American Orthodoxy

New Links in an Old Chain

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Netanel Wiederblank

Prof. Chaim Saiman, in his illuminating article on gedolim, addresses the differing attitudes of Haredi, Centrist Orthodox, and liberal Orthodox communities. He astutely notes that “[d]espite their differences, the centrist and haredi communities use a fundamentally similar model of gadol-leadership… Each community understands gedolim and their authority to define halakha and its practice in substantially similar ways.” The liberal Orthodox community, on the other hand, rejects this model on ideological grounds. Prof. Saiman begins to address the philosophical basis for this discrepancy, and I would like elaborate on an additional factor—the role of mesorah, and specifically of the hakhmei ha-mesorah.

A gadol is more than an extraordinary Torah scholar and pious individual. He is a link in the unbroken chain going back to Sinai. We need gedolim because through them, we personally connect to Sinai. This notion is central to Centrist Orthodox theology, as articulated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who wrote:

Mesora encompasses not only analytic novella, abstract theories, halakhic formulae and logical concepts . . . but also ontological patterns, emotions and reactions, a certain existential rhythm and experiential continuity. Complete transmission of the mesora is only possible by means of intimate connection with the previous generation.

His student, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, elaborates:

The oral tradition … [though] of Divine origin and authority, was entrusted to Moshe Rabbeinu and by extension to his successors, the chachmei ha-mesorah of each subsequent generation, as a received oral tradition consisting of principles, details, and values. The mesorah was intended to be conveyed by means of a distinctively human process consisting of painstaking transmission of data and halachic methodology, as well as the rigorous analysis and application of that tradition.

The Rav’s nuanced perspective on innovation and continuity within the mesorah warrants elaboration. While this is not the venue for such an exploration, it is noteworthy that many of the debates between the Centrist Orthodox and Open Orthodox communities hinge on the role of mesorah. The notion of gedolim as links in the chain of the hakhmei ha-mesorah is sometimes rejected by those in Open Orthodoxy. For the Rav, however, the concept proved central. It is not always the case that a knowledgeable individual can render a decision on a purely halakhic grounds. Certainly when the question relates to mesorah, as so many modern issues do, then only hakhmei ha-mesorah or gedolim are qualified to decide.

This is because, as Rabbi Mayer Twersky explains [in “Halakhic Values and Halakhic Decisions,” Tradition 32:3 (Spring 1998): 9]:

The Torah is not content with ensuring technically correct behavior; it also seeks to mold the human personality. Accordingly, it is concerned not only with our actions but also the etiology and telos of those actions as well.


Any contemplated action or course of action must be evaluated on two levels. We must investigate if it is technically correct and permissible – viz, are any particulars of Torah violated. In addition, we must determine if the proposal is consistent with Torah principles, attitudes, values and concepts.

While the former can be assessed through a systematic analysis of halakhic texts, the latter concern is non-codified and can be determined only by an intuition that emerges from an understanding of kol ha-Torah kulah, one that is rooted in an oral tradition transmitted from teacher to student. Accordingly, only those who are steeped in fear of Heaven, expert in kol ha-Torah kulah, and recipients of this tradition are worthy to render decisions that affect the character of Jewish law. As Rabbi Twersky concludes, “hakhmei ha-mesora transmit and implement both tiers of our mesora – viz , the technical-practical as well as the emotional-axiological.”

Thus, the differing understandings of the role of mesorah outside of formal halakhah in the liberal Orthodox community naturally lends itself to the ideological elimination of gedolim noted by Prof. Saiman.

Thus far we have been considering the difference between Haredi and Centrist Orthodox communities, on one hand, and liberal Orthodox communities on the other. Prof. Saiman also considers the difference between the Haredi and Centrist Orthodox communities. One significant factor not considered in his essay is a major discrepancy in educational philosophy. This distinction was articulated in a letter written by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in 1951, in which he compared the German approach championed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, which produced a devoted lay population but, Rabbi Dessler argues, no gedolim, to the Lithuanian approach, adopted by the Haredi community:

The approach of the yeshivot was to establish a single goal, that being the development of gedolim in both Torah and fear of Heaven. It is for this reason that they forbade their students to attend university, as they could not see a way to develop gedolim in Torah without focusing their students’ sights exclusively on Torah.

