Well over a decade ago, I wrote a piece entitled "Are Gadol Biographies Good for Us?" Little did I know at the time that I would soon embark on a new career writing such biographies. Lesson number one: Be careful about what you write, it may come back to haunt you.
My new career led me, perforce, to give an affirmative answer to my own question: At least some gadol biographies are good for us. For sure, the biographies are beneficial to the author who spends years immersed in a life exemplifying all that a human being can be.
Nevertheless some of my original misgivings about the genre remain. One of those concerns was that too many such biographies dwell at great length on the subject’s distinguished yichus and demonstrations of his early genius. The effect is to make his subsequent greatness seem like something almost predestined.
Readers who do not share such an illustrious lineage and are not prodigies will feel themselves thereby exempted from any obligation to become a gadol b’Torah.
In a famous letter, HaRav Yitzchak Hutner, Rosh Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, rails against the mistaken impression that gedolim "came out from under the hand of their Creator, in all their fullness and glory." Such a portrayal not only diminishes the stature of the gadol in question by downplaying the extent of his efforts and struggles, but it deprives his life of much of its instructive value. As Rav Hutner writes, "When we speak of a gadol, we speak of the finished product. But who knows how much struggle went into achieving that state, or how many challenges there were along the path? And when we fail to recognize this fact, and compare ourselves to the stories we read of the perfection of our gedolim, we come to despair…"
I’ve since added another concern to those mentioned in my first essay: Too many gadol biographies can make Jewish history seem as if it were exclusively the history of great rabbinic leaders. The myth that everything positive in Jewish history has come about only through the agency of our rabbinic leaders can stifle the vast resources of initiative from below that have also played a critical role in Jewish life.
When we see anything in our community in need of correction, the easiest response is to free ourselves of responsibility with the claim: Surely, if I see this as a problem, then so do others far greater than I, and, if so, they will take care of the problem. Or alternatively, if our leaders are not doing anything, my perception that there is a problem must be wrong.
The approach of my teachers, however, was the opposite. They taught me that there is always an element of Hashgacha in the fact that we are distressed by a particular situation. That we seem to be more troubled than others may well be an indication that it is our portion to help find the solution. Of course, before undertaking any major project, especially with implications for a large public, we must seek the guidance of leading Torah authorities. But the fact that they are the "eyes of the generation" does not mean that they are responsible for every positive initiative.
Two well-known historical examples bring out the point I’m trying to make, but each of us could cite dozens of others. The classic example of a massive transformation in chareidi life where the initiative came from below is the Bais Yaakov movement founded by Sarah Shenirer.
Bais Yaakov was arguably the most important innovation of the last century, saving a generation of young women in Eastern Europe who were being educated in gymnasia and lost to the frum world. It ensured that there would be young women eager to marry aspiring Torah scholars. Sarah Shenirer’s students spread the movement to the four corners of the globe. Without Bais Yaakov, the phenomenal rebirth of Torah learning from the ashes of Europe would have been inconceivable.
Sarah Shenirer could have easily told herself that her concern about lost Jewish daughters was mistaken: "Who am I, a simple seamstress, to worry about this? If the gedolim aren’t doing anything, there must not be a problem." Without the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe, Sarah Shenirer would never have opened her Seminary, and without the subsequent approbations of the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe, Bais Yaakov, which was a radical break with women’s education as it had been known for centuries, could never have spread so rapidly through Poland and Lithuania. But without the initiative of a simple seamstress, the movement would never have come into existence.
Reb Yosef Rosenberger single-handedly introduced shatnez-checking to America, and from America to the rest of the world. Shortly after his arrival as a new immigrant from Vienna, another new immigrant, who knew that Rosenberger’s parents had been clothiers, asked him how he could know whether there was shatnez in clothes in America. Rosenberger soon discovered there was no way to know. Rather than telling himself that it was not his business to get involved if many great talmidei chachamim who had preceded him to America were doing nothing, Rosenberger made educating the public about the prohibition of shatnez and the development of a low-cost, reliable test for shatnez his life mission. He lived for years as the last remaining immigrant at the 616 Bedford Ave. headquarters of Zeirei Agudath Israel, foregoing even the possibility of marriage, to prevent a Torah mitzvah from being forgotten.
The greatness of Sarah Shenirer and Yosef Rosenberger was not that they saw a problem, but that they devoted themselves to rectifying it. Alongside the biographies of our great Torah leaders, we also need to tell the stories of all those unsung heroes, blessed with neither remarkable talents nor position, who nevertheless substantially improved the lives of thousands of their fellow Jews because they were willing to make themselves into meshugoyim l’davar echad.