‘Gedolim’ are human

There seems to be a strong tendency and need, especially from members of the haredi and hassidic community, to view their religious and spiritual leaders as perfect.

By SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
June 10, 2016 16:56
4 minute read.
Mea She’arim

Ultra-orthodox men in Mea She’arim carry the body of Rabbi Raphael Shmuelevich, head of the Mir Yeshiva, at his funeral in January. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Several years ago, I sent to an ultra-Orthodox periodical an article that mentioned an incident that took place in Warsaw in 1877. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, an outstanding Talmud scholar, religious personality and leader was overcome by a deep depression because of the incarceration of his highly revered and beloved mentor, Rabbi Joshua Leib Diskin, on false charges by the anti-Semitic authorities.

The editor informed me that he would be interested in publishing the paper if I changed the wording regarding Rabbi Soloveitchik’s emotional state from being depressed to being distressed regarding his mentor’s situation. He explained that it is disrespectful to describe a gadol (one of the most revered rabbis of the generation) as being depressed, even though the description of his behavior and emotional condition clearly pictured a man suffering from a deep clinical depression.

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In 2010, Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, a psychotherapist, wrote in an article for Jewishideas.com that “Not every sage was successful in managing his emotions. Learning about this can be a great source of strength and comfort to young people and adults who struggle with this as well.” To support his contention, he cited an excerpt from the Talmud Bava Metzia (84a) that discusses the great despondency felt by Rabbi Yohanan subsequent to the death of his star student and study partner, Resh Lakish, which caused him to lose his sanity.” Rabbi Feuerman concluded, “a frum (religious) person suffering from depression and mental illness could find much comfort in knowing that even the greatest of sages struggled with his emotions, and dare we say it, ultimately failed.”

Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, traveled from Russia to Vienna in 1902-3, to consult with the famous Prof. Sigmund Freud regarding a bout of depression and was accompanied by his son, Rabbi Josef Yitzhak Schneersohn. His son recalls that Freud made the following diagnosis: “The head grasps what the heart is unable to contain, and the heart cannot tolerate.”

Liubov Ben-Noun, in a 2008 scholarly article, “What Was the Mental Disease that Afflicted King Saul?,” discusses the case of the biblical King Saul and concludes that evaluation of the passages referring to King Saul’s disturbed behavior indicates that he was afflicted by a bipolar 1 mental disorder.

In a letter to a student who was depressed from his failures, Rav Yitzhak Hutner, head of Yeshiva of Mesivta Chaim Berlin from 1936 until his death in 1980, was highly critical of gedolim stories that only spoke of their great stature, without relating any of their personal struggles and missteps on their way to greatness.

Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, son of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, authored Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities, a two-volume book written and published in 2002, about the lives of his father and of various other Jewish sages of the 19th and 20th centuries, who are revered by Orthodox (especially haredi) Jews.



Shortly after it was published, a group of 10 leading haredi rabbis in Israel, among them Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, issued an official letter banning the book, claiming that it was disrespectful to the rabbis whose lives it describes.

For example, the book records that Rabbi Aharon Kotler read Russian books in his youth. Due to the banning of publication (an updated version was released in 2005), not more than 1,000 sets of each edition are in existence.

Kamenetsky stated that, in writing the book, he “naively believed that everyone would appreciate getting a true, human glimpse [of] our spiritual leaders,” and that this honest portrayal “is what bothered the zealots.” Kamenetsky is of the opinion that there is no need to hide anything, because knowing the truth about the gedolim only increases one’s respect for them (due to their vast accomplishments, despite facing life’s trials and being human).

There seems to be a strong tendency and need, especially from members of the haredi and hassidic community, to view their religious and spiritual leaders as perfect and infallible. This enables them to place their complete reliance and trust in them and their decisions and increases their dependency on them, which to a great extent is facilitated and encouraged by the leaders.

It seems, as Kamenetsky pointed out, there are people who wish to rule and those that wish to be ruled.

I am reminded of a haredi woman I treated many years ago who was suffering from depression as a result of a recent divorce after one year of marriage. After initially meeting her ex-husband, the patient sent a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and asked his advice regarding accepting his marriage proposal. The rebbe gave his approval and blessing.

After several months in therapy, the patient reported that she met another man who after a few meetings proposed marriage to her. The patient mentioned that she again sought the rebbe’s advice regarding marrying her present suitor.

I naively asked the patient why she was again asking his advice after the poor previous outcome. She calmly explained that she must have not provided him with accurate or sufficient information the previous time. 

The writer is a supervising psychologist at the Mental Health Center Marbeh Da’at, Mayenei Hayeshua Medical Center. He recently published Psychologist, Acquire a Teacher for Yourself, 2016 (Hebrew) and co-edited Psychotherapy and the Ultra- orthodox Community: Issues and Treatment, 2014.

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