However, one must not think that they did not recognize in advance that following this method would certainly alienate some who would be unable to subscribe to this more extreme position and would choose instead to leave the path of Torah. Nevertheless, this was the price they were ready to pay for the gedolim in Torah and fear of Heaven that would be raised in their yeshivot.

Of course, they would work aggressively to do whatever possible to help those who would not remain bnai Torah, but not in a way that would draw others after them.[1]

This statement goes a long way to explain the Haredi educational system in Israel, which ensures that talented and devoted students are given the resources to become talmidei hakhamim but, arguably, leaves other students with insufficient life skills to succeed in life as non-talmidei hakhamim.

I first encountered the discrepancy between the Centrist Orthodox system and the Israeli one while studying at Hevron Yeshiva, an elite Haredi institution. I was astounded by the level of Talmudic knowledge that the top students possessed. Never had I met eighteen- year-olds that knew hundreds of pages of Talmud along with the principal commentators. However, upon reflection, this phenomenon should not have been surprising. These intelligent and motivated students had been studying Talmud for fifteen hours a day for the past four or five years. Their Centrist Orthodox peers, most of whom only began to study Talmud seriously at the age of eighteen, understandably paled in comparison. However, Rabbi Dessler did not shy away from noting the significant cost that this educational model has. Haredi culture in Israel attests to this cost.

The Centrist Orthodox community rejects this model for several reasons. Firstly, the community values secular studies and engagement in the broader world. Thus, even if the goal was to produce gedolim, there would be a more wide-ranging curriculum. While this approach reflects a noble tradition within Judaism, it should not be denied that to some degree the focus on madda comes with a cost with respect to Torah. There are only so many hours in a day.[2] Secondly, as noted by Rabbi Dessler, the community seeks an educational model that will allow everyone to thrive and is unwilling to sacrifice the many for the sake of producing gedolim.

Finally, while it may be the case that exposure to secular studies serves as an obstacle to mastery of Torah, it is not the case that it precludes the possibility of producing gedolim. Moreover, one should not get the impression that there are no living Centrist Orthodox gedolim. I count among my teachers living giants like Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, Michael Rosensweig, and Mayer Twersky, scholars whose mastery of Torah and embodiment of Torah values is uncontested and who certainly, in the eyes of thousands of their students, qualify as gedolim. While it may be the case that there are those in our community who fail to appreciate their stature, few who personally interact with them would question their greatness.

[1] Eliyahu Dessler, “On ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’,” ha-Ma’ayan 4 (Tishrei 1963): 61-64 and reprinted in Michtav MeEliyahu vol. 3, p. 355. Translation by Moshe Hauer in a thought-provoking article in The Klal Perspectives Journal accessible here: (accessed October 15, 2016). R. Shimon Schwab, in a letter published in ha-Ma’ayan in 1966, and translated in Shnayer Z. Leiman, “From the Pages of Tradition: R. Shimon Schwab: A Letter Regarding the “Frankfurt” Approach,” Tradition 31:3 (1997), 71-77, rejects the assertion that the “Frankfurt” approach produced no gedolim and respectfully counters Rabbi Dessler’s analysis of his mentor’s remarkably successful approach.

[2] To be sure, certain aspects of secular wisdom enhance the understanding of Torah. Nonetheless, the cost with respect to mastery of Shas and Poskim, something indispensable for a gadol, cannot be denied.

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Netanel Wiederblank is a magid shiur at Yeshiva University where he teaches college and semikhah students Talmud, Halakha, and Jewish philosophy. He also serves as rabbi at the Yeshiva Community Shul (Shenk Shul) in Washington Heights. His book, Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic era, is forthcoming from RIETS/YU Press.