Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Declining Gadol?

In a rather interesting and well presented piece that appeared in the Yated and on Cross-Currents, Jonathan Rosenblum (in a wider discussion about the Israeli elections and the Charedi voter) touches on an interesting subject. While first noting a number of reasons Charedim increasingly feel disenfranchised by the Charedi party of United Torah Judaism, he then goes on to make a curious argument that jumps out when reading the piece:
In recent years, we have witnessed the creation in a number of localities of splinter parties of those who identify themselves as chareidim. And in most of these cases, the major impetus for the creation of the new party was a sense of being rejected or treated as second class members of the community.

But one concern stands out above all others in connection to the declining fortunes of United Torah Judaism. No principle is more central to chareidi education than that of fealty to gedolei Torah. Loyalty to the gedolim remains as strong as ever today. That means, however, that if calls issued in the name of the gedolim are no longer as effective as in the past, then it must be that there is a perception among many that major decisions concerning the elections – e.g., whether to run as one party or two, who should be on the list – were not made in the way that the chareidi public has been educated to expect – i.e., with the gedolim sitting together and various askanim present only to the extent that they were needed to provide relevant information.

Hopefully, that perception, to the extent it exists, is completely wrong...

Earlier in the piece, Rosenblum himself had noted
The party is the province of a few askanim, and the rest of the chareidi public is consigned to the role of voters. And no more.
so it is odd that he then treats it as a perception that hopefully is completely wrong. But beyond that, it is strange that he does not consider the possibility that the Charedi public is in fact less loyal to the gedolim when it comes to certain issues than they were in the past.

If the responsibility of a gadol in terms of the klal (community) is to not only lead, but help create a community where all feel the people's needs are being properly addressed both in the short-term and the long-term, Rosenblum has already listed in his piece numerous reasons why people may feel less inclined to trust that the current crop of gedolim is either best equipped or able to do so:
  • No one asks them for their opinions
  • No one takes polls of their major concerns
  • They do not participate in primaries to determine whom they think would best represent them
  • Rotation agreements convey the message that competence and expertise do not matter
  • How well a particular mayor or representative serves his constituents is irrelevant, and those constituents’ interests are of no concern
  • The party is the province of a few askanim
  • Children from English-speaking homes cannot get their children into Bais Yaakov seminaries in one Jerusalem neighborhood
  • Children of Chevron graduates are considered too “modern” in some other city
  • A sense of being rejected or treated as second class members of the community
With all of that and plenty more - a seeming focus on blocking off any technological tool due to its danger despite its great potential for the positive, an increasingly restrictive approach to education, women, daily life, many aspects of what had become part of the Charedi lifestyle, and a disconnect between what is desirable and what is practical, it is understandable why Charedim may be less likely to hold gedolim in the same regard they have in the past. While there is certainly still a respect for the concept of da'as Torah and for their wisdom in particular fields and on particular issues, it is not surprising that when it comes to day-to-day living that the average person may be less inclined to listen to a gadol whom they don't feel fully appreciates a situation and more inclined to follow their own understanding of what must be done practically.

The primary difference between politics and other aspects of life is that in the political realm, the decreasing loyalty to the gedolim is far more measurable - votes are counted. Despite, as Rosenblum noted, "tens of thousands of potential chareidi voters who have reached the voting age since the last elections", despite higher turnout overall throughout the country, despite the sorry economic state of the Charedi world, UTJ garnered just 863 more votes than it did in the last election [147,091 - 147,954]. (To compare to other parties, there was a 236,326 increase in total votes over the last election; Arab parties with similar population growth rates had about a 77 thousand vote increase [252k to 329k].)

It seems that either a small but growing portion of the Charedi electorate is turning away from the gedolim or that the younger generation is simply not falling into the same voting line. Either way, it does not require much of a leap to assume that this is not limited whatsoever to politics. There will need to be fundamental changes in the Charedi leadership's approach to dealing with the community, whether it start with a dismissal of the askanim who (positive intentions or not) seem to filter that which comes to the gedolim and that which comes from them, to a demonstrable understanding of the lifestyle, needs, and difficulties that face the community, to a more refined and practical approach to technologies and their uses. Perhaps this would lead to a revitalization of the Charedi community and its respect for da'as Torah; until that happens, however, we will most likely continue to see this slow but steady trickle away from it.