Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dr. Benny Brown's Biography of Chazon Ish

Haaretz   It is to Brown’s credit that he has rescued the Hazon Ish from ultra-Orthodox hagiography. Brown treats his subject with the respect he deserves and with more than a little empathy. At the same time, he views him as flesh and blood, and does not refrain from disclosing moments of weakness in his life. One mark of Brown’s success is the sharpness of the Haredi response to his book. It seems that more than anything else, the ultra-Orthodox cannot forgive Brown for saying the Hazon Ish − whom they consider one of the inspirations for the creation of a “learning society” in which Haredi men learn Torah all day instead of working, regardless of their scholarly aptitude − never believed that men must do nothing but study Torah, and that he was not opposed to army service or participation in the workforce.

While it may seem that it’s the gedolim who shaped the Haredi ethos as we know it today, the society is influenced by many more dynamics and constraints than the greats could have foreseen. The object of the hagiography, then, is to reinvent the images of the greats to suit the needs of the ultra-Orthodox ethos as it stands today. And woe is the critical scholar who reveals the gap between myth and reality.

In response to Brown’s book, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Bergman wrote in the Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman: “These people [critical scholars] who have not ever read and have not studied and have never gotten close to Torah scholars, and think that they have touched an angel of God even though they have not come close at all ... I say to them: You who are coming to trample my courts, who are you to come here with donkeys [which can never become kosher animals]? ... Let the source of living water [a reference to God and the Torah] be.

Benjamin Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish is an impressive scholarly achievement, an important signpost in the study of ultra-Orthodox society. Anyone who wants to understand the Haredi world, with its obvious implications for Israeli society in general, must not miss this book.


  1. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the Chazon Ish being held as the guardian of the mesorah and the "nothing new is permitted" tradition while at the same time introducing one innovation after another to transform Chareidi society?

  2. There is no irony here. You have a mistaken understanding of Mesorah. He didn't view himself as simply the preserver of what was done in the past. Rather he was one of the baalei mesorah - which means he decided what should done in order to preserve the vitality of Yiddishket for the present and future generations.

    This was the dispute he had with Rav Chaim Na'eh.

    The Chasam Sofer also innovated while at the same time proclaim that "the new is prohibited by the Torah". This was also true for Rav Moshe Feinstein and many other baalei mesorah.

    1. Yes, I do understand that but here's my point: he was the defender of a system that denied change could occur in the first place. Suddenly declare that army service is yehareg v'al ya'avor? How radical and definitely a change.
      Again, I don't think I'd have trouble understanding it if the very next line wasn't always "And this is how the mesorah has always been!"

  3. "The Chasam Sofer also innovated " - did the Chatam Sofer invent new halacha with no precedent?

    There is actually an irony or 2 here.

    On the one hand, the left or modern orthodox are called heretical, for "innovating" to fit with the times, whilst such a left wing leader as Eliezer Berkovits quipped at the haredim as being the "Karaites of the oral Law".

    I think this expression captures the issue here. The idea of "hadash assur min haTorah" is very much a Sadducean/Karaite viewpoint. The Hatam Sofer, as well as R' Haim Volozhiner, argued that not a single iota of halacha can change.

    These viewpoints regard the Oral Law as something rigid which cannot change, whereas the modernists claim that it is more fluid, and has internal mechanisms which allow it to change - within is self defined parameters. It would be interesting to see who has changed halacha more radically, is it the leading haredi figures such as the CI, or the modernists, such as r' kook, RJBS etc?

    1. you are tossing terms around without stopping to define them.

      It is not a Modern Orthodox vs Chareidim so stop with the "irony" of it all.

      Rav Herschel Schachter has a recording that states that while halacha doesn't change circumstances can modify how the halacha is expressed.

      Try this by Rabbi Willig


    2. Perhaps firstly to define "irony"


      Irony is not necessarily a bad thing.

      The issue is change itself. it is to a great extent ironic, since the figures I mentioned in MO were accused of changing halacha. I am not necessarily supporting one side vs the other. the point is that the change argument is used to attack those who allow certain things, eg secular studies, whilst the rabbis who make such attacks themselves follow a different halacha to what was done a few generations back.

      Now I may like some of the Chatam Sofer's strictures, and his ability on criticize based on Emet, rather than party politics. Thus he was great enough to even question the Talmud's understanding of science!

