Holy from Womb to Tomb?

My name is Harry Maryles and I run a blog called Emes Ve-Emunah. I am honored to join the great writers and bloggers that publish here in the Times of Israel. From time to time I will be posting some of my more interesting recent posts. The first entry is a post about the fallacy writing biographies that tell only flattering information about great religious personalities of the past.

I am pleased to once again see someone with Charedi credentials, Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier, underscore an idea I have expressed here several times. That Gedolim are human, 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 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.

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. When a lie is published, it can be refuted by facts. But a lie of omission is not something that can be refuted. It is just an implication by way of effusive praise of an individual and lack of anything critical.He then appears to have never done anything wrong. Never tested. His every action in life was one of perfection. Which of course means they are being portrayed as pure angels of God and not human at all.

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 unsderstands 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. That is where Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier comes in.

His Parsha article (Lech Lecha)  in the Jewish Press makes that abundantly clear.  It is not some esoteric reading of the Parsha. It is a widely understood reading about the tests suffered by Avrohom Avinu, the ultimate one being the sacrifice his son Yitzchak (in next week’s Parsha).  Avrohom passed all of those tests as we know. 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.

Rabbi Shafier correctly points out that Avrohom Avinu was the prototypical human Gadol by which we should see other Gedolim of the past and present. Here is what he says:

It seems that the gedolim written about in the popular books today are presented as malachim – as if they never failed, never suffered any setbacks, and never went through nisayonos. Never questioned themselves. Never felt lost or confused.


The reality is quite different. Every gadol has suffered. Every great person goes through tests and tribulations. Each of the Avos and Imahos had periods of darkness and difficulties and on some level they all failed. The true distinction between people who become world class gedolim and those who don’t is how much they were willing to pay the price, how committed they are to serving Hashem, how many times they were willing to get knocked down and get back up again.


If you find a gadol story that doesn’t include dark times, you are reading pure fiction. In the world Hashem created, fighting spiritual fights is integral to growth, and fighting means that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It seems that in an attempt to portray gedolim as great, we have made them non-human – angels just barely wearing human form.


While this may stem from a noble motivation, it is false, and it brings with it a real danger. If a gadol is barely human, I can’t learn from him. After all, I am very human. I have ups and downs, moments of great inspiration and times of doubt and questions. I fall down and need to pick myself back up. If gedolim are perfect angels, what connection do they have to me? How can I learn from them?

I could not agree more. Rabbi Scherman: Are you listening?

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.