Sunday, December 07, 2008

"With great power comes great responsibility"

So goes a famous maamar by בן חביבא. 

{Update: To clarify, because I see I misled at least one person. The author of that statement is Stan Lee, who made the Spiderman comics. Peter Parker's uncle, Uncle Ben, said the statement. Chaviva is Aramaic for Uncle, and Ben is Ben, so Ben Chaviva was a joking reference to Uncle Ben. Sorry for the misunderstanding.}

But perhaps we can find an earlier echo of this in Pirkei Avot --

אבטליון אומר חכמים היזהרו בדבריכם שמא תחובו חובת גלות ותגלו למקום המים הרעים וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו ונמצא שם שמים מתחלל

How could the words of a Chacham lead to Galus? Perhaps the following story can illustrate this idea. It involves Rav Avigdor Miller, zatza"l.

About a decade ago, my parents encountered a fellow who was a big follower of Rav Avigdor Miller. And he was "boasting" of how big a talmid he was. For example, Rav Miller declared in one of his lectures, about the evils of television, "I want you to take you television and throw it out of the window." Now, this fellow lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building. But he took unplugged his television, took it to his window, and literally tossed it out the window, to shatter on the pavement below. He said he looked first to make sure no one was standing below, but in the meantime, how did he really know that someone would not walk out of the apartment at that time?

Rav Avigdor Miller certainly did not mean for his listeners to take his words literally, but rather they were said for dramatic, and rhetorical effect. After all, he was a very talented orator. He wanted to drive home the point that his listeners should get rid of their televisions, and thus rid their homes of its dangerous spiritual influence. But had this overly-literal fellow actually hit someone, well then, in the good-old-days he might well be sent into galus*. And then, as per the din, his rebbe could be sent to the Ir Miklat with him. Thus, שמא תחובו חובת גלות.

Was Rav Avigdor Miller at fault for making such a statement? Of course not. He has a right to expect that his audience is not composed of overly literal "idiots," and this far-fetched concern should not have hampered his ability to deliver effective lectures. On the other hand, if this had become a pervasive problem -- if people across the country were being beamed on the head by idiots listening to his tapes, then he would likely have stopped using such rhetoric.

It is in this context that I used certain language in describing a psak of Rav Kanievsky about how one should wear his peyos down, as being at fault for breaking up a shidduch, where there was a fight between in-laws on whether the chassan should wear them up or down.

I did not really mean that he is at fault. As I said there, the fault really lies with the idiots, who took this statement of what Rav Kanievsky held, and (in my guess) tried to compel someone else to abandon his own minhag and his own poskim, and with idiots who would elevate this to such a level as to be a reason to break off a shidduch.

What Rav Kanievsky wrote is no different than what other poskim write on other matters, and is perfectly responsible. This is the role of a posek, to describe what he believes the ideal course of action is.

However, I do wish that Rav Kanievsky exercised better control of statements in his name, and also that he would take first hold of those who would seek to impose his views on others who follow other poskim. These are two separate points.

One point is that while Rav Kanievsky is a great posek, he is not the final word on all things halachic. And poskim know this, because they are knowledgable enough in halacha and in meta-halacha. (See here for an example.) But the hamon am does not know this, and this hamon am includes some idiots who would then yell at people for not following the Gadol HaDor, or else would put up kol koreis telling people they must listen to the psak, without noting that there are other poskim who disagree.

Rav Kanievsky said that "anything said in my name is false," but this is not the same, because it was in one of his sefarim. It is a halachic question of whether, once he rules one way, anyone else is a zaken mamre for ruling differently, and whether one is allowed (and should) follow other psakim. And I believe he could do more to address this issue, and take control of it. For example, he could make a declaration that he assurs anyone using his words in a kol korei. They could even make a kol korei out of it. Or he could stress, as Rav Yaakov Yosef did recently, that while this is his halachic opinion, others were entitled to hold and follow contrary opinions -- even though he (=Rav Kanievsky) personally thinks that they are dreadfully wrong and misguided. Unless he actually does believe that since his opinions are correct, everyone should follow it, and people should promulgate his positions in these ways.

Why should he have to do this? He does not. And who am I to be telling him that he should? But on the other hand, if this is indeed a pervasive problem, then perhaps he should take it in hand.

The other issue is that people are saying things in his name, which sometimes are true and sometimes are false. Rav Kanievsky said that "anything said in my name is false," and that is a good step towards a solution. But it has not proven sufficient, IMHO, as people continue to spread rumors, and attribute things to the gedolim. See here for an example of a recent rumor, which spread for a month before being quashed -- and yet the rumor is still going around. Here is another example of people using Rav Kanievsky's name.

The Sages of the Talmudic appointed "Amora"s whos job it was to be an official spokesman for them, sometimes for specific rulings or retractions of rulings. Perhaps something akin nowadays could be instituted -- a web page, or a phone hotline with recordings -- with a list of approved statements, and a way of asking whether a specific statement in his name was actually issued. As it stands, the power of a gadol is being diminished by those who misattribute to him, or take his rulings past their true intent.

* Of course, in such a situation, it may well not be classified as shogeg because of the extreme negligence involved. But I, too, am making a rhetorical point.


Lakewood Falling Down said...

Point taken. Now how about finding be a list of biblical and talmudic sources for Rabbonim to manditorily write down who should succeed them when they are no longer able to lead, or pass away.

Anonymous said...

"[Rav Avigdor Miller] has a right to expect that his audience is not composed of overly literal "idiots," and this far-fetched concern should not have hampered his ability to deliver effective lectures."

Are...are you kidding? Was that a joke?

joshwaxman said...

I'm not sure what you are asking here.

I think the statement above is obviously true (so much so that it almost need not be said), and would be true for any great rabbi. The anecdote about this literal fellow was a true incident, but any reasonable person would understand that Rav Miller was speaking rhetorically.

Are you asking whether the narrative was a joke, or whether the statement I made was a joke? I cannot clarify until you clarify.

Also, please choose a pseudonym, even if only for this blog, so that I can keep personalities straight.



Blog Widget by LinkWithin