Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Liar, Lunatic or Leader of the Generation: a Jewish Trilemma (Part II)

(Part I)

Let us dispense with the pretense that Rabbi Kamenetsky never actually called himself "the leader of the generation" or that he has never claimed absolute authority for himself. Rabbi Kamenetsky stood by and allowed himself to be referred to as "the leader of the generation" and, on a daily basis, he allows his proxies to defend him as a "gadol," whose comprehension is above that of mere mortals and can therefore never be challenged. There is a concept in Jewish law that "silence is like an admission." Rabbi Kamenetsky is, if nothing else, a mature adult capable of speaking his mind and, who therefore, can be held responsible for failing to do so. On numerous occasions I have been in situations where people referred to me as "Dr. Chinn" or as a "leading historian" and I very quickly corrected them. (My suspicion is that Haredim are particularly prone to this form of bombast and flattery and it comes from a lack of firm intellectual standards. For the study of Talmud there are at best vague informal standards and for secular study there is no such thing at all.) I might be working on my doctorate and hope to someday attain the title of doctor, but until I have finished that journey of writing a dissertation it would be a mockery of those who actually have already accomplished this feat for me to put myself at their level. If I was set to give a speech and someone introduced me as "the leader of the generation," I would abruptly turn and walk right out the door. I like to be honored as much as the next guy, perhaps even more so. As an academic I have essentially turned my back on ever becoming wealthy; the only earthly reward left is to be recognized by my peers and the general public as a leader in my field. That being said, there are certain types of honor I can do without; I am not about to carry the burdens that come with them.

I spoke about this issue with my grandmother and some of my cousins. After some back and forth they came to the conclusion that I was right (always a good thing to hear); the person who introduced Rabbi Kamenetsky should not have called him "the leader of the generation," but instead should have called him "a leader of the generation." Alternatively, if one wished to be specific, one could refer to him as "the leader of the Yeshiva community in America." This new classification raises new questions as it much more ambiguous. I fully recognize that Rabbi Kamenetsky is more than just the head of a yeshiva. He is certainly one of the leading figures of the Haredi community and, as such, is entitled to a great degree of respect. (This is, of course, dependent on whether one accepts the legitimacy of the Haredi community as monotheist Orthodox Jews in the first place, something that I certainly do not accept as a given.) The change from "the leader" to "a leader" could plausibly allow for disagreement. A member of one legitimate Orthodox community would not be expected to accept the authority of another legitimate Orthodox community. It would be absurd for a Polish rabbi to appoint himself as the rabbinical authority for Yemenite Jews. (This, of course, does not stop people from trying.) As a member of the Modern Orthodox community, I have my own legitimate Orthodox community with its own rabbinic leaders. While I might be expected to show respect for other communities and their leaders, I am free to follow the ways of my Orthodox community, free from any Haredi challenge.

My suspicion, though, is that this concession may not mean much for Modern Orthodox Jews. "A leader" could also mean one of a group of leaders, gedolim, who carry, as a group, absolute authority. One assumes that these gedolim are specifically Haredi gedolim. The implication of this is that Modern Orthodoxy does not constitute a legitimate Orthodox Jew community. As such Modern Orthodox Jews have no grounds to ever challenge Haredi policy, particularly when put forth by its leaders. We are simply erring Jews, like the Reform and Conservative, who need to get back in line with the true path. This simply multiplies the trilemma. No longer do we have to worry about the human perfection of just one bearded rabbi, but literally a whole body of bearded rabbis, who are either God's appointed agents on earth or minions of Satan to be fought to the last breath.

1 comment:

Garnel Ironheart said...

On one hand, you're on to something when you note that chareidim are given to bombast. If one reads teshuvos and letters, especially those written in Europe in the 100 years or so before the Holocaust, most of them subscribed to the style, like: "To his honour, a light of the generation and a servant of the inner circle of God, may he merit blessing and abundance in the merit of his piousness, etc." And you can imagine how the letter started when it was address to someone the writer did not like!

On the other hand, there is flourish and bombast and there is literalism. Is Rav Kamenesky important? Yes. Is he influential? Yes. Is he a leader in my community such that I have to care about his opinions on politics, hashkafah, etc? No. I can respect his piety and learning without having to be automatically obedient. However, many in the Chareidi community do not see this difference and feel that since he is their leader, he is everyone's.