Monday, November 27, 2006

Agudah on Blogs II

(Follow-up from this post)

After hearing speeches at the Agudah convention this past Thursday night, I experienced mixed emotions. Over the past few days, I've been discussing the three speeches with a number of people and I listened to R. Ephraim Wachsman's and R. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel's again (the recording of R. Matisyahu Salomon's speech was damaged).

To their credit, the planners of this convention recognized a very current issue and placed it front and center, allowing three of their top stars to address it. They made a major Kiddush Hashem by stressing the vital importance of showing respect to Torah scholars and generally keeping the tone of our conversations respectful. In general, the message all three related was in its essence something with which I think most reasonable Jews will agree: Torah leaders deserve respect and the benefit of the doubt, and those who fail to show proper deference are severely at fault and are undermining what litle structure our community has left.

However, despite the eloquence of the speakers, some of their formulations struck me as being extreme. Click here to read moreA prime example is R. Wachsman's description of Gedolim and Da'as Torah. He makes these great leaders into superhuman figures. If R. Moshe Sofer, the Chasam Sofer, were to come to us today and try to teach us, we'd never be able to fathom the depth of his teachings. We have no hope of understanding him, much less the Rambam or the sages of the Talmud. All we can do is turn to the Gedolim of our generation, who are able to understand the Gedolim of previous generations.

Again, the basic message is unquestionably valid. Gedolim are, by definition, steeped in wisdom and insight. We would be foolish not to seek out wise counsel and accept interpretations from those most qualified to render them. But R. Wachsman's formulation of this concept goes so far as to place us in a different ontological category than a Gadol. We are mere humans; they are superhuman. We know nothing; they know everything possible.

But don't claim that you follow a different Gadol, R. Wachsman said (in what I believe to be an implicit rebuttal of some of R. Slifkin's arguments), because some Torah scholars become famous simply because the laypeople like what they have to say and aren't really Gedolim. He held up R. Aharon Kotler as a true Gadol. He was sufficiently vague that I can't disagree with him. It is true that there are populists who are not as steeped in Torah learning as some unlearned laypeople think, but if R. Wachsman intended that argument to refer to such people as R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik or his brother R. Ahron Soloveichik then he is simply incorrect. He also said that one cannot quote a Gadol from 60 or 70 years ago because it is up to today's Gedolim to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. On the one hand, it is hard to disagree with the idea that an occasional great Torah scholar will have an idiosyncratic view that is generally rejected by the mainstream. But the context of such an argument makes it seem that the entire Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist streams are idiosyncratic aberrations that were rejected by the "real" Gedolim. Maybe I'm being too presumptuous and defensive, but that's what I thought I heard between the lines. (See also these posts on the "length of influence": I, II)

R. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel was a welcome voice of moderation. He focused on the current lack of respect for Gedolim, and blamed it on the influence of secular society. However, I doubt the correctness of this thesis. I strongly suspect that bashing Torah scholars is a favorite pastime in that very society of Torah scholars, and has been for generations. R. Zwiebel also passionately defended the tireless servants of our community who are unfairly attacked by critics, particularly on blogs. However, he entirely failed to voice any positive aspects of blogs or other media. In truth, none of the speakers said anything positive about anything related to the discussion. I found that to be an unfortunate lack of balance in the entire evening. Rather than just a defense of Da'as Torah and a relentless attack on anyone who impinges on it, some comments about positive facets of the media and blogs, and even the attackers on Da'as Torah, would have been appropriate.

R. Zwiebel pointed out that our community's leaders are working tirelessly to address the problems that arise, and he even listed a few issues that I think are right on the money (including gambling, abuse and addictions). But he did not address some questions that have been raised about this leadership. Are the right people, those properly trained, addressing these problems? Are the issues being handled in a professional, methodical way or in an ad hoc fashion? Are there too few people dealing with these issues, which leads to a continuous stream of reactive rather than proactive leading? I don't know the answers to these questions for the following reason: I see very little transparency in our community's leadership activities. I am sure that there are very good reasons for this, and I can think of some myself. However, a communally funded organization that comes under criticism can best respond to this by becoming more transparent and actively encouraging constructive criticism. I know that Agudah responds positively to respectful, constructive criticism. But I don't know whether everyone else knows this and I certainly did not hear it at the convention. What I heard was, "We're handling it so stop complaining." I would have preferred to have heard, "We're handling it, and if you had asked nicely you would have been answered that we do this and that, etc."

R. Matisyahu Salomon had a generally positive message about strengthening ourselves and our respect for Gedolim, rather than knocking down those who disrespect them. He specifically said that we do not have a ta'anah (complaint) against those who ask questions with derekh eretz (respect). However, he did have a few lines that were somewhat startling. He referred to (disrespectful) blogging as a disease that is contagious and he said that the children of such people are a danger in our schools. I find such a statement to be very extreme. It is perhaps consistent with the ban on internet in Lakewood schools, but still shocking to me (see Marvin Schick's take on this here). He also made the point that many of our communal problems are being handled privately, but gave no details at all so we have to take his word on it. (I asked a local expert and he confirmed that there are many cases handled quietly.)

Going back to my comment about the lack of balance, I think that this is what bothered me most. A local rabbi, with whom I briefly discussed this topic, said that based on my description there seems to have been a lack of nuance. Maybe that's what I missed. Agudah saw a problem and attacked it with a 200-pound sledgehammer. I don't doubt that the speakers think with nuance. However, it was totally lost in the presentation, and I suspect that this was done intentionally. I find that approach to be utterly offputting and, for some people (e.g. me), counterproductive.

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