Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Unmaking of a Godol?- what those who we most venerate says about who we are

Let’s be honest. Terms like “gadol” and “tzaddik” are amorphous and hard to define. I would go so far as to say that our use of these terms says at least as much about ourselves, as it does about those to whom we assign these titles. Sometimes these terms speak of what we value; Torah scholarship, kindness, and other abilities and traits. Other times, these titles expose a darker side to the world, as we show how much we can tolerate certain faults and flaws, without removing someone from the pedestal on which they’ve been placed.

A few weeks ago, Rav Yisroel Belsky z”l passed away. A number of my friends posted about him in very positive terms. Being that I did not learn in Torah Vodaas, and was only familiar with some negative issues, I posted asking people to tell me the positive things they knew about him. I discovered some wonderful things about him. I was told about the tremendous chessed he did for so many people, including some, who many other people would not help. There were people who spoke about him welcoming people into his home, when nobody else would do so. The stories were truly beautiful.I heard about his tremendous genius, and how he knew a lot about science in addition to much Torah. I was moved by what I heard. Still, I couldn’t get the other things I already knew out of my head.

I am not writing to judge Rav Belsky who, like all of us, was human. We like our heroes to be perfect and villains to be nothing but bad, but that’s not how it works. He is no longer alive and any judgement will come from God, and not me. What I can’t get out of my mind is how many in the frum community can use the terms “tzaddik” and “gadol” for someone who did some things which can not be defended. I’m not going to list everything that he did, but his involvement with two generations of Kolko abusers will suffice. Even if one will argue that Rav Belsky did not know the full extent of what abuse the senior Kolko perpetrated, or that, given the times, he was not aware of the consequences, the nasty attack on a prominent family in Lakewood, when their child was abused, can not in any way be excused. Even when many in Lakewood, apologized to the family who they had driven out from the community, and welcomed them back, Rav Belsky never backed down to his dying day, even though the abuser pled guilty in court, and is sitting in jail.

Again, I will leave the judgement of how to view this complicated man, who did so much good, and some pretty serious bad, to God, but what of the community that venerated him? There are all sorts of small things that might have gotten him kicked out of the gadol and/or tzaddik club. Imagine the uproar had he said that bnei yeshiva in charedi yeshivas in Israel should serve in the army. What would have been said in the frum periodicals if he had started a college program in the yeshiva? He might even have been attacked if he was seen drinking the so-called “chalav stam”. I am not suggesting that he be treated without respect for the many good things he did. Rather, it just seems to me that terms like gadol and tzaddik, are, or at least should be, reserved for the select few who are role-models in the truest sense of the term.

Of course, this is not just an issue that connects to Rabbi Belsky. The Satmar Rebbe is treated with tremendous respect by his community, and by some from outside of it, despite having protected abusers from within Satmar. What does it say when a misheberach for Israeli soldiers would mark him as treif, but protecting Weberman and others does not? If we call rabbis who protect abusers by titles which suggest that they are the most venerated members of our community, what message are we giving to the victims of abuse?

A number of months before Rabbi Belsky passed away, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l passed away. As a true gadol ba’Torah, there were many stories about his brilliance, knowledge and hasmada. There were also many story of his tziddkus; stories when he was kind in ways beyond what we would expect, stories of how every person he met was treated with kindness, dignity and respect. There was one thing that I didn’t hear discussed at the time, but which I will never forget. When it became clear that Rav Motti Elon, a prominent rosh yeshiva in the Dati Leumi  world, had been guilty of abusing students, Rav Aharon did everything within his power to see that Elon was removed from his position of power. This despite the fact that Elon was not involved in Rav Aharon’s yeshiva. He suffered many unfair attacks from Elon’s apologists, but Rav Aharon would not be stopped. His actions conveyed the message to those who had been abused that they mattered to him, and that their pain was his pain.

I don’t use words like gadol and tzaddik lightly, but when I do, it is for those who live up to the ideals of the Torah, in the truest way possible. Rav Aharon was a gadol and a tzaddik. When we think about who deserves these titles, we should have role-models like Rav Aharon in mind.

"Let’s be honest. Terms like “gadol” and “tzaddik” are amorphous and hard to define. I would go so far as to say that...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, February 10, 2016


  1. Do you think RYB erred in values or in knowing the situation well enough to apply them. Given that (I presume) you do not believe in daas Torah, does a mistake in a worldly topic make someone less of a gadol -- regardless of the magnitude of the mistake in terms of necessary blindness or consequent harm?

    BTW, R Aharon Lichtenstein apparently didn't believe there was a gadol since 1993 (although he might have had someone in mind since R' SZ Auerbach's passing):

    1. "Erred in values or in knowing the situation" - if you don't know the situation, speak less forcefully.
      Are you referring to having empathy with an abused person a "worldly topic"?

    2. First, I didn't assert anything, forcefully or not, I questioned what R' Pesach asserted. He is writing like it was a flaw in R' Belsky's ability to make religious judgment. I added -- it could also have been a flaw in being able to assess the situation.

      And you cannot have empathy with an abused person until you believe their version of the story. Your question presumes having gotten past mine.