Who is a Gadol?

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I came across an online article by R. Shalom Carmy: “Who Speaks for Torah – And How?” (Religious Zionism, 1989). R. Carmy addresses a number of issues in that article, one of which is Rabbinic Authority. In the course of discussing how to determine who is a gadol and if such an evaluation is possible, he makes the following insightful comments:

Now if obtaining a centralized Torah authority is essential and urgent, the rational procedure would be to focus our attention on determining who of the possible candidates for leadership is indeed the most worthy – and may the greatest Gadol win!

This rational approach is not likely to yield decisive results. More­over it is sure to reinforce two of the least attractive vices of contemporary Orthodox discourse:

1) The Loud Mouth: People lauding the superiority of their exemplary Rabbi(s) rarely do so knowledgeably. How many of the gentlemen who belittle, supposedly on grounds of Torah scholarship, the rank accorded, by their followers, to R. Shach or to the Lubavitcher Rebbi, have actually assessed the respective contributions to that scholarship of the Avi Ezri and the Likkute Sihot? Know-­Nothing disparagement has a deleterious effect on our intellectual and moral lives and should not be encouraged.

2) Idolatry of the Intellect: The attempt to order, “quantitatively,” Rabbinic luminaries, strengthens our inclination to value that which can most readily be inspected from the “outside,” as it were. This enhances the cult of intellectual cleverness and analytic brilliance and the downplaying of wisdom, good judgment and their inevitable corollaries – self-criticism and humility. Our community does not need to breed more of this.

In any event, it is folly to anticipate consensus about Rabbinical authority. To claim that such consensus exists cannot fail to make us, and what we stand for, appear foolish too.

Not entirely related, but too important to be ignored, is the following:

Respect for other Jews’ legitimate Rabbinic authorities does not, of course, impose upon us a belief in the inferiority of our own. Our ideological vitality has already been too much sapped by our addiction to aimless self-doubt. Just as important, we have no right to undermine our institutional legitimacy.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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