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Wisdom, Arrogance, And Mesorah

By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg

Chofetz Chaim Torah Center

Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, taught us that the gift of wisdom is truly the greatest of gifts. But in Sefer Koheles, which he wrote in his later years, Shlomo HaMelech points out that to be “too wise” is not only not a virtue, it is hurtful. “Ki berov chochmah rov kaas,”—for with too much wisdom, comes much anger (Koheles 1:18).

Rashi explains that what Shlomo HaMelech is teaching us is that with too much wisdom, a person will develop a reliance on his own wisdom, with the false confidence that it gives him. Because of that, he may not keep a sufficient distance from things that are forbidden, thus causing Hashem to be angry with him.

Of the many difficulties that Klal Yisrael are currently confronted with from without and within, one that is the most frustrating and disheartening is that so many of us are suddenly attracted to people who suffer from, in the words of Shlomo HaMelech, “too much wisdom.”

All of a sudden, the myriad complex problems of the Torah world (and yes, there are many) can all be solved by a few new faces on the scene who seem to have all the solutions to Klal Yisrael’s problems. When did we as a tzibbur begin to embrace new leadership and direction from individuals who, by conducting interviews with the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times, brought before the eyes of the entire world a few mean-spirited and misguided hooligans that mistreated young bnos Yisrael going to school, and thus effected an unparalleled chillul Hashem; and who then followed up with Act II by joining a new political party headed by someone who not only doesn’t observe the Torah, but has publicly admitted, in his years of public broadcast, that he despises it.

How did this become our voice of “hope for change” for the future of achdus in Klal Yisrael and in Eretz Yisrael? Clearly well-intentioned and seriously motivated people with genuine ahavas Yisrael have (in today’s vernacular) crossed the proverbial red line.

As Rashi, quoted earlier, explained, when people with “too much” perceived wisdom rely solely on their wisdom to choose the correct path for solving Klal Yisrael’s problems, in the very words of the wisest of all men, Shlomo HaMelech, it brings Hashem’s wrath upon us. Even former members of our community have moved from their valued role of advocating for aliyah to providing Solomonic wisdom about what Eretz Yisrael’s future should look like and “educating” our gedolei ha’dor on what the correct direction is for the Torah world to take.

In truth, this is by no means a new phenomenon in Klal Yisrael. For thousands of years there have been caring and committed Yidden who loved Eretz Yisrael and Klal Yisrael and relied on their own wisdom as to what Klal Yisrael needed and ignored the opinions of the gedolei ha’dor of their time. Case in point would be the Baryonim, a group of young militants who felt that the Jews in Yerushalayim should go to war with the Roman armies rather than let them besiege the city, something that gedolim such as Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai were opposed to. And in their wisdom, they burnt down all the food-storage houses that could have fed all the Jews of Yerushalayim for three years (some versions say 30 years), resulting in the mass starvation of thousands of Yidden.

Then there are many of us who, despite the excitement and accolades of newspaper editors praising a new voice of hope and reason, would rather put our faith to decide the direction we should follow in individuals who have spent almost every waking moment of their lives—some for 80–90 years—totally immersed in the depths of Torah study. Almost always, when a communal decision or directive is made by them, it is based solely on two things—a profound understanding of Torah and, equally important, a connection to mesorah.

Chazal describe the 80 talmidim of Hillel HaZakein and say the “smallest” of the group was Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai. Yet this is seemingly difficult in light of the Rambam, in his introduction to Sefer Yad, that describes the mesorah of Torah from generation to generation. Starting with Moshe Rabbeinu, he continues to the generation of Hillel HaZakein and says the mesorah continued with Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai. Why would hashgachah dictate that the mesorah be transmitted by Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai if he was indeed the smallest of the talmidim of Hillel?

Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, insightfully explained that the Gemara describes a particular attitude of Rav Yochanan, that he never would publicly share a thought in Torah that he had not heard from his rebbe. So, to be selected to pass on the mesorah to the next generation, you need that particular trait.

Over the past several decades, I have been blessed to be zocheh to develop close personal relationships with so many of the gedolei Yisrael both here and in Eretz Yisrael They differed in many ways. Some were giants in halachah, others in in-depth learning, and still others in mussar. Some were public figures with thousands of talmidim and followers, others were very private people known only to their small inner circle. However, one common thread among all of them was that despite their own exalted level of Torah scholarship and piety, they would never veer away from their respective mesorah from the generation that preceded them.

