vast majority of American Judaism, the fact that a self-selected subsection of the laity practices a certain way is always more than enough to legitimate a certain practice.

The question here is thus mainly focused on Jews who do feel that there is some sort of objective theological and normative standard to which one must answer, but who do not live in a culture that organically waits for the kind of gedolim Chaim is speaking about to reach conclusions on practice.  Do such communities in fact not have gedolim?  And if not, why not?

I think Chaim is probably largely right that these sorts of Jews don’t have gedolim whose authority spans broad geographic, demographic, and sociological realities.  The local rabbi may have tremendous importance for such Jews, but their communities are insufficiently globalized to produce figures known the world over who are the gatekeepers on acceptable practice, at least with respect to the most contentious issues of the day.  Positing this analysis as basically correct, why is this so?

Chaim’s piece focuses largely on his claim that it is Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy’s higher qualification standards for being a gadol that significantly limits this leadership phenomenon on that community.  There may well be a solid group of Modern/Centrist Orthodox people who objectively qualify for the overriding deference and respect granted a gadol, but the relevant community does not need or want this figure badly enough to settle for just anyone to fill this role.  In addition, he suggests that what he calls “Liberal Orthodoxy” displays almost no demand for a gadol at all, since, “central to the idea of a gadol is submission to someone who stands apart from the community and whose authority is qualitatively different from the other forms of authority experienced in modern life.”  I agree, without question, that there is a divide among modern Jews regarding what sort of authority they want in their lives, and Chaim is correct to map this phenomenon onto the potential role of a gadol in a Jewish community.

But I think we can push farther in our understanding of the root causes of some of this division.  I would like to suggest two other angles.

Autonomy and its Cultural Effects

Chaim’s nod towards autonomy as one major piece of the explanation here is undoubtedly correct.  The sovereign self does not lightly make room for others to tell it what to do.  Some of this in undeniably corrosive for traditional Jewish life.  Our culture, which lionizes autonomy, does not merely have an effect on our notions of authority.  It also helps define the scope of our interests.  An autonomous culture—and especially an information- and entertainment-rich one—invites its members to sample its bounty widely.  Eclecticism becomes the new orthodoxy, except that this is an oxymoron.  The beating heart of cultural eclecticism is the freedom to mix and match, to choose from a range of different experiences and craft one’s own path.  This naturally biases participants in the culture to privilege their selection of any given gadol’s wisdom from a broad menu of possibilities for living a good life.  In fact, simply on the stylistic plane, the gadol is at a disadvantage in this sort of contemporary culture.  For many, there is something monochromatic about the gadol, if not monomaniacal.  Experts whose entire identity and knowledge base are clustered in one field of life are generally viewed in our culture as figures to be consulted, not gurus who provide general direction for all of life’s key decisions.  In other words, the expert has a well-defined and respected role, albeit within the bounds of his or her expertise.  Few people would go to their doctor for professional mentorship.   I am not sure there is any figure in most people’s modern lives who plays the part of a gadol in the way Chaim is describing that figure in religious life.  There is no doubt that Chaim’s description of the university professor as a revered figure of ultimately limited influence here is a useful reference point.  People deeply engaged in today’s globalized and networked culture, where wisdom can be accessed and scanned when convenient, generally make their own decisions, and this conflicts with a culture of deep deference that waits for others to make decisions for you.

But some caution is in order here before we pile on too much on the culture of autonomy. To the extent autonomy is an excuse for serving the self and its needs, it is a mortal threat to serving God and must be combatted by anyone committed to covenantal Judaism.  But to the extent that a culture of religious autonomy reflects a more learned culture and one that places greater confidence in individuals to serve God me-ahavah, it may be nothing to be ashamed of.  In a deep sense, rabbinic work in much of the Jewish community—including significant swaths of Orthodoxy—has moved to more of a health-care model, with an expert guiding the patient how best to care for themselves.  This reflects not so much a suspicion of authority, as much as a sense that “the patient” often knows best.  And I wonder if this is less non-ideal than Chaim suggests.  In public health contexts, we generally consider a more informed, self-reliant, and knowledgeable population to be a boon not just to doctors but to the overall wellness of the population.  Assuming levels of knowledge are high enough—they most certainly often are not—a lesser or more “horizontal” role for authority figures may indicate a sign of health, rather than decadent autonomy.

What Are Gedolim Good For?

