Sunday, April 4, 2010
Liar, Lunatic or Leader of the Generation: a Jewish Trilemma (Part I)
I spent the first days of Passover with my Haredi cousins in Toronto. This part of my family is very close to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva and one of the leading Haredi rabbinic figures; someone often referred to as a "gadol" or one of the "gadolim." Rabbi Kamenetsky, as per his usual custom, was in Toronto himself for the holiday. He was speaking at a synagogue nearby so I went along to hear him. The speech itself was an exercise in radical theodicy, predicated on the assumption of direct divine judgment as the cause of all things. I view any discussion of divine causation in this world that does not openly admit to the existence of universal physical laws and place them front and center to explain how this world works as not only engaging in the denial of science, but in heresy. It is not enough to acknowledge on the side that there is such a thing as divinely created nature. One does not get credit for admitting to what is right in front of their eyes. Science is the idea that the universe operates according to consistent laws, knowable to human intelligence. I see this ultimately as evidence of a universal lawgiver, whom I like to refer to as God, and a mark of godly perfection. A God who would operate according to arbitrary whims is less efficient and therefore, by definition, less intelligent and less perfect. As such anyone who postulates a God who fails to operate by simple universal laws denies God's perfection and is just as guilty of heresy as the Christians who would postulate complex schemes of salvation all centered on a nice Jewish boy be nailed to a piece of wood.
All this aside, what particularly caught my interest was the speaker who introduced Rabbi Kamenetsky introduced him as "the Manhig HaDor," the leader of the generation. Forgive my Asperger brain, but I take words very seriously and insist that they mean something. Carrying the unofficial title of "the leader of the generation" should imply certain privileges and burdens, not all that different than being an informal Jewish Pope. The leader of the generation deserves the utmost respect and may never be challenged or contradicted. Since the leader of the generation is the leader of all Orthodox Jews, anyone who disagrees with the leader is, by definition, outside of Orthodox Judaism. Since the leader represents Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Judaism is always right, the leader must also be always right. Being the sum of human perfection carries a price, though, in that one has to be judged by the standard of human perfection.
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, famously attacked those who viewed Jesus simply as a great moral teacher. If Jesus claimed to be the Son of God then he was either telling the Truth or he was a liar or a lunatic; on no grounds can he be called a moral teacher. If Rabbi Kamenetsky were to lay claim to being the leader of the generation then he would either be, if not the Son of God, then at least God's representative on Earth and the embodiment of the Truth of Orthodox Judaism or a dangerous egomaniacal insane heretic attempting to take over Orthodox Judaism for his own purpose. There is not much room for a moderate opinion. In contrast, the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva and even a highly venerated rabbi can afford the luxury of being human, having imperfections and even of being wrong on occasion, without losing any of the respect due to a head of a yeshiva and a venerated rabbi. Of course, on the flip side, one can never ask "how dare you go against such a wonderful rabbi who heads the Yeshiva of Philadelphia." I never went to his yeshiva and he never was my rabbi.
When I wrote about Rabbi Kamenetsky two years ago, in what I admit was one of my more polemical posts, I received a fair amount of criticism. I found this amusing since even my "criticism" of him could only be called criticism if we were to judge Rabbi Kamenetsky by communal leader standards. Obviously there can be no expectation that the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva be able to address a general audience. Similarly, it would not be a criticism of me to say that I would not make a good grade school history teacher. I am a graduate student working in history and I tend to speak as if I were addressing other graduate students; there is nothing wrong with this. Of course I am not in the running to be anything else besides for being an academic historian still in graduate school, certainly not "Manhig HaHistorianim."
(To be continued …)