As a talmid of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, the concept of mesorah was the quintessential lesson that our rosh yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, taught us on a daily basis. I remember one particular incident about 30 years ago, when the 50th yahrzeit of the rosh yeshiva’s father and rebbe, Rav Dovid Leibowitz, zt’l, the founder of the yeshiva, was approaching. Each year since his passing, the yeshiva would host a gathering on his yahrzeit when talmidim past and present would come together to reflect upon the man and his legacy. This being the 50th yahrzeit, the rosh yeshiva had wanted to do something special.

About two weeks before the event, I had come up with a creative way to commemorate the event that would be a most fitting tribute and also create a lot of interest among people in the New York Torah community, many of whom had never heard of this unique individual and his legacy. I shared it with the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, who was very excited about the idea and said that he wanted to think about it overnight before implementing it. The very next morning, the rosh yeshiva called me over to his house and thanked me for the idea and for the effort I had put into it, but said he would not be pursuing it because he didn’t think his father would have done it this way if he would be organizing such an event. And so if his father and rebbe wouldn’t have done it this way, then it’s not his mesorah and he cannot do so.

This same life perspective I saw dozens of times while sitting with Maran HaRav Shach, zt’l, when I sat in on discussions with community activists and politicians who had recommended a certain course of action and wanted the great sage’s thoughts on the matter. He would invariably respond, “Dus kickt ois asoi vie a gutta zoch, uber ich hub nisht gezein dus by der Chofetz Chaim . . . by Reb Chaim Ozer.—It sounds like a good approach, but I cannot agree because I didn’t see it by the Chofetz Chaim or by Reb Chaim Ozer.”

This from the world’s greatest rosh yeshiva, already well into his nineties, whom the entire Torah world turned to for leadership and direction. But if the rosh yeshiva didn’t have a mesorah for it, it was unacceptable.

I saw the very same adherence to mesorah from the Rav, HaRav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchick, zt’l. When I was around 20 years old, my rebbe took ill and for several months was unable to give shiur in the yeshiva. Friends of mine who were learning by the Rav, zt’l, at the time, would share with me some of the Rav’s brilliant chiddushim on Masechta Gittin, the same masechta that I was then learning. I received permission not only to sit in on the rav’s shiur, but I was blessed with the opportunity twice a week to enter the Rav’s room after lunch to discuss any questions that I may have had in regard to the shiur.

On one of those times, a delegation of rabbanim from the R.C.A. had arrived to discuss a particular problem with him. The delegation was led by a distinguished rav from Queens who was a close colleague of my father, zt’l, who together with him founded the Vaad of Queens. I asked him if I could listen in to the discussion so I could hear the rav’s response to the question at hand, and he agreed. After a 20-minute presentation of the issue and the rabbanim’s opinion on the necessary course of action, the floor was turned over the Rav, zt’l. He thought for a moment and then responded that he believes “shev v’al taaseh adif”—this problem should be left alone and not responded to in any manner. The rabbanim completely accepted the Rav’s decision, thanked him, and left the room.

I took the liberty to respectfully ask the Rav why he disagreed with the rabbanim’s decision which seemed to be right on target. He looked at me for a moment, removed his glasses, and said, “Because I didn’t see such a thing by my father.”

Here we have it. The one common thread between every gadol that I have had the great z’chus to observe up close was that despite their own greatness in Torah and despite their advanced age, not one would ever render a decision for the community at large without having seen a precedent in the mesorah of earlier generations.

Yet today we have a young community activist-turned-politician, and an accomplished aliyah activist, who joined together with a few naïve journalists and newspaper publishers who, with their own “too much wisdom” spiced with a little dose of arrogance, know just what Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael need for a bright future, and have no need whatsoever for mesorah.

While this in itself is good for political discussion and grabs headlines, it is also extremely dangerous for the physical and spiritual well-being of Klal Yisrael. For when one has no mesorah and with his own wisdom knows best, then the line of responsibility and acceptability become blurred and it can lead to public displays that do not bode well for Klal Yisrael.

