Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Problem with Cookie-cutter Gedolim Bios

I must've read these hundreds of times: "R' Ploni Almoni was born in a small town in Europe to a poor family with no money. R' Ploni Almoni's father was rav of the town, and learned with his young child. This young child was a genius, and finished half of shas by the time he was 7, and made a siyum on shas by his bar mitzvah. He then went to Kelm when he was 15, he was by far the youngest guy there, he would have learning sedarim for 20 hours straight..." I'll stop here. I think you get the point.

My first question is, how is a story like this supposed to inspire me? Am I supposed to feel like I have what it takes to be a gadol? If that's the case, then these stories have a negative effect, because the ones reading it will say, "I can't become great because I don't have the incredible brain power or zitzfleisch to become a gadol. I guess I'm just cut out to be a baalebos." In fact, one of my rabbeim said many of these "boy genius" stories are BS, and that the gedolim were rather ordinary when they were young. They made it big though tremendous effort and perseverance. One Yerushalmi guy (and ex-Ponovezher) even told me that Rav Schach was just a mediocre bachur when he was a youngster.

The only possible argument I can hear for telling these stories is that they may promote emunas chachamim by showing how great the gedolim were. I believe that stories aren't helpful.After all, many people have the shittoh that, as great as these gedolim were, they may sometimes err. After all, nobody's perfect. Others who treat and revere every word of a gadol will not need this to help them remain faithful to their beliefs. I beleive that the level of emunas chachamim is based upon one's hashkofo and general outlook in life. Cookie-cutter gedolim stories will neither convince the cynic nor significantly strengthen the believer's resolve.

I must admit that I enjoyed the recent "Rav Pam" biography published by Artscroll. However, it wasn't the stories that I enjoyed; rather, it was the many lines and quotes from Rav Pam's schmuessin that I found inspiring. Many biographies, though, just stick to the life story of the gadol, which makes sense. The book is supposed to be "the life of rabbi x," not "the maamarim of rabbi x."

A few years ago, I saw the same shittah (of the ineffectiveness of gedolim bios) mentioned in the letters section of the Jewish Action (either Fall '02 or Winter '03) by Rabbi Emanuel (Tales out of Shul) Feldman. In fact, his letter is where I first saw the reference to the phrase used in the title: "Cookie-cutter gedolim books." Interesting enough, in that same letter he praised Making of a Gadol for being a lot different than these other biographies, in that it dealt with the gedolim's struggles in overcoming their yetzer haras and not just their successes. It must be noted that this letter was written prior to the massive ban publicized by the gedolim against the book. Therefore, it's not clear whether Rabbi Feldman still approves of the book.

Last year, however, I saw something from Rav Hutner zt"l that shocked me. I'll let the statement speak for itself, offering just own loose translation: (BTW, I saw it in the beginning of the "Derech Shel Aliya" section of Sifsei Chaim vol. 1--- also found in Rav Hutner's "Igros U'Ksovim pg. 217)

"It's a bad sickness among us that when we discuss the various kinds of perfection of our gedolim, we deal only with the final level of their perfection. We discuss their ways of perfection while at the same time totally ignoring the inner battle that occurred in their souls. The way we talk about them implies that they were born immediately with their greatness and stature. Everyone talks and is amazed by the "miracle" of the Chofetz Chaim's purity of speech. But who knows of all the wars, battles, and roadblocks that the Chofetz Chaim faced in confronting his yetzer hara!?"

Would Rav Hutner have approved of Making of a Gadol, we don't know. But his take on most of the gedolim bios out there: What did he say about a "bad sickness"?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of the bios in question have a serious flaw. Our gedolim deserve our respect, etc., however they are flesh and blood just as we are. Lo bashamayim he. The Torah wasn't given to angels. Our gedolim may be tzadikim, but we needn't raise them to the level of angels in order to gain inspiration from them.

3:33 PM  

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