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Can a Gadol Resign?

Gedolim are not perfect. They are human, just like the rest of us. A true Gadol will always try to do the right thing. And the public should not lose out because of occasional errors.
The late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv on October 08, 2009, about three years before his death.

The late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv on October 08, 2009, about three years before his death.
Photo Credit: Yosef Avi Yair Engel/GPO/Flash90

The Pope’s resignation has generated responses from many in our community about the lessons we can learn from that. Here is the way Professor Lawrence Kaplan put it: “The main reason (the Pope’s resignation) is relevant is that many of our octogenarian and nonagenarian Gedolim might take a lesson from the Pope.”

I think this is an error. The two are not comparable. The Pope has an official position in the Church from which he can resign. A true Gadol has nothing official to resign from. He is a Gadol because of his achievements… and because he has recognition from his peers and community about those achievements. You can’t resign from achievements.

The fact that a Gadol might be a member of an organized group of peers is irrelevant to his actual status as a Gadol. One can be a Gadol without belonging and one can resign from that group if he does belong. But one cannot resign from being a Gadol.

If on the other hand a Gadol becomes demented because of an age related illness (Alzheimers for example) – it will be noticed, and his opinions will no longer be accepted. That does not lessen our responsibility to honor him. It is just a recognition that he is no longer of sound mind… and shailos (halachic questions) should no longer be asked of him.

That in theory is the ideal. But the reality is not like that, I’m afraid.

What I believe happens today is that some elderly Gedolim are so sheltered by their handlers from the public, that if they ever do become demented, no one would know but the handlers. And they’re not going to tell anybody for two reasons: (1) They believe it would dishonor him for people to know that he suffers from dementia, and (2) they can still use him to “Paskin” (rule) for them on their issues by surmising what he would have said had he been in full control of his mental faculties.

The problem with that is twofold as well.These handlers often have their own agendas which color their beliefs about what a Gadol would say… and the fact is that they are lying to the public.

The question arises quite frequently in our day when so many who are considered Gedolim are well into their 90s. Yet people still go to them for advice.

Age alone should not disqualify anyone from being of sound mind. Dementia is an illness common to old age, but not every old person becomes demented. For example those who were privileged to speak directly to Rav Elyashiv even as he entered and passed his 100th year on earth can testify to the man’s soundness of mind… and ability to render a decision. To have asked him to resign from being a Gadol is like asking a man or a woman to resign from their gender.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Even if a Gadol is of sound mind – he can sometimes be misused and misquoted by his handlers. Access to him may be limited and controlled. Decisions on public policy can be said in his name even if he did not actually say them. Or he can be misled and make public policy decisions based on misinformation.

Should that completely disqualify him? Should he refuse to ever render another decision? I don’t think so. The solution is not to resign from your “Gadlus” but to fire your handlers when you find out they are misleading or misquoting you. Even if their intentions are honorable.

There are those who would say that if a Gadol could be so easily misled and he knows it – he should ‘abdicate’ his role as a Gadol. The truth is that a lot of damage can be caused if he continues dispensing advice or making edicts in these circumstances. One need not look further than Rav Elyashiv’s ban on Rav Nosson Kamenetsky’s book Making of a Gadol.

Others might say that if he continues to function as a Gadol and giving advice knowing that sometimes he is misled – that is too great a flaw in his character to even be considered a Gadol.

But I don’t agree. Gedolim are not perfect. They are human, just like the rest of us. A true Gadol will always try to do the right thing. And the public should not lose out because of occasional errors. Not availing oneself to the mind of a Gadol would be a loss to the world, too. The best way to avoid error is personal contact. Asking a Gadol to stop giving advice is an unnecessary loss of a valuable option.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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