      The issue is, would a regular posek be able to make changes that are revolutionary , such as the CI's, or is that reserved only for extra-special Gedolim?

      I suggest that later gedolim attempted to make certain changes, but were not always successful, eg r' Elyashiv.

    3. I define a gadol as a posek who transcends his footnotes. This clearly applies to the Chazon Ish and to Rav Moshe Feinstein. It applies to the Chasam Sofer.

      It is possible to be one who comes up with leniencies or new practices or to be super stringent.

      Not sure what you mean by extra-special gedolim?

      The fact is that there are individuals who say something at a certain junction of history and their words are accepted. Perhaps not immediately but eventually. The Shulchan Aruch was a revolutionary approach that took 100 years to be accepted.

      The Gra also was not accepted - even in Vilna - but gradually his views became more mainstream. One of the goals of the Mishna Berura was to make the Gra more acceptable on a practical level.

      So we are talking about the great man and the right moment and the acceptance of the people.

      Not sure what you mean by being great enough to question the Talmud's understanding of science. You don't have to be great to do that.

  4. I agree with what you are saying in historical perspective. In the actual lifetime of the Gadol, it may not be so accepted, what he espouses.

    By extra-special Gedolim, I had in mind especially the Chazon Ish - it is hard to think of any other single haredi Gadol from the last century who has such stature amongst the Litvish world in particular.
    And I brought the example of R' Elyashiv who made some strictures that were not generally accepted, even by his own followers, eg the comment about not entering the Knesset.

    Regarding questioning the science of Talmud, it is true that anyone can "question" , but only someone as great as the Hatam Sofer can do so and get away with it!

  5. Garnel, help me out, you started this discussion!

  6. We have to define what a "gadol" is because we can know what an "extra-special gadol" is.
    Rav Eidensohn's definition of Gadol is excellent because it is based on Torah knowledge and is non-political.
    However the practical definition of Gadol nowadays is entirely political - a political leader within the Chareidi community.
    Look at the example of the Rav, who was a Gadol until he switched from the Agudah to YU. What, was taking "stupid pills" a requirement to switch over so that he lost his Gadol status? No, he switched camps and lost his political title as a result.
    Two scholars, equal in piety and learning, but if one wears a black hat and the other a knitted kippah, the former has a shot at the title and the other doesn't. The former will be quoted approvingly in Chareidi circles and eventually get an Artscroll hagiography, the latter won't.
    So an "extra-special Gadol" is a Chareidi leader who can rule not just by producing a well-written teshuvah but by fiat. See, this is a huge difference between Rav Feinstein, zt"kl, and Rav Eliashiv, for example. Rav Feinstein may have innovated kulos and chumros but he did so after writing about his reasons. Rav Eliashiv, on the other hand, is famous for one word answers, "assur" or "mutar". Despite not revealing his reasons his word is accepted by his community. That makes him extra-special.
    So I think that is Eddie's point: the CI changed halacha. He innovated. He altered what came before. He only gets to do that because of his extra-special status but that doesn't change that he changed halacha while standing for the philosophy that halacha cannot change.

  7. The Tropper Affair showed us that gedolim can be corrupted or at least gullible, to call these people angels is going overboard to say the list.

  8. Garnel, that is an interesting analysis, and I agree to a great extent.

    What I mean by extra-special, is a Gadol who is super great. The Chazon Ish is such a figure. However, this could be the historical bias, that we are all subject to. For example, the Rambam was pretty much as great as any Rav can be, recall what R Haim Vollozhiner said about the Gra, compared to the Rambam. However, in his time, and afterwards, people called him an apikores, and burned his seforim.

    So perhaps to some extent a Gadol is also a "hyped" figure.
    BTW, the reverse of what Garnel says is also true. Inhsi youth, R# Elyashiv was so Tzioni, he was a follower of R Herzog, and was super meikil. He called the Bet Din of the Rabbanut a spark of the Sanhedrin! IN those days, he was a great scholar, but was not part of the Haredi world. Not until he changed sides, did he gradually build up his profile in the haredi world, eventually becoming its leader. So , did he take special quick-smart pills in Mea Shearim? No, he was an ilui in his youth, but was not on the "right" side.

  9. Rabbi E- Did *you* read the bio? What was your take?


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