Friday, April 11, 2008

A Slightly Polemical Discourse Which I, For Good Reason, Left Out of My Eulogy for My Grandfather.

Last November there was a major dinner in honor of my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Chinn of Blessed Memory. The dinner was held in a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh and people came from across the country to pay their respects to my grandfather. In attendance were many city officials and civic leaders, the vast majority of whom were not Jewish. In short, it was a beautiful though not the sort of event you would expect to be hosted for an Orthodox rabbi who spent his life avoiding the spotlight. The guest speaker for this event was Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky. This was a great honor as Rabbi Kamenetsky is the head of a prominent Yeshiva in Philadelphia and is recognized as one of the leading Haredi rabbis, a Godel. Also, it should be said that Rabbi Kamenetsky is a busy man so the fact that he came was incredibly kind of him.

Rabbi Kamenetsky gave a speech built around a story found in the Mishna in which Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma refused to live in a specific city, even when offered great wealth, with the reply: "Even if you give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I will dwell only in a place of Torah..." (Pirqai Avot 6:9) Rabbi Kamenetsky used this story to talk about building cities devoted to Torah. He spoke well but in Yeshivish English. It was the sort of speech that would not have been out of place in a gathering of Yeshiva students. I suspect that Rabbi Kamenetsky has, in fact, given versions of this same exact speech to his students. Despite Rabbi Kamenetsky’s talent as a speaker, the speech went on for more than a half an hour, stretching my patience.

After the dinner, to my shock, my father commented that the speech was inappropriate considering the audience, as a large percentage of them were not Yeshiva students, not Orthodox and not Jewish. My father then proceeded to commiserate with those people there who were forced to listen to a speech that they could not have understood and must have made absolutely no sense to them. My father is one who will usually go out of the way to defend the Haredi world so to see him be more critical of something than I warmed my heart.

I think this incident is useful in that it demonstrates how clueless Rabbi Kamenetsky is when it comes to the world at large. And Rabbi Kamenetsky is usually held up as an example of a Haredi Rabbi who is moderate and open. He had no idea how to speak to an audience that was not Yeshiva students. I can do a better job at changing how I speak based on my audience and I have Asperger Syndrome. My brain, at a basic level, processes information differently than normal people. The only difficulty Rabbi Kamenetsky has to work under is that he is from a different socio-religious group. Of course, a mark of a great intellect is the ability to cross over such divides and reach people from different backgrounds.

The difference here is that I have spent a lifetime being told that I have to consider the social conventions of the society around me. I may earnestly resist this but, at the end of the day, I do make the attempt to work within societal conventions, particularly when it is clearly in my interest to do so. Rabbi Kamenetsky, it would seem, has spent his life being toadied to by those around him and has never had to seriously consider the general society at all. In the end what we have is a person who, despite his great intellect, is unable to communicate with anyone outside his narrow group even when given the chance.

The Haredi world likes to claim for itself the authority over, not just Orthodox Jewry, but all Jews. They wrap their leaders in the mantel of Gedolei Yisroel, the great ones of Israel. The fact that they claim this should obligate them to at least be able to give a coherent speech in the language of the country they live in that can be understood by the people of the country they live in. Since Rabbi Kamenetsky cannot be bothered to live up to this simple standard why should anyone, Orthodox or not Orthodox, even make the attempt to listen to what he has to say?


Hirsch Chinn (cousin) said...

Benzion, I think you completely missed the point. You obviously cannot comprehend the greatness of a Gadol. Although you view yourself as an intelectual, you have a serious lack of understanding when it comes to thinking beyond what you are taught. A speech given by a great man, someone well into his 80s that doesnt exactly appeal to everyone in the room, cannot be looked at in YOUR narrow minded view of how a great intellect should speak. The Honor given to Sabba was that Rav Shmuel spoke from his heart to Sabba, and if ALL the people in the room were unable to grasp the full content of the speech, so be it. Your comments are a slap in the face to Sabba and all that is dear to him. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Izgad said...

I would like to point out that I specifically acknowledge the fact that Rabbi Kamenetsky is a man of a great intellect, a talented speaker and that I am grateful to him for coming to speak in Sabba’s honor. It is precisely because of this claim of Gadol status that I am criticizing Rabbi Kamenetsky at all. If all anyone was claiming was that Rabbi Kamenetsky was the head of a prominent Yeshiva in Philadelphia, a great Torah scholar, and that all Jews should take what he says very seriously then you would be right. It would not be fair to Rabbi Kamenetsky to expect him to be able to speak to a non Yeshiva audience. Similarly it is not fair to criticize an academic for not being able to make himself understood by a general audience. Of course no one is claiming that academics are anything more than academics. The moment you claim Gadol status for Rabbi Kamenetsky, that Rabbi Kamenetsky has some sort of innate authority over the entire Jewish people, then we are dealing with an entirely new set of standards. It is perfectly fair that I should expect a leader of the Jewish people to be able to speak to all Jews. In the end this post is not really a criticism of Rabbi Kamenetsky at all; it is a criticism of those who have put forth Rabbi Kamenetsky as this authority figure over all Jews.

