Who to read

In the last few years there has been a very welcome addition to the unique genre of literature called the gedolim biography. I’m referring to translations of unusually intimate and detailed biographies, previously only available in Hebrew, of modern gedolim such as the Brisker Rav, HaRav Menachem Man Shach zt”l, and biographical sketches of other 20th century giants. The enthusiasm, and controversy, about these books once again raises the challenging issue, however, of how we are to interact with this sort of work — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I have mentioned here before (links below), gedolim biographies are, axiomatically, not comparable to the literary genre known as biography in the “outside world.” They are, in fact, more akin to the genre known as hagiography, defined as “the study of saints.”

This choice of terminology is not meant as a criticism, as it is often used when describing insufficiently critical biographical works. Rather the premise of the gedolim biography is entirely the same as that of hagiography: The subject is a person entitled to, and granted by the presumptive readership, elevated reverence due to his spiritual accomplishments. The purpose of the work is to celebrate these and to inspire readers and teach by explaining how a person who walked so closely with God did so, so that we can emulate or otherwise learn from those ways. While it is true that a journalistic or “objective” biography can, by virtue of showing a “warts and all” portrait of its subject, sometimes be even more inspiring than a hagiography — especially because of its arguably more practical application — our sensibililty, as observant Jews, does not admit of that option.

For people such as myself who come from a secular background, and who may have honed their intellectual or analytical skills through one or more courses of university study, this last assertion requires some serious analysis and thought. We always must satisfy ourselves as to whether we are, after all, in a “comfort zone” intellectually, based on the hard-wired person we are today, or whether we are entering the realm of “believe this,” as opposed to “know this.” All of us have passed into the latter territory on this journey, but it is not granted to just anything, or anyone, and should not be.

To some extent I have wrestled with this issue before here, in this article, where we all discussed anti-religious blogging by Jews and in this essay-length comment to this fine Steve Brizel post. And I also wrote a while back about the challenges of Judaica publishing, and purchasing. It is not because I consider myself so citable, but rather because I don’t want to be accused of needless repetition, that I keep linking to these earlier musings; more importantly, these are all related: How we reach a point where following the instructions in the “how to” books and the halacha works and the Artscroll Siddur only get us so far. We want to know what’s next, how do we do more, what does it look like? And we don’t, most of us, have either parents or ancestors or even access to a personal oral tradition about what it might look like, for us, at “more” in this particular manner. So because we are, as has been said by many more scholarly than I, in the post-oral-tradition era and rely instead on written works, we turn to books about acclaimed people because we want to populate our internal personal galleries of personal exemplars of avodas Hashem [service to G-d] the highest order.

It is worth examining the premise of the modern-day concept of the “tell-all” biography in the first place. We start with the axiom that not everything ought to be said, much less written, much less published. More specifically, there is no question that we learn “more” from a “warts and all” biography, but it is far from clear that we learn better. It is said, or was said before it became so utterly anachronistic, that no man is a hero to his valet. Yet it is not the person who has the most “intimate” knowledge of a person’s least dignified, least elevated functions who has the most to tell us about who that person is — for in fact the most prosaic aspects of a person’s life are the ones that are the least distinguishing. We all know why Pharoah went down to the Nile in the morning, and notwithstanding the official story, surely his courtiers did as well. The pretense “worked” for all involved. And while in contrast halacha does not promote falsehood about the natural order of life and living, we still forbid a disciple from beholding his master in an undignified state, and so too a child his parent, and a subject his king. We don’t learn about a person by reading his entrails or his fingernail clippings or his laundry list — fine.

On the other side of the issue, fawning, starry-eyed treatment that turns a life of high achieviement and complexity into a facile fairy tale is of limited value. Not no value at all: For BT’s, at least, they still provide a basic narrative outline of stuff we didn’t learn growing up — names, dates, places — that is no less useful, and is probably more so, than the other accepted narratives (say, l’havdil [pardon the comparison] about the Pilgrims, Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth) we learned about the world growing up. There are worse things to keep on your nightstand.

What is hard to excuse, though — and often hard to perceive, especially for neophytes — are distortions such as hidden agendas, material omissions and, of course, outright falsehoods. I am sure this phenomenon exists within the gedolim bio genre: more of the first kind, less of the second, and probably an unfortunate amount of the third. (But then this is true of ever kind of literature — especially blogs, of course; especially anonymous blogs; and, I’m comfortable saying, most especially, since you mention it, anonymous blogs that trash gedolim. Perhaps I’m biased that way, but at least I put my name on what I say.)

The more recent books, including some originally written in English, are better than many of the early entries, in part because people, perhaps people such as ourselves, demand more from our literature. They are increasingly well sourced, and while they respect considerations of dignity and reverence, they acknowledge the existence of the world around their subjects, as well as the fact that not all the gedolim being biographed agreed with each other about every little thing. Indeed, if you line all these narratives up in a mental spreadsheet, you can, reading between the lines, figure out a thing or two about what’s “really” being said. Then you have a starting point, and can seek information and guidance about from people who might be able to elucidate the issues and personalities more candidly, or from a different perspective.

There are still some serious flaws in virtually all such biographies. One important one is the lack of acknowledgment of the biographical importance of a gadol’s spouse and other non-talmud-chacham family members. Notwithstanding understandable concerns of privacy and tzenius [modesty and dignity], this consistent omission presents an incomplete picture of the life of such great men and indeed of Jewish life and human life in general. Not surprisingly, from what I am told, these omissions leave some female readers cold too. But there is hope. In particular, the first half (the only half translated so far) of Rav Asher Bergman’s biography on Rav Shach represents a very substantial step in the right direction on this score. It will be interesting to see if the second volume addresses some important and meaningful issues (some of which even BT’s know enough about to be looking for) in the life of this great man.

