Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Gedolim and "Daas Torah"

The following was originally written for grade school students (5th-8th grade) as an introduction to a school wide "Gedolim" project. The goal was to introduce the concept of "gadlus" and Torah leadership, and to counter some of the misconceptions that many children (and adults) have in this area. It has been modified somewhat for a general audience:

A gadol (lit. "great person" - referring to a great Torah leader) is a Jew that has perfected himself. This means that he has striven with his entire being to truly fulfill the expectations that God has for every Jew. Every gadol started out as an ordinary person. Every Jew is capable of gadlus, and God expects all of us to strive to perfect ourselves.

Gedolim are not carbon copies of each other. Although a great Torah sage has subjected his entire personality to the purifying light of Torah, it remains his personality, not a generic “gadol” personality. Like everyone else, each gadol has his own unique personality and character traits, his own unique interests, and his own sense of humor. By studying the Torah, internalizing its message, and fulfilling God’s mitzvos, the gadol has freed his personality from the slavery of the yetzer hara – the natural urges and temptations that prevent us from being who we really want to be. The Torah enables us to be ourselves in the truest sense.

Nevertheless, there are several basic characteristics that are essential to the status of a gadol. Each of these characteristics is one that the gadol has striven to perfect in himself. Gedolim are made, not born.

Basic Characteristics of a Gadol

The following is a list of characteristics that we all must strive to achieve. A gadol is simply a person who has already done so.
  • Torah Knowledge – A gadol must be a master of Torah knowledge. He must have a comprehensive knowledge and familiarity with the Torah. In particular, he must be knowledgeable in the Talmud and Poskim. Even more important than the amount of book knowledge he possesses - which is very important - the gadol must become a master of how the Torah “thinks”, i.e. he must develop a broad understanding how the Torah deals with various types of issues.
  • Mesorah The gadol must have a genuine commitment to the mesorah – the interpretation of the Torah as it has been passed down from generation to generation since Moshe received the Torah at Sinai. He expresses this commitment in his study of the Torah and in teaching it to the next generation of students.
  • Self-MasteryA gadol is a person who has developed complete control over himself. He is a master of self-discipline, in which every act, every statement, and every reaction, is measured and trained according to the Torah. He is a person that has worked on all of his middos (character traits) to perfect them to the greatest degree possible.
  • Ahavas Yisrael­ - Love of One’s Fellow Jew – A gadol has developed in himself a genuine love for every Jew. He truly fulfills the mitzvah of “V’Ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha” – “Love your fellow as yourself.”
  • Genuine Ruchnius (Spirituality) – A gadol has a real relationship with God. He doesn’t just “believe” in God; he knows God. He has true ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem (love of God and fear of God). He sees an aveira as truly harmful and destructive, a mitzvah as truly beneficial and constructive. When a gadol prays, he truly feels that he is standing in the presence of the Creator of the Universe and that he is speaking to Him, and that He is listening. When a gadol studies Torah, he truly feels that God is speaking to him in the words of the Torah.
  • Anava - Humility – The middah of anava is of unique importance. Anava does not mean seeing yourself as lowly and worthless. Rather, it is the opposite of self-centeredness. The natural state of human being is to be self-centered, in that we care only about ourselves. As a person grows spiritually, he becomes less self-centered and cares more about others. The gadol has developed his personality so that his own self-interest is no longer an obstacle to his spiritual development and care for others. In truth, anavah is an essential prerequisite for all the previously mentioned traits.
A gadol is not a hermit or a monk. He doesn’t exist in some otherworldly, mystical realm. A gadol lives a full, normal life. He has a family, a wife and children, and he cares for them just like any husband and father. He is part of a community – with neighbors and friends. He has a job – frequently, but not always, as a teacher of Torah – and co-workers. He pays taxes, buys gasoline for his car, uses a credit card, etc. In other words, he has the same challenges in his life that everyone else has.

Daas Torah – The Torah Mind

Every community requires leaders who are capable of making decisions on behalf of the community as a whole. To be made properly, such decisions require much more than simple competence in the specific topic at hand. Leadership is not simply about making the best pragmatic decision. A leader needs to be able to make decisions that properly reflect the values of his community. This is true not only for determining the goals that the community should be striving for, but also, perhaps more importantly, the means that should be used to achieve those goals and the prioritization of values. In reality there is no such thing as a purely pragmatic or practical decision. All decisions are reflections of values.

Of course, the ability to make intelligent decisions that reflect the values of the community is only the beginning. The ideal leader must also be genuinely motivated to do the best he can for his community and he must be able to rise above the self-interests and biases that can prevent a person from making proper decisions.

Given these requirements, it should be obvious that a gadol is uniquely qualified to be a leader of the Jewish people. This is due to all the characteristics we already mentioned:
  1. He is a master of Torah knowledge and methodology.
  2. He has a genuine commitment to the continuation of the mesorah.
  3. He can think clearly without any “static” from bad middos.
  4. He genuinely cares about his fellow Jews.
  5. He has true emuna (belief) in God.
  6. He is not self-centered and self-serving.
As Torah Jews, we believe that God controls the entire world. A person with a true “Torah mind” – what is popularly called Daas Torah – has the clearest insight into what God wants us to do in any situation. A gadol has developed his mind so that it functions entirely according to Torah. Before rendering a decision on any matter, a gadol will gather whatever information is necessary. Depending on the issue, he may consult with experts in various fields. The gadol will then process this information with his Daas Torah and come to a conclusion. This final decision will be based purely on Torah reasoning and instincts as applied to the particular circumstances.

Added to this is the fact that gedolim, having developed a true relationship with God, also benefit from a special siyata d’shmaya – “Heavenly assistance” – in their thinking. This is a unique insight that is akin to ruach hakodesh.

This does not mean that all gedolim will always agree on every issue. Gedolim may disagree because of they have received different information, because they have different perspectives, or many other reasons. It also doesn’t mean that a gadol will always make the best possible decision. Wisdom is a gift from God and He will sometimes withhold that gift even from those closest to Him. Ultimately, gedolim are still human beings, and like all people - including the most talented leaders - they can err. Nevertheless, the best possible choice to render decisions for the Jewish people is a gadol.

Our gedolim are leaders and teachers, but, perhaps most importantly, they are models and exemplars. A gadol demonstrates what the Torah means when it say that we are all created “b’tzelem Elokim” – in the image of God.” Our study of gedolim should motivate us to achieve greatness in our own lives.

No comments: