Update: Lehrhaus has convened a symposium of writers to respond to this article. To view the Symposium Main Page, which we will update with new content over the course of the week, click here.
Sooner or later, almost every conversation about contemporary Orthodox Judaism veers into a discussion over the “gedolim.” Gedolim is the term used to describe leading sages who command reverence and allegiance of large segments of Orthodoxy, and whose ideological and halakhic pronouncements exert considerable influence over their communities. Moreover, within Orthodox discourse, invoking the gedolim serves as a powerful rhetorical tool. A viewpoint approved by a recognized gadol is automatically deemed in the bounds of acceptability, even if a majority find it wrong, novel, or idiosyncratic. By contrast, positions that fail to garner support of gedolim live under a perpetual cloud of suspicion, no matter how widespread amongst the laity.
On the whole, rabbis classified as “gedolim” are far more supportive of haredi viewpoints than of those associated with modern Orthodoxy. This situation begets the question “why there are so few modern Orthodox gedolim?”In my experience, this conversation quickly turn to a question of supply. That is, who is that elusive Rabbi/Dr. who has the entire Talmud, halakhic codes and commentaries at his fingertips, who has mastered the literature of Jewish thought and philosophy, and who is also fully conversant in cognate fields such as the humanities, law, and social sciences? Centrist Orthodoxy seeks a gadol who understands the social and intellectual currents of the time, yet exudes authenticity as he articulates our timeless tradition in a timely manner.
These discussions typically have a strong “if only” quality to them. If only, someone would meet these lofty qualifications, centrist Orthodoxy would have its next gadol. If only there was a centrist Orthodox gadol, he would validate the approach, carry centrist Orthodoxy’s banner, articulate its halakhic and theological viewpoint, demonstrate how it is part of time-honored tradition, and defend its practices and ideology from inevitable attacks. If only there was a gadol, he would invigorate and re-energize centrist Orthodoxy with new religious inspiration and direction.
Centrist Orthodoxy’s ongoing failure to find its share of gedolim, however, leads the community both to question whether it is even capable of producing gedolim, and alternatively, whether it should continue to feel inferior to communities that routinely produce them. Inevitably, the conversation shifts to critiquing the modern Orthodox educational system for failing to supply the needed quantity of gedolim.
The problem with the structure of this conversation is that it focuses almost exclusively on the supply side of the gadol market, while wholly neglecting the question of demand. A gadol is not a naturally occurring resource found amidst the shtenders of a yeshiva. Rather a gadol is a social phenomenon characteristic of a community whose members are willing to talk, act, speak, and conceive of themselves as being led by a rabbi who is not merely smart and competent on a human scale, but who, on some level, has divine imprimatur if not direct divine inspiration.
To be sure, on the supply side, anyone worthy of the title gadol must have certain baseline qualifications. But equally important, is that for someone to become a gadol—or, to borrow R. Nathan Kamenetsky’s felicitous term, for a gadol to be made—he must exist within a community searching for a gadol. There must be demand for a gadol, because a gadol is made at the point where the supply and demand curves meet.
Thus in the haredi communities where the demand for gedolim is high, the threshold for making a gadol is comparatively low. Soon after the passing of a reigning gadol, the best available talent is promoted to gadolhood. A gadol passes, and the next one is crowned; Kaddish is invariably followed by the exuberant singing of “Yamim al yemei melekh tosif” (Tehillim 61:7)—which is “Jewish” for “the king is dead; long live the king.”
In sports terminology, a haredi gadol is like a third baseman. Ideally, the position is manned by an all-star, or better yet, a Hall-of-Famer. But if none are available, then a solid regular will have to do. And while no team wants to field a replacement-level player, lacking better alternatives, that is what the team will do. Likewise, a gadol will be crowned because the position needs to be filled, or as the Sages put it: “Jephthah in his generation is as Samuel in his generation.”
For this reason, it is not necessary for every hasidic rebbe to be Hall-of-Fame or even of all-star caliber. Rather, the rebbe has a role to play and he plays it. The salient point, however, is that the role is created by communal demand and is filled with (hopefully) the best available talent the community can produce.
To let this sink in, note just how important the communal response and expectations are to the making of the gadol. Upon being crowned, the gadol is addressed in the third person, and stories attesting to his greatness circulate in the subculture. Everyone stands to attention when he walks into a room, and he takes on a distinctive style of dress. These critical components of the making of a gadol have little to do with a gadol’s erudition or qualifications, but speak volumes about the communities’ demands and expectations of what a gadol is.
Each of these stage management techniques reflects the community’s desire to view itself as being led by someone who is different and apart. A gadol is someone whose intellect, piety, pedigree, or some combination thereof (this is where differences between various haredi subgroups become relevant), is keyed into the divine will at a qualitatively different level than other pious and learned members of the community. This qualitative difference is construed as authority, which generates the obligation to follow the gadol’s vision. In broad terms, this describes the state of affairs in the haredi community.
Turning to centrist Orthodoxy, the threshold for gadolhood is considerably higher. This community is both willing to hold out longer without a gadol and maintain higher standards for crowning one. To return to the sports metaphor, centrist Orthodoxy will only fill the position with a Hall-of-Famer. If there is a gadol worthy of the title, he will be treated as such, but, as many sports teams have learned, nothing assures Hall-of-Fame talent can be drafted. In these situations, several trends are likely to emerge. First, the shadow of previous gedolim is cast longer, which is why one can still find arguments about what the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993), or, more recently, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) would have said about subject X,Y, or Z. Likewise, the role of authorized interpreters of these prior gedolim becomes more important—here, too, we see the proliferation of different “versions” of the Rav that flowered amongst his students in the wake of his death. Finally, the community is likely to “borrow” Haredi gedolim who share certain sensibilities with the centrist community. R. Asher Weiss’s status in decidedly centrist Orthodox communities illustrates this phenomenon.
Despite their differences, the centrist and haredi communities use a fundamentally similar model of gadol-leadership. To be sure, R. Lichtenstein and the Rav stretched the mold of who a gadol could be, what a gadol might say, and what he might look like. But given how they spoke and conducted themselves, the portraits that R. Lichtenstein painted of his own rebbeim—Rav Yitzhak Hutner, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, and the Rav—and, more importantly, how disciples of the Rav and Rav Lichtenstein speak of their rebbeim, makes it clear that we are dealing with variations on how gedolim are processed in the haredi world. Put differently, the stories that alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion (“the Gush”) tell about R. Lichtenstein are far more similar to the stories that Beth Medrash Govoha (“Lakewood”) alumni tell about R. Aharon Kotler than to stories that Harvard alumni tell about their favorite deans and professors. So while haredi and centrist Orthodoxy conceive of different species of gadol, they belong to the same genus. Each community understands gedolim and their authority to define halakha and its practice in substantially similar ways.
What then of the liberal Orthodox community? Does it have a similar idea of rabbinic leadership embodied by a gadol? Perhaps we can reframe this broader question in more concrete terms: Is Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber a liberal Orthodox gadol?
Examined from the supply side, there is a strong case in favor of R. Sperber’s gadolhood. Over his long career, he has demonstrated vast knowledge of the rabbinic and halakhic corpus, and in some areas is unsurpassed by anyone alive today. His books and articles display a mastery and virtuosity that rivals and often exceeds that of many rabbis the haredi community regards as gedolim.
And yet, to ask the question is almost to answer it. In my view, he is not processed as a gadol—not because of any lack in his Torah knowledge, but because he does not live or operate within a community that seeks a gadol or that thinks it needs one. His formal job title is university professor—a respected position for sure, but not one that inspires large numbers of people to seek and follow his advice on central matters of religious life. Nor is there a community that constructs its religious identity based on the values that R. Sperber exhibits and espouses. As far as I can tell, R. Sperber is viewed as a sage advisor, a scholar of the halakhic tradition, and in some cases even as a posek, but there is no community that stakes its halakhic identity on R. Sperber’s authenticity.
