Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gedolim, Privacy and the Truth of History

In the second-to-last session of "The Search for Truth," a conference sponsored in Detroit by the Jewish Forum, Dr. Marc Shapiro spoke about "The Lives of Gedolim and the Truths of History." He gave a fascinating presentation, describing his discovery and procurement of the famous letters exchanged between Rabbi Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg, author of the Seridei Eish, and Dr. Samuel Atlas of the Hebrew Union College. During his talk, I found myself bothered by his basic thesis. He felt that while he understood that some communities might feel that gedolim are elevated only through hagiography, he felt quite the opposite: that when we expose the fact that these great people were normal; that they had faults and yet achieved greatness, this only increases their stature in our eyes.

Yet, none of this really relates to the letters of Rabbi Weinberg. The basic goal of publishing the letters, as I understand them, was to reveal the fact that the Seridei Eish wasn't a one-dimnesional posek in the classic chareidi format, but rather that he was a muti-dimensional, complex individual who valued many different things. In essence, Dr. Shapiro seems have a clear agenda to illustrate that the Seridei Eish was, for lack of a better word, Modern Orthodox.

I don't really know enough to dispute that claim (or agenda), but the whole nature of the discussion bothered me. While Dr. Shapiro's thesis about the Seridei Eish might certainly be true, the letters that he published were truly private. Rabbi Weinberg never published them, but instead sent them to a friend in confidence. After all, aren't private letters supposed to be confidential. In fact, Dr. Atlas saved his letters but never disseminated them publicly, and it was only his widow - who really had no appreciation for the implications of the publication of those letters -- who gave final permission for him to use them.

To me, this raises the complicated issue of rabbinic privacy. Of course the Seridei Eish was a gadol, and his halachic works and other public writings have defined him for posterity. But does that public persona then make his entire life "public property"? Doesn't he also deserve to have a private life?

It seems to me that Dr. Shapiro, working in the hallowed halls of the University, has taken the scholarly stance that history must be studied and revealed for history's sake. Every event belongs to the public record, and may be revealed if it carries enough importance.

During his talk, I challenged Dr. Shapiro on this point of privacy, and he responded by making the following distinction. If a he discovered that "great gadol" had a child out of wedlock, but then took care of the child's needs financially, religously and emotionally, and lived up to his responsibility, then he would not publicize that fact about the gadol's life. If, on the other hand, the gadol ignored that child and swept his existence under the rug, then he would reveal that fact because it demonstrated that he wasn't a gadol after all." In essence, he agreed that not every fact or personal foible needs to be revealed -- and that he would only reveal information that he regarded as historically relevant.

Which to me -- only seems to prove my point. Even Shapiro agrees that historical figures deserve some level of privacy. He himelf would not reveal private, defamatory information that he felt had no "larger" relevance. If so, then we both agree that rabbis -- even great ones -- deserve privacy. The difference between our opinions, it would seem, is that I feel that halachah guarantees an individual -- even a dead figure -- the inherent right to privacy, whereas Dr. Shapiro feels that he has the right to make a subjective decision about what rights each figure deserves and receives.

All of this makes me wonder: if someone knew that living a prominent and important life would open his entire life up to intense scrutiny and examination, and make his most private feelings and behaviors fodder for history to publicize, who would want to become a leader? Who would want to be a gadol? Why would anyone want to be a rabbi?

And yet, in spite of all this, my thoughts turn to a well-known gemara in Brachos (62a)
תניא, אמר רבי עקיבא: פעם אחת נכנסתי אחר רבי יהושע לבית הכסא, ולמדתי ממנו שלשה דברים: למדתי שאין נפנין מזרח ומערב אלא צפון ודרום, ולמדתי שאין נפרעין מעומד אלא מיושב ולמדתי שאין מקנחין בימין אלא בשמאל. אמר ליה בן עזאי: עד כאן העזת פנים ברבך! - אמר ליה: וללמוד אני צריך. תניא, בן עזאי אומר: פעם אחת נכנסתי אחר רבי עקיבא לבית הכסא, ולמדתי ממנו שלשה דברים: למדתי שאין נפנין מזרח ומערב אלא צפון ודרום, ולמדתי שאין נפרעין מעומד אלא מיושב, ולמדתי שאין מקנחין בימין אלא בשמאל. אמר לו רבי יהודה: עד כאן העזת פניך ברבך! - אמר לו: וללמוד אני צריך. רב כהנא על, גנא תותיה פורייה דרב. שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו, אמר ליה: דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא! אמר לו: כהנא, הכא את? פוק, דלאו ארח ארעא. אמר לו: תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

At the end of the day, perhaps Gedolim don't get any privacy -- not even in the bathroom, nor in the bedroom, and maybe not even in their private letters. The price of gadlut might just be that their every action is תורה היא וללמוד אנו צריכין.


  1. Actually, to me it seems like a matter of perspective. What was revealed about him only shows a complex, multi-faceted persona.
    According to a MO perspective, there's nothing wrong or defamatory about that, so why would one think that R' Weinberg would feel a need to hide that fact?
    But according to a chareidi perspective, such a persona is not flattering at all; they might even consider it loshon hara; so to a chareidi person, revealing such private information could be wrong.

    Put another way - to a MO person, being MO is perfectly fine, so let's share that with the world, but to a chareidi person, being MO is very, very bad, so let's keep it secret.

    Either way, it is the truth about who he is, and especially if there are people who are promoting a diff version of the person, isn't it incumbent upon those who claim to be truthful, to reveal who he really was?

  2. No one has privacy anymore today.
    Just open a facebook page and find out -

  3. The difference between our opinions, it would seem, is that I feel that halachah guarantees an individual -- even a dead figure -- the inherent right to privacy, whereas Dr. Shapiro feels that he has the right to make a subjective decision about what rights each figure deserves and receives.

    But this is often the line that separates an accurate biography from hagiography. Although Dr Shapiro has a line that he said he wouldn't cross (and which the author of Making of a Godol did cross in Shapiro's eyes), the standard approach in the Orthodox world is a very restrictive one that is exemplified by this statement of R. Shimon Schwab:

    What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages. What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience... Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful. That means we have to do without a real history book. We can do without. We do not need realism, we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it onto posterity.

    Many people (indeed nearly 100% of the chareidi world would accept nothing less) are comfortable with the historical novel (and some would say ahistorical) approach exemplified by R. Schwab's statement. But that has no place in the academic circles to which Dr Shapiro belongs.

  4. Surely you've seen Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter's article on this very topic, published in a later volume of the Torah u-Madda Journal; available at

  5. The issue that you are grappling with was discussed at great length in the issue of the Torah UMadda Journal that followed the one in which the letters were first published. A close talmid of the Seridei Esh, among others, expressed his opinion, and the extraordinary article "Facing the Truths of History," was penned by then-editor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, as a direct result of the episode. As I recall, in the conclusion of his article, R. Schacter writes dramatically of the exact words he used to ask mechilah of the Seridei Esh, at the latter's kever, for having perhaps stepped over in publishing the letters.

    Moshe Rosenberg


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