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November 27, 2014 / 5 Kislev, 5775
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You Must Know What You Don’t Know

Rav Selig Starr

Rav Selig Starr

I believe it was last year when a respected Rav of the right got up on the podium of the Agudah convention and said that the Gedolei Yisroel are virtually infallible. Well, maybe he didn’t say exactly that.  I’m sure he knows that they are human and capable of mistakes. But the thrust of his address was the repetition over and over again that we must follow the Gedolim.  There was no room for disagreement. For they are the true representatives of God’s will on earth.

They are the most knowledgeable in Torah and their word cannot be challenged by the average Bal Habos. It would be like challenging God Himself. That was his message. It is the credo of Agudah: We listen to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah – even when it doesn’t make any sense to us. Because they know more than we do.

There was a time when this made sense. There was a time when Gedolei Torah knew what they knew and knew what they didn’t know. This important educational point was driven home constantly by Rav Selig Starr, one of my Rebbeim at HTC.  In order to learn Torah properly ‘you must know what you know and know what you don’t know’ was his constant refrain.

Rav Moshe Feinstein famously never Paskined a Shaila on any issue of which he had limited or no knowledge until he had consulted with experts in the field and was fully informed about them.  For example he always consulted his son in law, Rav Moshe Tendler on all medical issues. That is unfortunately not always the case today.

Many of today’s rabbinic leaders unfortunately do not know what they don’t know. And that is one of the biggest follies of our day. It is responsible for some pretty bad public policy decisions on their part. Occasionally when they learn how misinformed they are, they withdraw what they said or modify it. But not always.

Sometimes the results of bad decisions are innocuous and for the most part ignored. The wide spread use of the internet in spite of its vilification by these rabbis is an example of that.  Although ignoring edicts of rabbinic leaders cannot be considered a good result by them.

But in some cases there is great damage done by such decisions. The approach to sex abuse is one such example.

One may ask, who am I to make such assumptions or accusations? How do I know they don’t consult or give bad advice in matters which they think they know… but don’t fully know? It isn’t my own logic that compels me to say it. It is my conversations with religious professionals – some of whom are also Charedi Rabbonim – that are experts in their respective fields. It is they who have made these comments to me.

Now none of us believe for a moment that the intentions of these rabbinic leaders is bad. Quite the contrary. We believe they act in accordance with what they believe is in the best interests of Klal Yisroel. That includes decisions in matters of sexual  abuse. They want to rid the world of sexual predators – just like everyone else. Nor do they have any wish to harm a survivor.

But some of their decisions are made without  the benefit of advise by experts in the field. This is why in my view they say that one must first report suspicions of sex abuse to them before going to the police. They sincerely believe that they are protecting innocent victims of possibly false accusations. But as one Charedi professional told me recently, many rabbinic leaders  are greatly uninformed.

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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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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