Occasionally one hears this impression expressed—incorrectly, in my view—as if people only ask R. Sperber questions when they are looking for a permissive ruling, but are not interested in hearing his more stringent interpretations. This may be true in a narrow sense, but misses a key structural point. The central issue is that there is no coherent community that sees itself as being fundamentally bound to how R. Sperber views the halakhic world or that sees his authority as something beyond that of a learned scholar. Thus, while people may ask for his ruling on a contested subject, this is because the practice at issue is sufficiently at odds with existing practice that the approval of someone with suitably broad shoulders—a gadol—is required. The reason that this move rarely convinces those invested in the culture of gadolhood, however, is that a gadol cannot be created ex nihilo for a limited and specified purpose. Gadolhood is less about the individual erudition of a given rabbi and more about a social fact, reflecting the experience of a community bound by a concrete conception of Torah, halakha, and rabbinic authority. This sense of authority cannot be manufactured by simply turning to a rabbi to ask a few questions here and there, no matter how great the rabbi or how significant the individual question. Thus, even should the market supply many potential gedolim, a community will not find a gadol unless it truly demands one.
Allow me to offer another example. When viewed from the supply side, there is a good argument to be made that my close friend, R. Ethan Tucker, head of Mechon Hadar, is qualified to be a halakhic decisor and, in time, perhaps a gadol of the community he is building. On occasion, Ethan and I have discussed how his views on a given halakha, or on Halakha as a whole, might penetrate the Orthodox discourse. My own view is that the Orthodox community will be forced to take him seriously when there are identifiable communities committed to living their Jewish lives in accord with his halakhic worldview. However, as long as the halakhic vision of Mechon Hadar remains a niche project, limited to those in the yeshiva’s direct orbit, the broader rabbinic world will feel little need to take it into account. As the Sages put it, “ein melekh belo am.” There is no king without a people.
The different attitudes towards gedolim are indicative of what is emerging as the deepest fault line within the Orthodox community. As noted, for all the differences between the centrist and haredi communities, they share similar concepts of gadolhood and the role of a gadol within the community. Less clear, however, is whether liberal Orthodox communities share in this concept or are looking for the same thing. After all, 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. This norm of submission, however, runs deeply counter to the democratic social ethos of the American educated class, and in particular, the socially mobile, elite college-educated slice of American life that typifies liberal Orthodoxy.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the fault line between liberal Orthodoxy and other segments of the community runs just to the left of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Though liberal by yeshiva standards, the Gush has been able to produce and sustain a culture of rabbinic authority and gadolhood that is structurally similar to what exists in the haredi world. True, it is a less authoritarian model which respects the intellectual autonomy of its constituents far more than in haredi circles. Moreover, there is no doubt the success of the Gush model is due mainly to R. Lichtenstein’s once-in-a-generation intellectual mastery of the rabbinic corpus and his unsurpassed personal integrity, rather than the reverence of his pedigree, charisma, or fuzzier notions of a spiritual aura that often accompany haredi gedolim. What made him a centrist Orthodox —as opposed to haredi—gadol is that he was perceived as authoritative rather than authoritarian.
And yet, when R. Lichtenstein reached a decision or articulated a position, the entire social, moral, and intellectual force of the Gush, along with its subsidiary communities, and the secondary and tertiary elites, opinion makers, and influencers who function as part of its social sphere coalesced around the ruling and treated it as binding—even when individuals disagreed or wished things were otherwise. This impression, the sense of living under an authority, both pre-existed and outlasted any specific issue, and applied whether R. Lichtenstein staked out a position perceived to be on the left or on the right of the Orthodox consensus. R. Lichtenstein’s authority is a social fact that pervades the fabric of the community and in many ways, is what constitutes the Gush, together with its students and satellites as a community. Moreover, the binding nature of R. Lichtenstein’s views is tied to the fact that his mastery and understanding of halakha transcended that of even his most learned disciples. At some point, this quantitative superiority transformed into a view amongst his students that R. Lichtenstein attained a qualitatively different role within the halakhic tradition than of ordinary rabbis or scholars.
The question is whether the liberal Orthodox community can function under this model. My sense is that the answer is no. But whereas in the past communities may have answered no as a concession to the laxity of the laity, the emergence of open Orthodoxy as a movement suggests that this default “no” may be morphing into something of a prouder and ideologically driven “NO!” The rift between centrist and open Orthodoxy, is thus not only about who is a gadol in the narrow sense, but about the nature of gadolhood and the structure of rabbinic authority more broadly. This can be seen both from the fact that many lay led partnership minyanim reject the idea of having a rabbi as a matter of principle, and even from the founding statement of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which states:
The alternative and preferred model of rabbinic authority is one in which that authority is not consolidated into the hands of a few, but proliferated into as wide a circle of responsible rabbis as possible. In this model, the role of the rosh yeshiva is not to control his students, but to empower them to think for themselves, to assume responsibility, and to act on their own.