Tobie said...

Although I understood your critique, I wonder if it is perhaps unfair to judge other people by the standards that our community chooses to adopt. Are we sure that talking to all audience in a manner that engages all of them is a skill that is most highly valued in the community in which Rav Kamenetsky was raised and operates? If this were the case, we could legitimately brand him a 'failure' and analyze why this is the case. If not, it's less legitimate.

It could well be that Rav Kamenetsky's community most values Torah knowledge and expertise, so that the decisor rather than the speaker is the most important aspect in the Gadol's personality. If so, agreeing to speak to an audience that is not in his comfort zone was a very gracious honor given to your grandfather. Judging him at his competance at doing so might not be fair

A Fomer Columbus Resident said...

Approaching this post in a constructive manner is difficult. It embodies the character trait of mockery (laitzonus) and I do not normally respond to those who mock others
However, since the person being mocked (HaRav Shmuel Kamanetzky) is a holy person and he is being mocked for attempting to elevate the soul of another holy person (your Grandfather) through words of Torah, I feel that the honor of the Torah must be defended. This is even more disturbing since you , a person who claims to represent the viewpoint of the Torah, wrote this mockery and invoke the name of your father , a respected figure, although unfortunately very wrong in this case, in support of your mockery.

I can attest, without hesitation, that R. Shmuel Kamenetzky is quite knowledgable about the world in general. I would dare say, in fact, that he is vastly more knowledgeable than you Ben Tzion Chinn. It is almost certain, that he understood who he was speaking to and made a calculated decision to speak as he did. He did not pander to the values of the secular world and attempt to make the Torah fit into a series of charismatic sound bites. He did not pander to secular world and speak meaningless platitudes about your Grandfather’s accomplishments outside of the Torah world. Rav Shmuel’s demonstration of character traits in his speaking such as charisma or flattery (which it sounds like your father might have liked) would nothave benefited your Grandfather’s soul. Rather he spoke genuine words of Torah, from the heart and as R. Shmuel does so well unquestionably conveyed the sincerity and sense of love in which he holds these words. Ultimately what conveys a Kidush Hashem and gains respect from others is our ability to convey our dedication to the Torah without apologetics. This is what elevates the soul of your Grandfather and this is what R. Shmuel appears to have chosen to do.

Izgad said...

Former Columbus Resident

I am sorry if you think that I was mocking Rabbi Kamenetsky; that I was not my intention. I admit that I was moderately critical of him, though I am less critical of him than I am of those who would put him on a meta-human pedestal. I believe Rabbi Kamenetsky is a very intelligent man, a highly talented speaker and a great servant of the Jewish community. I never suggested that he should pander to a secular audience. He gave a wonderful speech. I only wish that he had spoken in a language that everyone in the audience could have understood. I do not think that people in the Yeshiva world truly appreciate how difficult it is for people not in the Yeshiva world to understand Yeshivish English.
Question for you; is there a difference in your mind between being critical of a godol and mocking one and if so where would you draw the line?

Anonymous said...

Halachically speaking, why is it OK to write Lashon Harah and rechilus in such a public forum? Consider studying Hilchos Lashon Hara - you will see that what you posted is a severe violation of the Halachos

Izgad said...

Well Anonymous you will be happy to hear that my Rabbi saw this piece and saw nothing wrong with it. On the issue of Lashon Harah, Evil Speech; I live in the world of medieval and early modern Jewish history, a place in which Rabbis write really nasty things about each other all the time. Read what the Ravad says about the Baal Hameor. By this standard what I write is very tame. I have not accused Rabbi Kamenetsky of being a Karaite, an intellectual thief and I have not made any ad hominem attacks on him. So, considering everything, I am behaving myself.

Anonymous said...

Of course, I wasn't there when you spoke with your Rabbi, so I have no idea what he actually said to you. I have a hard time believing that a Rabbi will be OK with blatant Lashon Hara, and I would love to know on what HALACHIC basis he said it's OK.

Izgad said...

He did not think that what I was saying was Lashon Hara.

Izgad said...

There is an interesting dialogue in this post where a rabbi says that the laws of Loshon Hara do not apply to people who go to Yeshiva University.