Thirty years ago, as I walked the streets of Yerushalayim as a young yeshiva student, there were, as there often are, protests about the issues of the day. The topic at the time was the new Egged bus stops which were being built in the city. Gone were the old wooden benches with a nominal covering, in were the new, modern aluminum benches enclosed on top, in the back and on the sides – sides with clear acrylic intended for the placement of advertisements. It was these advertisements which became the subject of intense protests and ultimately vandalism. The exclusively Orthodox communities vehemently objected to the racy advertisements that began showing up in these displays. While one can certainly understand their objection to this forced intrusion into their conservative neighborhoods, it is the reaction to this intrusion which is the subject of this discussion.
Unlike today, when it seems that burning garbage in the streets of Yerushalayim is the first line of protesting, years ago demonstrations came first, then more protests through official channels and finally the torching and destruction of the shelters. Then came the great paper war. The stone walls of the Geula and Mea Shearim neighborhoods were covered with Rabbinical decrees, ordinances, proclamations and condemnations of the new bus shelters. It was a series of these posters which caught my eye. In bold huge print was written “The Rambam paskins that it is a Mitzvah and a Chiyuv to burn the shelters”. At the bottom of the page was a citation to the Yad Chazaka, the Rabmam’s authoritative treatise and code of Jewish law. I had no delusions that I was proficient in every aspect of the Rambam’s halachic writings, but I was reasonably sure that the Rambam had never issued a ruling regarding the propriety of torching bus shelters. When I returned to the Yeshiva, I looked up the citation and found a one line entry in the Rambam – Lifnei Iver Lo Sitein Michshal, Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person. I immediately made the connection – that placing inappropriate advertisements was causing people to have improper thoughts. Nevertheless, whether the Rambam would have agreed that one is therefore mandated to destroy these bus shelters is a bit of a leap. What was most disturbing though was the audacity to issue such a proclamation in the name of the Rambam.
Fast forward twenty some years and I was involved with a local organization participating in a grand Jewish music concert to be held at Madison Square Garden. Lipa Shmeltzer, Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried and many others were to perform to benefit many worthy Orthodox Jewish causes. A hefty investment was made by many organizations to rent out the Garden and cover the expenses and advertising for the event. Then came the paper. One of the prominent Gedolim of our time had apparently issued a decree that the event should not be held or attended. After the initial shock, the event was cancelled. Much debate was held over what the precise objection to the concert was, but no one would have dared to move forward with the event or question the ruling. After all, we follow Daas Torah and that was that. In fact, one local Rav got up in his Shul on Shabbos and in addressing the issue said, “we don’t always understand why our Gedolim paskin in a certain way, but they are our Gedolim and we listen.”
A few weeks later, this particular Gadol was asked directly why he was opposed to the event. His objection was the fact that there would be men and women and mixed seating, and such things invariably are not a good setting. In fact, the event was designated very specifically as separate seating and the Gadol on this occasion had either been misinformed or misled. So, all the hefsed mammon (loss of public monies) was not even attributable to “following our Gedolim”, rather it was due to following the inner circle of people who had advised, misinformed and issued the edict in his name. Like the Rambam, his name had been misappropriated to further the views of someone else, who may not be a gadol or even a posek in his own right. Yet, like good Jews, no one questioned. In fact, anyone who did would immediately have been marginalized and branded as someone who doesn’t follow Daas Torah.
One year later, I received a very impressive multipage, glossy color brochure on behalf of one of the large Tzedaka organizations in Eretz Yisroel. In it, there was a “quote” from one of our most prominent gedolim, that the needs of Eretz Yisroel take priority even over the needs of one’s own city. As the Shulchan Orech instructs otherwise, I knew this to be a misquote. Obviously, our Gedolim know the Shulchan Orech. But who issued or authorized this quote? More importantly, how many people were duped in to following this instruction which is contrary to every Halachic source?
Sadly, we may never know. However, with a greater percentage of our children in day school and Yeshivos than ever before, we should be in a position to feel certain that when an unauthorized proclamation is made, we would recognize it. We are not. The trend instead is to marginalize anyone who dares raise an issue – even with an unauthorized decree.
This weeks Parsha shows us how differently Moshe Rabbeinu may have handled the issue. Eldad and Medad, two of the newly appointed “seventy elders”, were having and sharing their prophecies. Yehoshua urged Moshe Rabbeinu to take action and to silence them. (Behaloscha, 11: 26-27) Moshe’s response was “don’t worry about my Kavod, I only wish that every Jew was blessed with prophecy”. (11:29) Sage words from the greatest teacher in our history. Indeed, in Parshas Bechukosai (26:3), Rashi explains that the reason we learn Torah is to become proficient in its laws, so we may keep them. Moreover, the Torah tells us “ Ish Imo V’Aviv Tirau, V’es Shabsosai Tishmoru - that even if a parent (presumably a rebbi too) would tell you to violate Shabbos, one may not listen. (Yevamos, 6a).
Apparently, not anymore. Not only are we instructed to subjugate our understanding to that of a rebbi from a very young age, our Yeshivas do not devote time to making its students proficient in Halacha so they can fulfill the Mitzvos on their own. Take the average Bachur who has learned four years in Yeshiva High School plus four more years in Beis Medrash and you will find many of them have learned a substantial portion of Shaas but in the course of their often ten hour days learning, perhaps half an hour was devoted to actual Halacha L’maaseh. SHOCKING!!! Rashi says that’s why we learn Torah – for Halacha L’maaseh. No wonder people follow edicts which violate our most basic Halachic Codes, THEY DON”T KNOW ANY BETTER!!!
Because we have seen repeated examples of people improperly speaking in the name of a Gadol, signing a Gadol’s name to a document (or using his photograph) without his permission, we must be very vigilant in insuring that when we listen to our gedolim, it is actually the Gadol himself who we are listening too. I am not advocating that people stop following our gedolim. Chas V’Shalom. But we do need a serious wake up call on several fronts. First, we must get a handle on the irresponsible manner in which certain people have taken to speaking on their behalf and in their name. In the days of PhotoShop, you simply cannot believe everything you see or read. Second, we need our Yeshivas to seriously reconsider adjusting the Seder Hayom so that a more substantial portion of time is devoted to Halacha L’maaseh. How can we value our Torah and keep it’s Mitzvos when a majority of young men come out of Beis Medrash and get married without a working knowledge of Hilchos Shabbos, Kashrus and Basar V’Chalav.
Moshe Rabbeinu did not feel at all threatened or challenged by others receiving Nevuah. On the contrary, he welcomed it and wished it for others. Our Gedolim would not feel threatened by others who have a working knowledge of basic halacha. In fact, they may welcome a break from the constant flow of people who feel it’s necessary to consult Daas Torah on what model car they should buy, which job they should take or which brand of orange juice they recommend.
We were given the Torah specifically so we would know how to act. Failing to attain that knowledge while spending years engrossed in Torah study cannot be condoned. It is only through becoming proficient in the Torah’s Mitzvos that we can hope to perceive those times when “V’es Shabosai Tishmoru” makes us pause and think about the propriety of what we are doing.
 The irony of my presuming to know how the Gedolim would feel is not lost on me.