Agudath Israel of America recently issued a statement in reference to a recent United States Supreme Court ruling. The statement said clearly that while we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, it is our sincere conviction that the Supreme Court’s decision is not a positive step for civilized society.
I received a telephone call from a prominent individual who asked me, based on my experience, whether the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah during the years of Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and his chaverim would also have issued such a statement. The caller felt that the attitude of the Gedolim in the previous generation was one of greater sensitivity to our position in galus, less outspokenness over national matters, and concern primarily about protecting the community. He thought that they did not feel the responsibility or maybe even the right to tell the host country how to live.
The question turned out to be an opportunity to once again impart two fundamental lessons about the hashkafah of Agudas Yisrael.
The first is something that I learned many years ago. This lesson was beautifully explained by the then Executive President of Agudas Yisrael Reb Elimelech Gavriel Tress, z”l. I trace the time that I became intellectually an Agudist to that moment.
When I was a junior counselor in Camp Munk, Mr. Tress was invited to speak at a melaveh malkah. He explained that Agudas Yisrael is “halachah.” He continued to explain, “Two women come to a Rav to ask a she’eilah on their chickens. They looked at each other’s chickens and to the women they looked similar. To their surprise, the Rav said that one was kosher and the other was not. Mr. Tress explained that the Rav with his Torah knowledge and experience realized that one chicken was over the line of kashrus while the other was not. Some people say that everything is kosher. Others say that everything is not kosher. Halachah says that you must look at each case and determine if it is over the line. Agudas Yisrael has Rabbanim with Torah knowledge and experience that look over each case that presents itself and determine which way we should go.”
Since then, I have been zocheh to sit in on close to 100 meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, from the times of Harav Moshe Feinstein until just a few years ago. One thread ran through all the meetings — a serious discussion of the sensitivities of the issue and a pilpul chaverim that brought a consensus on what the Torah wants us to do.
The members of Moetzes discussed precedents and how the Gedolei Torah in the past handled it. They spoke of the differences in the current question. Their main focus was to see if the precedents applied or whether the current circumstances required going in a new direction.
Many of the Rabbanim came into these meetings with one idea, but when all the Rabbanim had an opportunity to air their opinions, often they would understand and agree to a different conclusion. Rarely, if ever, was a decision made by pure majority vote. Rather, a consensus was reached at the end of the discussion.
Without having been at the meeting and hearing the discussion, I explained, there was no way that I could venture an opinion on what Rav Moshe would have said under the circumstances, but I’m confident that today’s Gedolei Yisrael reached the conclusion that is daas Torah.
There was a second lesson that needed to be explained.
There are always people saying, “If Rav ___ were alive he would have ______” — you can fill in the blanks.
There is no question that with the change of personalities on the Moetzes there has been movement over the years in one direction or another. That itself, however, is the design of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. The Ribbono shel Olam gives each generation the leaders that they deserve — leaders who come from and understand the needs of that particular generation. As Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman eloquently explained at an Agudath Israel convention, Choni Hamaagel, after having slept for 70 years, was not capable of being the teacher and leader of the new generation. The fact that he was greater than the subsequent generation notwithstanding, he wasn’t the leader that Hakadosh Baruch Hu prepared for that generation and was not capable of assuming that role.
In the parshiyos that we are reading now, we read of the transition of leadership from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua. There is no doubt that Moshe was greater than Yehoshua. The Midrash compares Moshe to the sun and Yehoshua to the moon. Yet only Yehoshua was chosen to take the Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. During the reign of Yehoshua, nobody had the right to say, “If Moshe were alive he would have handled it differently.”
Many times when individuals are asked on what basis they undertake certain actions, they base it on direction that they claim to have received from Gedolim who are no longer alive. They generally cannot find a live Rav who would give them the same direction, so they rely on those already in Olam Haba. They are missing a basic principle. If they are relying on their interpretation of the Gadol who is no longer with us, they are in effect saying that they know better — they are relying on their own opinions.
Emunas chachamim, one of the foundations of our emunah, requires faithfully accepting direction from a live rebbi. The Rav whom we choose can be one who is the talmid of our rebbi of a previous generation. The psak that he issues should be based on the mesorah that we have received. The application to the current circumstances though, must be by someone in our generation.
The “Halachah” that Agudas Yisrael represents is based on the mesorah of close to 100 years of decisions of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah on three continents. The application of those principles to the current U.S. Supreme Court’s decision though, is made by the Moetzes’ current members, shlita. It is to them that we must submit.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.