Thursday, March 3, 2011

The importance of context

A certain book came out recently about a famous 20th century Jewish leader who was instrumental in shaping much of American Jewry, one way or another. A tzaddik and talmid chochom by all accounts, this luminary had views and opinions which were not always very popular nor in congruence with other leaders in the Jewish world. However, as fiercely as this gadol may have advocated for his beliefs and halachic rulings, it's well known that he venerated his contemporaries and respected them wholeheartedly.

While this book seeks to lay out the tzaddik's positions on certain issues in a detailed, carefully explained manner, the biographical accounts are sorely lacking in that same painstaking awareness. There are certain anecdotes in the volume that can - and are - misrepresented in an awful way. I'm actually surprised that I haven't heard anything about calls for this book to be banned, due to the potentially inflammatory material in the book.

In one episode, this rav is being questioned about why his community's yeshivot don't emulate the style of the other communities' systems of learning, who seem to enjoy success in the level of scholarship. The rav replies that the other school of thought's success stems from their focus on boyche sevoros (an insinuation that they place esteem on pseudo-intellectual dialectics that stem from an egocentric, misinformed understanding) rather than emes (truth) in learning.

Another story relates how the rav once commented that no significant poskim (halachic authorities/arbiters) ever emerged from the other community's system.

Taken at face value, these stories present this rav in a very bad light, casting a pall on his legacy. From these stories, one can be led to believe that this rav was a harsh, ignorant man, which is the furthest thing from the truth. It's preposterous to claim that this rav honestly felt this way about the other school's style; while the egocentricity may present itself as an issue, the rav certainly did not mean to invalidate that style of learning. What may have occurred in that instance was that the rav was encountering an individual who wouldn't understand the varying reasons, or wouldn't be mollified in any case.

As for the second story, it's obvious that the rav would not say such a thing seriously. He was contemporaries with some of the greatest tzaddikim of the past generation: Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, the Chazon Ish...he dealt with them constantly and recognized their greatness. I don't claim to know why he made such a statement, but to publish it in this volume only serves to start machlokes.

 The task of conveying nuance in prose is an extremely difficult skill, and one must make sure that the context and tone of the story is fully conveyed. I don't know the author, nor can I claim to understand his motives for publishing this book. Aside from these stories, the book is a very good - and important - read, especially if you would like to gain an insight into what this rav was encountering and trying to accomplish in those early days of American Jewry. But the author should have been more responsible concerning these glimpses into the rav's day-to-day dealings; the fact that he can source them to other books means nothing, for the same reason that they are meaningless in his book: context.


DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Interesting thoughts. I wonder what the context was of the quotes the author below might have left out with regard to the episodes he thinks indicated OCD???

Shmuel said...


I don't think it's even worth responding to his overwrought "review" of the book. Pure drivel, especially when considering several things:

In terms of context, anyone who is unfamiliar with the emphasis that Chassidus (indeed, religious Judaism as a whole) places on modesty in terms of dress, coupled with the perspective of Chassidus' approach to all matters (that everything reflects a hidden meaning and hints to its deeper nature) will draw erroneous conclusions about practitioners. What's worse is when someone who claims familiarity deliberately obfuscates those facts to prove a point. For shame!

Moreover, the author of the review doesn't appear to have any training in assessing or diagnosing psychological disorders; his doctorate is in Religion. To attempt an armchair diagnosis from ONE biography that he himself characterizes as "hagiographic" only furthers the point that I am trying to make.