The Unmaking of a Gadol

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (Mishlei 16:18)

The Jewish Week reports the “breaking news” that R. Hershel Schachter has once again made irresponsible and controversial statements. From a YouTube clip taken at Yeshiva Hakotel R. Schachter was to have said:

First you have to know what the army is going to do. If the army is going to destroy Gush Katif, there’s no mitzvah to destroy Eretz Yisrael…If the army is going to give away Yerushalyim [Jerusalem], then I would tell everyone to resign from the army – I’d tell them to shoot the Rosh Hamemshalah [Prime Minister],” which prompted laughter from his audience…No one should go to the army if they [the army] are doing aveirus [sins]…We’re talking if the army is seeing to it that the country is secure, if they’re doing the right thing. I’m not sure if the army is doing the right thing…we have to look into that.

This is not the first time R. Schachter has made controversial or irresponsible statements, but rather one in a pattern of such remarks which leads us to the question of the viability of his Rabbinic leadership.


Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • The Jewish Week article reported that on a prior occasion R. Shachter said that “Jews and non-Jews ‘have different genes, DNA and instincts.'”
  • Commenting on the first Edah conference in 1999, R. Schachter in a Parasha Shiur on Yitro questioned, “who gave them the right to speak” since “each one is a bigger am haaretz than the next” and heretics for not believing in “the spirit of the law“. The audio file was posted on YUTorah.org and promptly removed. However we managed to save a copy here (file is in real audio format, relevant part starts at 14:20).
  • In 2004, R. Schachter offended many by comparing women to parrots and monkeys.
  • Regarding the infamous Negiah.org – an Orthodox Union abstinence website which blatantly misrepresented Rabbinic law and equated rape victims with vegetarians – R. Schachter endorsed:

    I have reviewed all the articles herein and I found them to be very powerful and fitting. It is quite appropriate to publicize words such as these in a style such as this – words that are straightforward for the sake of people with less background and words of encouragement that are agreeable and in a clean language for the sake of Observant Jews.

  • At a 2006 medical ethics conference on brain death, R. Schachter argued against brain death as halakhic death such that removing a living heart organ donation is murder. However, once the patient has been “killed” we can still accept such transplants since the “donors” are dead anyway. R. Kenny Brander, sensing the audience’s shock at his rebbe’s remarks, quicky changed the topic to the intellectual and academic freedom offered by YU.
  • A few days later, YU’s Commentator published an interview in which R. Schachter denounced YU’s curriculum, suggesting that certain “offensive” classes be taught in the first place.

In some instances R. Schachter stood by his remarks, other times students engaged in damage control. Here R. Schachter personally apologized:

Statements I made informally have been publicly excerpted this week. I deeply regret such statements and apologize for them. They were uttered spontaneously, off the cuff, and were not meant seriously. And, they do not, God forbid, represent my views. Jewish law demands respect for representatives of the Jewish government and the state of Israel.

Whether or not R. Schachter’s comments were meant seriously would have to be determined by watching the video itself – though it is currently unavailable. However, we should consider whether or not someone in R. Schachter’s assumed position has the luxury of making such remarks in the first place. The Torah is replete with warnings about careless speech especially from Rabbis. According to M. Avot 1:11, sages are supposed to be careful with their words lest they cause a desecration of God’s name. Rambam writes in Yesodei Hatorah 5:11 that the greater the status of the Rabbi – for example one for whom people sing songs – the greater the desecration of God’s name when he acts in an unbecoming manner.

The Jewish Week also reports a common theme among his apologists:

His defenders say he is naive, not mean-spirited, in part because he has little dealing with the community at large, cloistered within the study halls of Yeshiva. They say he speaks casually in class, unaware of the larger ramifications of his remarks.

But even this anonymous defense seems to contradict R. Schachter’s reputation as a religious authority. A necessary requirement of being a posek is through the interaction with the Jewish community. This is the primary difference between Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. The Rav is involved in the community and presumably will work with the community based on its needs. The Rosh Yeshiva’s cloistered life leads to precisely such “naive” errors in judgment.

In the ebony tower of the Yeshiva, Roshei Yeshiva are particularly susceptible to hubris. Not only are they rarely if ever challenged in a shiur or lecture, it is considered disrespectful to do so. Roshei Yeshiva have no obligation to defend their assumptions or positions, but rather it is the responsibility of the student to absorb and regurgitate as if the words came from Sinai itself. In this environment, such statements routinely pass not only as normal, but are to be interpreted as the authentic outlook of Judaism. In other words, this is an unsurprising consequence of a world without honest debate or the need for justification and accountability.

But thanks to the internet statements said in the privacy of the classroom are now publicized worldwide, thus exposing the rest of the world to the actual hashkafa of the Rabbis. Given that shiurim and lectures are not private confidential conversations, one should assume a “gadol batorah” would heed the warning of Kohelet 10:20, “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” In other words, for Torah the assumption of privacy is not an excuse for carelessness – certainly not for an assumed leader.

Rabbis are human and as such are prone to making mistakes and even saying the occasional boneheaded remark. I’ve been known to make several myself – quite a few of which are on this blog, and I’ve also defended and clarified positions based on feedback and counter arguments. To be sure, I’ve never claimed to be nor have I ever been mistaken for being a gadol. But on the other hand R. Schachter has long advocated an exclusive halakhic system where only an arbitrarilly select few are “entitled to an opinion.” Given R. Schachter’s halakhic writings one would presume he is – or at least considers himself to be – among them. As such, perhaps we should expect R. Schachter to hold himself to a higher standard.

But since the status of a gadol is determined more by social consensus than aptitude, the real question is for those who perpetually venerate R. Schachter as an indisputable authority worthy of special status. If after all these years R. Schachter is still this out of touch with the “outside world,” then can he truly be a representative to the Orthodox world at large?
Realistically speaking, those who have committed themselves to R. Schachter are likely to continue praising his greatness and issuing apologetics and justification as needed. But for those who have not made such a personal investment, the question of what qualifies someone a gadol should be strongly reconsidered.

Update: Here are some more examples:

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