Case in point, when a religious Jew in Eretz Yisrael with his own vision of what Eretz Yisrael should look like chooses to go onto Har HaBayis repeatedly in front of the eyes of the world, he is not only violating an issur kareis (at least according to the kol korei—public proclamation—distributed in the late 1960s from 60 gedolim, from the Chief Rabbis to Rav Kook, the rosh yeshiva of Mercaz Harav, to Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman, etc., etc.) but also presents a great danger to Jews throughout Eretz Yisrael who may become victims of Arab terror as a backlash or response to such activity. In fact, during the last personal visit that President Shimon Peres made to the home of Maran Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, before he became ill, the one thing that the rav asked of Mr. Peres was to please not allow Jews to go to the Har HaBayis and put Yidden in danger throughout Eretz Yisrael.

Another case in point is the painful topic of “geirus,” conversion of the several hundred thousand non-Jewish Russians that made aliyah over the last decade and a half. Again here, the gedolei Torah have spoken in unison about the requirement of “giyur k’halachah.” I may be wrong in this, but my research has found that there are only two rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael who have been advocating to be lenient in an area that Chazal tell us not to do so. The Chasam Sofer wrote to a rav who had an extremely novel interpretation to allow a certain questionable geirus to stand that while the new and creative ideas he suggested are truthful and have great merit, the entire topic of geirus can only be built upon the writings and mesorah of earlier generations and anything else cannot be accepted.

Here again, a young peace-loving advocate wants to solve this difficult and complex issue for Klal Yisrael, and in his maiden address in the Knesset said he will search out any and every leniency “out there” to bring this painful communal issue to an end. Too much wisdom, yes; arrogance, maybe; but mesorah, definitely not.

There was a leader of one of the Religious Zionist parties in Eretz Yisrael who had a very close personal relationship with the Ponovezher Rav, Rav Shlomo Kohanamen, zt’l. One day before the national elections, he met his old friend the Ponovezher Rav and asked him if he would consider voting for his party in the upcoming elections. The rav said, “I can’t, because the Chazon Ish told me to vote for the chareidi party.” The person responded, “But the Chazon Ish passed away more than 14 years ago. What do you mean, the Chazon Ish told you?” The Rav explained, “In my youth, my mentor and teacher was the Chofetz Chaim, zt’l, and I did everything he instructed me. When I came to Eretz Yisrael, I accepted fully and completely the Chazon Ish as my mentor, and though he is no longer alive, I ask myself each time, ‘What would the Chazon Ish say about this issue today?’”

The person looked upon the Ponovezher Rav with confusion and asked, “But you are a world-renowned gaon and rosh yeshiva, don’t you have your own opinion in these matters?” The rav smiled and responded, “I am able to disagree with the Chazon Ish when it comes to understanding Torah in the same way that I am able to disagree with Rav Akiva Eiger; but when it comes to worldly matters, I have neither the depth of understanding nor the vision to see what is the right direction for Klal Yisrael, and for that I give myself completely to the mesorah of the Chazon Ish.”

Some may interpret this as the Ponovezer Rav did not have the “extra wisdom” that our “new inspirational young leadership” has; I would instead opine that it’s not “extra wisdom” that they have, but rather they are devoid of any mesorah.

After reading so many accolades in editorials and in speeches on the exciting new possibilities for the future from these new faces on the scene, I was trying to understand what the attraction is. I realized that we are all influenced by what we read and see in the news. We witnessed a revolution with the ushering in of a new era where chareidim are out and those who despise Torah are in, and we all like to be on the winning side.

However, one need not be a student of history to know that Hashem runs the world, and these elections and victories are absolutely meaningless. A case in point is the 1977 national election. Yigal Yadin’s center party did very well but were all gone by the next election. The Shinui Party of Tommy Lapid (the agnostic father of today’s Yair Lapid) was the second-largest party in the coalition of Sharon’s first government and then totally imploded. And not to be forgotten, the “great party of the future,” (as it was billed) Kadima, which elected Sharon and Olmert, has for the most part almost disappeared.

Yes, we do need change, and yes, change will come; however, it will come slowly, without forcing the closing of yeshivos and without removing subsidies from large chareidi families. And at the end of the day, the ones who attach themselves to mesorah will be the ones left standing. v

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Posted by on May 9, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.