Gedolim are human and subject to human error – and sometimes do err. Even the greatest Gedolim of the past – were human. To say or imply otherwise is to lie.
While that may seem obvious to most of us, it is not the way Gedolim of the past are depicted in much of the Charedi world. As I have mentioned in the past, ArtScroll biographies are notorious in this regard. To quote Rav Nosson Kamenetsky, they are portrayed as being born Kodesh MiBeten and stay that way. Holy from womb to tomb.
It may seem innocuous and in fact praiseworthy to paint past Gedolim in purely flattering terms. But I think it is far from that. I have called this lying to the public. It is a lie of omission which in my view is worse than a lie of commission. Here’s why. When a lie is published, it can be refuted by facts. But a lie of omission is not something that can be refuted. You can’t refute what isn’t there. Instead what you have is the implication of perfection by way of effusive praise and lack of anything critical about the subject of your biography. The subject is portrayed as having perfection. Never having done anything wrong. Never having been tested. Never needing tests. Angels in human form.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman, founder and publisher of Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll) was asked about this deficiency in his ArtScroll biography series. He answered that his bios are not meant to tell the truth of history at all. It there is a negative story about a past Gadol he is not going to mention it. His bios are meant to inspire. So he will never publish anything negative that will detract from their greatness.
This kind of thinking was also behind the ban on Rav Nosson Kamenetsky’s book ‘Making of a Gadol’. He told inspiring stories about the legitimate Gedolei HaDor of the past that included challenges they had. And which they overcame. It was banned precisely for that reason by Rav Elyashiv (under questionable circumstances).
What Rabbi Kamentesky understands and Rabbi Scherman refuses to recognize is that overcoming challenges is what inspires people. Truth inspires people. Not fairly tales about perfect human beings.
While I understand the desire to never say a negative thing about a past Gadol in deference to his greatness, the Torah itself does not agree with this approach. Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier pointed this out in an article that was published in the Jewish Press a few weeks ago. He’s right.
It is widely understood that the tests suffered by Abraham the ultimate one being the sacrifice his son Isaac. The point being that he was not an angel that could do no wrong. He was a human being that could do wrong and tested accordingly.
Abraham was the prototypical human Gadol by which we should see other Gedolim of the past and present.
Every Gadol has suffered. Every Gadol has been tested. If you read a biography that doesn’t include that you are reading fiction. The kind of fiction that is not anything we can learn from. Instead it stunts any aspiration for growth and gives the reader the feeling that they can never rise to that level. So why even try?!
I’m sorry that Charedi biographers have chosen that route. I know their intentions are noble, They want to refrain from saying anything negative about a past Gadol. But is the price paid with such noble intentions worth it? Doesn’t that do a disservice to the very goal a publisher like Rabbi Scherman wants to acheive? Inspiring their readers to achieve the great heights of their biographical subjects? I think it does.