My larger issue with Chaim’s analysis is that I don’t think all issues in Jewish life are the same, nor do I think the kinds of gedolim he is describing are equally suited for addressing all of the community’s needs.  Gedolim, as Chaim describes them, encourage and foster stability across diverse and dispersed communities and act as a check on irresponsible practical interpretations of Jewish law.  As such, they are a fundamentally conservative force, one that must emerge over time and through the forging of broad consensus.  Building off of Chaim’s demand-side analysis, we would expect gedolim to be in high demand in communities that are looking for conservatism in almost all areas of Jewish life.  We would also expect them to be particularly important in communities where the benefits of religious formalism are experienced as outweighing its risks.  Only if one is generally unafraid that continuing the form of a past practice is always a safe bet will one feel secure entrusting potential halakhic development to the sort of dynamic presided over by gedolim.  A useful parallel is the system of federal government in the United States, which is constitutionally biased against getting much of anything done.  This is a good system for those who feel that people are best left alone by the (federal) government and that leaving them so alone will generally do much less harm than good.  For anyone who feels that legislation ought to respond quickly to popular impulses, the U.S. Constitution is mostly a nightmare.

Where Chaim sees Jewish communities that are restless and resistant to authority, I see that too.  But I also see people who do not trust rabbis—often with good reason—to be true leaders on (what the laity in these communities perceive to be) the key, complex religious issues of the day.  And once the rabbis have lost their trust on those big issues, the lack of trust can trickle down to much less controversial arenas.  The potential gadol is left as an expert to be consulted on ritual items that “don’t really matter,” such as the right way to kasher an oven or how to dispose of one’s etrog after a shemittah year, but his pronouncements are at best perused on more weighty matters of communal self-definition.  What are those weighty issues?  It seems pretty clear to me that they boil down to questions of gender and sexuality, the proper boundary lines between Jews and Gentiles, questions of Jewish status and lineage, and how to engage with Jews of varied observance and belief.   As of now, I can open up the responsa literature of the gedolim and find compelling answers and guidance on most issues, but hardly any at all on these, at least if I am unsatisfied with an imagined status quo as accurately getting at God’s will.

I understand well the longing for a gadol.  Personally, I can say that, in my own life, I spent a good number of years longing for such a figure who could embody the comprehensive knowledge that defined generational expertise and who could provide the thought leadership on the issues of the day that I felt were critical.  I ending up concluding that this was simply impossible to find and, despite my preferences, began trying instead to compile the best wisdom I could find from as many sources as possible.  I have since come to think that perhaps being a gadol and creating a community that demands one requires a certain degree of stability on core strategic issues.  Moments of reevaluation, or creative reassessment, are not hospitable for the culture of gedolim.  It is my hope that the work of our generation to address some of these tough issues may move us to a place where (at least the healthy kind of) rabbinic authority can enjoy a renaissance in much larger swaths of Jewish life.

There is precedent for hoping that it might be so.  The most recent fault line to rupture the Jewish community, Zionism, also led to a deep erosion in the culture of gedolim.  Some of those who bore this title in many European Jewish communities were, in the eyes of many of their contemporaries and many more of their descendants looking back in hindsight, simply wrong.  My Zeydee grew up under the influence of the gedolim of Satmar and Munkatch; ultimately, he rejected their gadlut and saw them as having condemned large parts of European Jewry to death with their anti-Zionism.  Whether this is correct or not is not the point of this piece.  Rather, my grandfather’s experience shows how a community’s demand for a gadol cannot be separated from how well they feel they are being served by those gedolim.  Chaim’s focus on R. Aharon Lichtenstein is an important reminder in this regard.  Zionism was eventually resolved as a religious issue and integrated into mainstream religious life.  And sure enough, a figure like R. Lichtenstein could then emerge as a gadol, since he was no longer working on the frontier issues of Jewish life in the way his Mizrachi predecessors were a few generations earlier.   Chaim is certainly right that there is no king without a people.  We also know from the Tanakh that the king cannot arise until the land has been divided and the borders largely stabilized.

Again, I thank Chaim for his thoughtful analysis and am hopeful that many of us in the Jewish world can work together to build mutual respect between Jews and the Torah’s rabbinic interpreters. Gadol or no gadol, I think that is a vision of Jewish community that a very broad swath of Jews can agree on.

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker is Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, where he teaches Talmud and Halakhah and directs the Center for Jewish Law and Values.  He received his semikhah from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a Ph.D. in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a winner of the first Grinspoon Foundation Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.
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