Friday, July 20, 2012

Rav Elyashiv, zt"l. Posek Hador? Does Such a Thing Even Exist?

Let me begin this post by saying the obvious: Rav Elyashiv zt"l was a man of extreme piety, wisdom, and knowledge. He was a world-renown posek. Chazal teach us that the death of a tzaddik serves as a kaparah - an atonement - for the entire Jewish people.
What I am about to write is not a criticism of Rav Elyashiv - far from it. He never sought the spotlight and simply answered questions when asked.
But I would like to ask a few simple questions about who we choose as our leaders, and whether it was either accurate, or even appropriate to call him the "posek hador" - if there even is or should be such a thing.
Among the statements made about Rav Elyashiv zt"l, Rabbi Steven Burg, Managing Director of the Orthodox Union said that, “The impact of Rav Elyashiv’s halachic opinions on our daily lives will continue to be felt for generations to come.” Bibi Netahyahu said pretty much the same thing: "In his rulings, Rabbi Elyashiv left a deep mark on the ultra-Orthodox world and on the entire people of Israel."
This might be true. But at least for a portion of his rulings that affected communal, political and national life, I wonder: is it necessarily a good thing?

Rav Elyashiv, born in Europe and a dayan within the Israeli rabbinic system for many years, staunchly advocated a conservative ideology that would protect and defend the insular Chareidi community from outside influence. According to the New York Times,
He opposed service in the Israeli military for yeshiva students, which he called a “plot to uproot Torah from Israel.” He disapproved of professional studies for women...he opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, but he instructed the political representative of the Degel HaTorah Party, with which he was affiliated, to support Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, in pulling out the remaining settlers, many of whom were Orthodox.
That last point is an issue that I find personally painful. Threatened by Sharon with the loss of funding for yeshivot, the Chareidi community sided with Sharon and allowed the disengagement to proceed, choosing funding over land and the lives of the Israelis living in Gush Katif for decades.
In essence, he worked tirelessly to increase the influence of Chareidim on broader Israeli society, and at the same time, to insulate the Chareidim from that society, all from the within the insular safety and serenity of Mea Shearim. Yes, that will be felt probably for generations to come. But not everyone would agree that that is a good thing for the Jewish people.

Moreover, I wonder when there even is such a thing as a "posek hador"? We don't (yet) have kings or a Sanhedrin. A rabbi cannot issue a halachic ruling that is binding on me personally, unless issued in the context of a rabbinical court. If I or you or anyone has a question, I turn to my posek - the individual whom I trust will use his guidance, insight, wisdom and also - and this is really, really important - his awareness of me, my life, my situation, and my worldview - to offer me guidance and direction.
Rav Elyashiv was that to many people. But he certainly was not that person to me, or to many of the rabbis that I turn to for such counsel. How then could he possibly be the "posek hador"? How could any one person be? Whoever decided that there should or even can be such a thing?

Finally, with his death we must begin to ask about the influence of "askanim" - those people who surround and protect the "gedolim", who are so hounded by the throngs of people looking for a brachah, a psak, or just the opportunity to meet the gadol, as if he's some sort of celebrity, that they insulate the individual almost completely from the public. I don't live in Chareidi circles. But it got to the point that whenever a proclamation was issued in Rav Elyashiv's name, I wondered whether he had actually said it or not. I wondered whether his askanim had given him the entire story and related all aspects of an issue, or whether they were "guiding" (read here: using) him for their own purposes. At least when Rav Ovadya Yosef says something, I myself can listen to him say it on the radio. People might not like what he says, but you knew that he said it. Can the same be said for much of what was proclaimed in Rav Elyashiv's name?

None of this is or was Rav Elyashiv's fault. He was, by all accounts, pious, righteous and simple. People asked him questions, and he gave them answers. He never sought the spotlight, and actually hid from it pretty well. Rav Aviner's beautiful eulogy highlights this point eloquently.
What does it say about us that we need a "posek hador" and flock to them like celebrities? Perhaps the Chareidi community that Rav Elyashiv wished to shield from secular society was more influenced by it than he believed.