The IRF’s vision of “horizontal” rabbinic authority stresses the primacy of local, close-to-the-people authority chosen by the congregation at the expense of the naturally arising hierarchies of rabbinic authority that exist in haredi and centrist Orthodoxy. Moreover, at least in this statement, there is no sense that the degree of halakhic authority required modulates in response to the complexity or stakes of the question at hand, the reputation or authority of the individual decisor, or the degree to which the ruling runs counter to longstanding practices. Instead, “the local rabbi is encouraged to have the autonomy to think for himself and to take direct responsibility for his congregation and community,” because only he “can fully appreciate the nuances of a situation as it arises.”
This line of thought contrast significantly with assumptions of the rabbinate of centrist Orthodox. Though centrist Orthodoxy likewise stresses the unique role that a rabbi can play in the lives of his constituents, in the case of centrist Orthodoxy (and even more so in haredi Orthodoxy), the rabbi also functions as the local extension of a hierarchical network of rabbinic governance where the gedolim sit at the top From the communal perspective, choosing a rabbi is not only about who will deliver the sermon each Shabbat morning, but is a choice of the rabbi’s “upstream” rabbinic network and the understanding that the local rabbi may become the vehicle who presses the authority of the recognized gadol on the lay community.
The liberal Orthodox critique of the centrist model is that in an era of mass education and radically democratic and non-hierarchical attitudes, rabbinic authority must be founded on well-defined, rational qualities, rather than the metaphysical and oracular qualities typical of the gadol discourse or what some call gadolatry. The argument is that essential to the modern condition is understanding that it is childish to think someone who wears a funny hat, dresses in clothes ill-suited to the local climate, and is addressed through awkward sentence structure is more elevated or connected to authentic divine truths than those who we engage forthrightly and travel among us.
I admit to having deep sympathies for this view, but I also place the burden on liberal Orthodoxy not only to supply an alternative theoretical model to the paradigm of gadolhood, but to demonstrate that its vision is attainable within the current social reality. There is little doubt that among a self-selecting group of highly educated and engaged members, it is possible to create a sense of commitment to halakha without recourse to gadolhood. Indeed, as I explore in my forthcoming book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (forthcoming, Princeton University Press), one of the most sublime experiences known to those who frequent the beit midrash is how direct encounter with the texts and ideas of the Talmudic corpus creates a compelling mixture of submission to the authority of halakha which emerges from intellectual exploration and significant autonomy. Here, there is little need for the input of gedolim or any other rabbinic hierarchy or establishment. But as one moves to broader populations, and to communities who are less engaged and Jewishly educated, the model becomes harder to sustain. In a radically autonomous culture, it is very difficult to promote voluntary obedience to a demanding system of law whose norms are out of sync with contemporary mores. Particularly in (post) modernity, the sense of commitment to and commandedness by halakha must emerge from somewhere. And if I am correct in sensing that the liberal Orthodox demand curve for gedolim is almost non-existent, then no matter how long we wait, nor how erudite the rabbi, a liberal Orthodox gadol is extremely unlikely to emerge.
This, to my mind, is the critical question in the ongoing Orthodoxy wars. To the extent that liberal Orthodoxy has moved away from the gadol-based paradigm, its critics are right to ask: how will it generate a sense of halakhic authority?
If liberal Orthodox communities can create a structure of commandedness that feels consonant, even if not identical, with classical forms, then eventually other Orthodox subgroups will come to recognize it—much as centrist Orthodoxy eventually gained the begrudging acknowledgment of haredim. But if it fails to do so, then claims that liberal Orthodoxy is engaged in a qualitatively different project than Orthodoxy will ring true, and comparisons to the trajectory of Conservative and Reform Judaism may yet prove accurate. So while I am rooting for liberal Orthodoxy’s success, it bears the burden of proving its vitality. From where I sit, the jury is still out.
An earlier version of this article was delivered at the “Orthodoxy, Halakhah, and Boundary Anxiety” conference hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in March of 2016.