One of the most common stereotypes of haredi Jews is that they are automatons, whose entire lives are determined by directives from the Torah leaders of the generation (gedolei Torah, literally, Torah giants). To some extent, many haredim themselves subscribe to this theory: Haredi history is usually written as the history of Thomas Carlyle's Great Men.
Nevertheless, the stereotype is a myth that often hampers outsiders in their efforts to comprehend events in haredi society. And on the internal haredi level, it can lead to a certain passivity that causes individuals to hesitate in addressing the needs of haredi society and wait for the Torah leadership to take the initiative.
In fact, some of the greatest changes in haredi society have been generated by individuals with no communal standing. Perhaps the most dramatic internal change in 20th-century haredi society was the Beit Ya'acov movement, which aimed to provide a thorough Torah education for women.
Without a Beit Ya'acov movement, the explosion of Torah learning in the last hundred years is unimaginable.
When the first Beit Ya'acov seminary began in pre-war Krakow, there were few girls who wanted to marry outstanding yeshiva students. The founder of the Beit Ya'acov movement, Sarah Schenirer, was an unmarried seamstress in Krakow with absolutely no social standing.
In time, she secured the approval of the Chafetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe for her efforts. Without that approval the movement could not have expanded as rapidly as it did. But the vision was hers.
In our own time, the impetus for the ba'al teshuva movement came largely from Rabbi Noah Weinberg. His early efforts earned him the appellation "Noah, the meshuggener," for his belief that thousands of Jews who had grown up without any connection to mitzva observance could become full-fledged members of the haredi community in adulthood.
He, too, had no particular communal standing, though, unlike Sarah Schenirer, he was a Torah scholar.
HAREDI SOCIETY is far more dialectical than the common view holds. Change often wells up from below rather than being directed from above. Many times the Torah leaders of a particular generation adopt the public role of upholding a particular societal ideal, even as that ideal is under pressure from forces beyond their control.
We are witnessing such a process today with respect to issues concerning earning a livelihood in the haredi world. Ha'aretz recently reported that there are 2,000 haredi men and women registered in degree-granting academic programs, and that does not include the far larger numbers in vocational training programs.
While the Torah leadership continues to carry the banner for long-term Torah learning for every man, economic pressures make that ideal no longer sustainable for the entire haredi community. The small flock of 50 or so families that rallied to the side of Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish) in the early 1950s, when he enunciated the long-term learning ideal as a means of rebuilding the citadels of Torah learning destroyed in Europe, has today grown into a community of three-quarters of a million people.
This far larger community is not the original flock of dedicated idealists willing to live with a minimum of material goods, writ large. It now includes individuals of every level of intellectual ability and spiritual fire. The standards of the initial committed core cannot be imposed on that entire community without many casualties. And when the number of casualties becomes too large, things begin to change.
The standard upheld by the gedolei Torah, then, is only one side of an ongoing dialectic. And, I believe, the gedolim understand their role in these terms. The advice that they might give individuals in private often departs from the publicly expressed ideal.
Even the Chazon Ish spoke of needing two generations to recreate the Torah learning that had been lost. We are now past that point.
NO HAREDI JEW could ever subscribe to the view that the guidance of Torah authorities is limited to the types of halachic issues dealt with in the Shulhan Aruch. The Chazon Ish famously remarked that German Reform began by confining the role of rabbinic leadership to issues of mixtures of milk and meat.
In a frequently quoted statement from the Zohar, the Torah was the blueprint from which God created the world. It follows, therefore, that those with the greatest knowledge of Torah will be blessed with the greatest insight into the world.
But the belief that the Torah is the repository of all wisdom does not mean that any particular person will be recognized by the community as possessing the exclusive Torah understanding (da'at Torah) on any given issue. Only hassidic rebbes approach that status for their followers (and even among the hassidim, the dynastic struggles that often follow the death of the rebbe reflect the input of the followers).
That is why, for instance, hassidim can, in certain areas, innovate more easily than the broader yeshiva world. If the Belzer Rebbe, for instance, declares that all young couples should undergo classes in preparation for marriage, or that couples should buy term life insurance, or that only the most promising Torah scholars should remain in learning more than two years after marriage, his hassidim will act accordingly, regardless of opinions of the larger haredi community.
The theoretical belief in da'at Torah does not mean that the process of ascertaining that da'at Torah cannot be corrupted. Da'at Torah is not prophecy, nor is it akin to papal infallibility. It depends on the quality of information available to whomever is making the decision.
One of the reasons that the late Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach exercised unparalleled authority within a large swath of the haredi world was because it was known that he thoroughly investigated every issue and fully trusted no one. He never relied on the information supplied by just one person, but invariably sought input from many different sources.
But he was unique in this regard, and the assumption of being equally well-informed does not automatically adhere to his successors.
When letters of approval for particular works are withdrawn on the grounds that the signatory never read the work, or when important public halachic decisions are subsequently revised, then force of Torah authority within the haredi world is diminished.
With each case where it becomes evident that an opinion expressed in the name of a particular Torah authority did not necessarily represent his fully considered opinion, it becomes easier for anyone who does not agree with a particular public directive to dismiss it as not really representing the opinion of the signer or signatories.
Torah authority, of course, remains fundamental in haredi society, particularly with respect to highly visible public institutions. And haredi Jews continue to consult rabbinic authority on a broad range of issues. At the same time, the gedolei Torah can only moderate and modulate certain social processes, not fully determine those processes.
And the more questions that arise over the integrity of the process by which directives are issued, the less will be their power to do even that.