And at the end of the day, that is the thing: By these books, I have a sense of a kind of greatness I would not otherwise know. It helps me to appreciate how these gedolim have shaped communal values, made our present-day leaders who they are and, to some extent, how we’ve gotten into some of the pickles we’re in. You can’t believe anything you read, if it’s not the Torah — even if it’s about the men who lived and taught Torah. But a mature appreciation of gedolim biographies can lead to a mature appreciation of who we are today and what a person can achieve in this world and the next. That’s why I read them.

11 comments on “Who to read

  1. Steve, are those only in Hebrew? I must confess that I have restricted my thoughts here to works available in English, which I know is the minority of them.

  2. I would agree with Neil #6 about the biography of R’ Aryeh Levin, A Tzadik in Our Time. Not only is the narrative engrossing, but it contains some fascinating history of the Old Yishuv and the founding of Medinat Yisrael, from a thoroughly Orthodox but totally apolitical outlook.

    I enjoyed the original 1983 edition of All for the Boss by Ruchama Shain, but I didn’t like the second revised edition: I thought that some of the later changes detracted rather than added from the author’s story.

    It seems that the best biographies of Gedolim not only tell the story of the life of the Gadol but also give a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Jews and the history of the times in which they lived.

  3. There are two wonderful seforim on RSZA (HaTorah Misamchas and Oro Shel Olam) that are excellent and are not hagiographic inasmuch they illustrate that Jews of all hashkafic backgrounds were treated with respect by RSZA. They are IMO must reading.

  4. Gary, I have no problem with anyone not signing his last name or identifying himself at all in order to participate in discussion. When someone does anonymously what you do not do however — engages in ad hominem attacks, whether on known people or others involved in discussion — then I call chicken (or worse) on them.

    Neil, you make a good point. There were a number of very fine early books in this genre, and that is one of them.

    Charlie, we’re not Chazal or the Rishonim. At least I’m not. On the other hand, I would not argue that contemporary gedolim are above criticism. On the other other hand, (a) if it’s anonymous, see above; (b) if it’s not, well, who is it coming from and what standing do they have to make the criticism? We are all entitled to our opinions, but simple humility — and halacha — tell us that someone who finds the actions of an accomplished talmid chochom (much less a recognized leader among talmidei chachomim) puzzling, troubling or even offensive should ask a number of pretty fundamental questions of himself first before publishing that criticism publicly. I can’t imagine getting through those questions intact before feeling justified in expressing criticism. That’s different from seeking understanding — even in a public forum.

  5. I have never understood the hagiography mentality. Chazal and Rishonim (and even an occasional Acharon) are willing to criticize everyone in Tanakh, even the Avot! That contemporary gedolim would be above criticism violates yeridot hadorot. We certainly don’t invoke the merits of contemporary gedolim in the first brachah of the shemoneh esrei!

  6. Ron, very nicely stated.
    The creation and editorial approved bios available today are, for sure, better researched than those written 25 yrs ago.

    For me, I still re-read “A Tzaddik in Our Time” (R Aryeh Levin). Maybe because it’s based on the Hebrew published in 1972, but it’s more real than anything else I’ve read.

  7. Ron, you wrote above:

    “But then this is true of ever kind of literature — especially blogs, of course; especially anonymous blogs; and, I’m comfortable saying, most especially, since you mention it, anonymous blogs that trash gedolim. Perhaps I’m biased that way, but at least I put my name on what I say.”

    You’re not a trasher, and neither am I. However, I don’t print my last name for reasons that are valid to me. On this site, I talk about my personal situation or feelings, and I may not want to share those thoughts with my neighbors. Using only my first name is the way in which I make sure that what I say on BBT stays on BBT.

  8. in a world where even the lofty things are made out to be more and more trite by the nanosecond, this is an interesting topic.

    in learning about gedolim, we seek to do two things simultaneously: to see them as, after all, not that different from us (we try to identify with this person so that he or she is not seen as being so far beyond us that their struggles are irrelevant,since they are obviously so much better than we are); and, on the other hand, we want to feel veneration for this person, understanding that, even though they, too, had very human challenges just as we do, they became through these ordeals something greater.

    IMHO the most important thing a person can acquire from reading such books is a sense of da’as torah – an understanding that the perspective of someone more steeped in torah is much more wide-ranging than that of the common man.

    authors of such books must tread a very fine line. and not all are capable of doing this well; most, i believe, are not.

    to me, reading any book, whether secular or on a religious topic, must be an interactive exercise. part of my involvement in using this book is to try to understand, to use this text as a springboard for further thought and perhaps study. do we have realistic expectations about what reading this book is going to do for us? do we think it’s going to be like swallowing some magic pill that will instantly transform us into knowledgable people who now possess all the info contained in the book, or understand that info completely, or agree with it?…

    taking this one step further – do we have realistic expectations of what a biography of a gadol is going to do for us, how easy it will be for me to pick up that fine line drawn by the author?

    bottom line – there is no substitute for thinking, BT or not.

  9. Nice point, Talmid. But I would still question whether or not even that work is as transparent as would be expected of modern standards of biography. His description of that struggle is not meant as a record of his life but as a source of religious inspiration.

    Bob, agreed as well.

  10. That is what is unique about the biographies of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.In English they are “Tzadik” and “Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom”. He says straight out that he had many temptations and spiritual obstacles along the way. He makes it clear that he was not born a tzadik and that his lineage had nothing to do with what he became.

  11. It’s important to consider how a biography of a Gadol handles his (religious, political…) opponents. Is it fair to them and their positions or does it distort or gloss over key details? Are they ignored as if a position contrary to that Gadol or his circle does not exist in Torah Judaism? If he collaborated with one or more of them on occasion, is that fact mentioned?

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