American Orthodoxy

The Function of the Centrist Orthodox Gadol

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Lawrence Kaplan

I read Chaim Saiman’s essay, “The Market for Gedolim: A Tale of Supply and Demand,” with growing excitement and admiration. Saiman’s shift of perspective regarding the “making” of gedolim from the supply to the demand side is genuinely new and illuminating. Moreover, his shift in focus sheds new light not only on the specific issue of the making of gedolim, but also on the sub-communities within Orthodoxy who are in the gedolim “market.”

Leaving liberal Orthodoxy to the side, Saiman claims that “while Haredi and Centrist Orthodoxy conceive of different species of gadol, they belong to the same genus. Each community understands gedolim and their authority to define halakha and its practice in substantially similar ways. . . [C]entral to the idea of a gadol is submission to someone who stands apart from the community and whose authority is qualitatively different from the other forms of authority experienced in modern life.” To be sure, Saiman differentiates between the Haredi and Centrist Orthodox model of gadolhood, stating that the Centrist Orthodox model is “less authoritarian. . . [and] respects the intellectual autonomy of its constituents far more than in Haredi circles.” Thus, speaking specifically of Rav Lichtenstein, Saiman maintains “[w]hat made him a Centrist Orthodox —as opposed to Haredi—gadol is that he was perceived as authoritative rather than authoritarian.”

And yet, at the heart of Saiman’s model of gadolhood for both the Centrist and Haredi Orthodox is the issue of authority. Thus Saiman notes:

[W]hen R. Lichtenstein reached a decision or articulated a position, the entire social, moral, and intellectual force of the Gush, along with its subsidiary communities, and the secondary and tertiary elites, opinion makers, and influencers who function as part of its social sphere coalesced around the ruling and treated it as binding—even when individuals disagreed or wished things were otherwise. This impression, the sense of living under an authority, both pre-existed and outlasted any specific issue, and applied whether R. Lichtenstein staked out a position perceived to be on the left or on the right of the Orthodox consensus. R. Lichtenstein’s authority is a social fact that pervades the fabric of the community and in many ways, is what constitutes the Gush, together with its students and satellites as a community.

To put it differently, for both the Centrist and Haredi Orthodox the gadol embodies Daas Torah, but, to use Alan Brill’s phrase from a review essay of Rav Lichtenstein’s published discourses, the Daas Torah of the Centrist Orthodox gadol is a “kinder and gentler” version of the Haredi model.

I think that Saiman views Rav Lichtenstein’s gadolhood much too narrowly through an exclusively Gush lens, and that leads him to place too much emphasis on the authority—and yes, Daas Torah–of the Centrist Orthodox gadol. (Here, to pick up on Brill’s suggestion, he may be following Rav Lichtenstein himself.) Certainly in the United States we cannot speak of Modern Orthodox “communities, and [their] secondary and tertiary elites, opinion makers, and influencers [who] coalesced around” rulings of Rav Lichtenstein and treated them as binding—and yet he was viewed by such communities as a gadol.

Thus, without denying the special authority accruing to the Centrist or Modern Orthodox gadol, I would, contrary to Saiman, place much more emphasis on his legitimating function. That is, Centrist Orthodoxy, indeed, looks to a “Rabbi/Dr. who has the entire Talmud, halakhic codes and commentaries at his fingertips, who has mastered the literature of Jewish thought and philosophy, and who is also fully conversant in cognate fields such as the humanities, law, and social sciences. . . a gadol who understands the social and intellectual currents of the time, yet exudes authenticity as he articulates our timeless tradition in a timely manner” precisely because such a gadol demonstrates in his very person that the Centrist Orthodox ideal of combining traditional rabbinic scholarship on the highest level with deep and broad secular learning, yirat shammay’yim with sensitivity to and critical appreciation of the modern world is not a fantasy, but a realizable ideal. To be sure, the Centrist Orthodox community looks to its gedolim for broad spiritual and intellectual guidance and inspiration, as fonts of Torah scholarship in the broadest sense of the term, but not so much for authoritative rulings.

This legitimating function of the Centrist Orthodox gadol leads me to wonder whether the Centrist Orthodox community needs more than one such gadol at a time. And here let me take direct aim at Saiman. Saiman refers to “R. Lichtenstein’s once-in-a-generation intellectual mastery of the rabbinic corpus and his unsurpassed personal integrity.” No one, heaven forbid, will take issue with Saiman’s reference to R. Lichtenstein’s “intellectual mastery of the rabbinic corpus and his unsurpassed personal integrity,” but “once-in-a-generation?” I do not wish to engage in the invidious comparison of Centrist Orthodox gedolim, but surely the Centrist Orthodox community of our generation was blessed by two outstanding Centrist Orthodox gedolim, two “hall-of-famers,” Rav Lichtenstein, of course, but also Rav Dr. Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, shlit”a, the great Gaon and Rosh Yeshiva of Ma‘ale Adumim, who, like Rav Lichtenstein, meets, by any objective standard, all of Saiman’s criteria for Centrist Orthodox gadolhood—a person of unsurpassed rabbinic learning, the author of Yad Peshutah, the already classic commentary on the Mishneh Torah, a major posek, the recipient of a PhD in mathematics, the author of important articles in mahshavah and Jewish philosophy, someone who combines great yirat shamay’yim with acute sensitivity to the modern world and moreover both identifies with and is a spokesman for the ideals of the Israeli religious Zionist community.

It is embarrassing, but revealing, that I should have to sing his praises. But why does his name not automatically come to mind when our community thinks of its all too few gedolim? Why was he so overshadowed by Rav Lichtenstein? I have some suggestions, but I am not familiar enough with the Israeli scene to put them forward with any confidence. But overriding specifics may be the fact that, as I have suggested, the Centrist Orthodox community does not need more than one gadol a generation to legitimate its existence and ideals. Indeed, as a friend commented to me, only half in jest, upon my trying out these ideas on him, perhaps two Centrist Orthodox gedolim would be too much for the Centrist Orthodox community to handle at one time. Too much authority?

But let’s propose a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Rav Rabinovitch was not eighty-eight years old (may he live to a hundred and twenty), but fifty-five years old. Would anyone doubt that the Centrist Orthodox community would look to him as its next gadol to replace Rav Lichtenstein? So why did it not look to him as a gadol, except minimally, for the past thirty years? Here supply exceeded demand.

In my response to Saiman, I have emphasized—it’s the nature of the beast—my disagreements. So let me close by thanking him for his very rich and challenging essay, and, not least, for stimulating my critical reflections.

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Lawrence J. Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, Montreal Quebec. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. and PhD. from Harvard University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was a Tikvah Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University Law School, a Polonsky Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Hamburg.