It is with some trepidation that I sit down to write this. The family only arose from shiva a few days ago, and tomorrow we will begin our national mourning period of the Three Weeks, a time when we are particularly sensitive to issues of fraternal enmity.
However, it is not hatred for any group that motivates me to speak, nor a desire to champion “my side.” Though it’s been 14 years since I retired my black fedora and I haven’t been in a haredi (usually translated “ultra-Orthodox”) educational institution since I was 13, I still care what happens in that community. And the problems plaguing it are personified by the treatment of Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth, who passed away 13 days ago.
Born in Halberstadt in 1927, this native-born German was forced to flee his home by some crazed Austrian. He and his family fled to Holland, but unlike Anne Frank, he was not betrayed by a neighbor, and the family survived the war. In 1946, they arrived in Israel, and young R. Neuwirth quickly distinguished himself as a star pupil of Rav S.Z. Auerbach. In 1962, at the age of 35, he published the most important work of Halakha (Jewish law) since the Holocaust: Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah, SSK for short.
In its English edition, this book would be subtitled “A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath.” And that is exactly what it was: practical, pragmatic, tackling the issues of observing the Sabbath in a world filled with stunning advances in medicine, science and technology. R. Neuwirth was a shining example of what the haredi educational system in Israel could achieve: a true scholar tackling contemporary problems, dealing with the tough questions of applying a millennia-old concept to the modern world. He even went the traditional route of receiving approbations from recognized authorities before publishing.
But apparently that wasn’t good enough. Rav Y.Y. Kanievsky, known as The Steipler, led a chorus of strong condemnation for R. Neuwirth’s supposedly kula-centric approach. Ah, but what is a kula? Well, in the most simplistic view of Halakha, a kula is a leniency while a humra is a stringency in a given case. As you can tell, this is a purely subjective formulation.
This was the haredi world’s Galileo moment. After all, Rav Neuwirth was not a product of prewar Europe or of Muslim lands: he was fully home-grown. He was, in fact, a true believer, disciple of a gadol ha-dor, a Torah great, a leader of the generation.
But we all know what happened to Galileo. And so R. Neuwirth, essentially, recanted. He put out a new and improved edition which made sure footnotes were the domain of the kula, while the body of the text was the domain of the humra. Years later, he put out a second volume dealing with the liturgy and ritual of Shabbat, and only three years ago, he put out a final, updated edition of SSK. In the meantime, he continued to serve for decades as the halakhic adviser for one of Jerusalem’s major hospitals.
Why does any of this make a difference? The thing is that haredi Jews will tell you that they all (by which I mean, of course, the men) must stay in yeshiva, tens and even hundreds of thousands, because that is what it takes to produce a gadol ha-dor. Well, 65 years later, when the numbers have grown from 400 to 40,000 conscription-age students, where is the gadol ha-dor?
The answer is simple: a gadol ha-dor is someone who can make hard decisions, not chase after every humra. There is a reason that, even though the Mishna (Avot 5:21) is very skeptical of taking advice from people in their ninth or tenth decade, the senior Sephardic authority is almost-93-year-old Rav Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi, three of whose sons are now vying for the position, while he maligns one of the candidates as a villain, idol in the Temple and enemy of Judaism. The senior Ashkenazic authority is 101-year-old Rav A.L. Shteinman, who replaced 102-year-old Rav Y.S. Elyashiv last year. It’s worth noting that current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, now suspended while being investigated for bribery, was appointed based on his commitment to decide nothing on his own and always defer to R. Elyashiv.
It’s high time that the haredi world dedicate its yeshivot to producing scholars of the finest caliber and allowing them to lead. Otherwise, R. Neuwirth will be both the first and last of his kind.