Monday, 23 August 2010

It's Hard Being a Gadol

This is just an idea.

It's a lot harder nowadays to become a "Gadol BaTorah" then it was back in the day. I mean take the Rambam, a fairly brilliant fellow. To get the status of a Gadol all he really needed to know was Tanakh and Shas. And that's it! (Maybe some geonim also) So yes, Shas is pretty big but it's not insurmountable. If you have a good memory you can probably get the whole thing down klor (I have not used that word in so long!) in 20 or 30 years. So you're done Shas and now what? Hey! Maybe a bit of Aristotle!

The point is for someone to have the status of a big macher in Torah nowadays you've gotta know LOTS of stuff. You need to know Shas, you need to know Shulchan Aruch, you need to know Rambam, you need to know Taz, Shach, Bach, Beit Yosef, Mishna Berura etc. etc. etc.

There is just so much Jewish legal writing out there nowadays that if you want to make it to the top you really cannot waste any time reading or doing anything else. Yes there are exceptions but I think it's virtually impossible nowadays for someone to have the automatic respect of the Orthodox world through sheer quantity of Torah knowledge, AND to have an in depth knowledge of non-Torah subjects.

And it's not just Torah that has grown. Science is also 100X more complex than the days of the Rambam. What did the Rambam have to know? Aristotle, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and some Plato. Nowadays there is just SO MUCH more secular knowledge!

Perhaps there is such a paucity of true Rambams nowadays because Torah and science have just become too big for one person to be proficient in both.


Am I completely off here?


Puzzled said...

In other ways, though, it's gotten much easier to be a gadol. (Just look at how many more people are called gadolim!) That's because the texts now tell you what to think, even what you're allowed to think. Thinking and reasoning is no longer required!

AgnosticWriter said...


Your point is insightful and accurate. Here are some related thoughts:

1. A well-known aphorism has it that, "An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less." The culture of expertise, of convergent thinking as opposed to divergent thinking, is relatively modern--and is, no doubt, at least significantly the result of the explosion of knowledge, which has made it impossible for any one person to aspire to comprehensive broad knowledge.

2. This micro focus leads to a blindness, of course, the inability of "experts" to see the big picture, to understand how their small field relates to other fields, and how the problem they're working on might be informed by those other fields. Dealing with physician "specialists" is a fine example. It's astonishing how little a gastroenterologist might know about even the basics of rheumatology...and so on. And this type of ignorance goes much further than circumstances require. In other words, even specialists can, if they chose to, keep up with the basic developments of each major specialty in medicine. But the culture of specialization does not encourage this.

3. It's my impression that, for the most part, the field of "gadol-ology" has not been overtaken by the culture of specialization and that, whether based in ignorance or wisdom, the ideal for the gadol is to achieve and maintain both a wide range of learning and a grasp of the specialized details.

Even as I write this, however, I'm reminded of the basic, and long-recognized, differences between a lamdan, a posek, a darshan, a maggid/mashpia, a baal machshava, a baal mofeis, etc. And if we look closely at those who've achieved the status of "gadol," we might notice not only that such a status is often controversial (not everyone agrees on who's a gadol) but also that those given such status come from different areas of "specialty" even if these specialties are not formally designated. Thus, a chassic community might have a rebbe, their gadol, who doesn't even pretend to be an expert at halacha...but who may be rumored to be a baal mofeis or recognized as an extraordinary community leader; while in "litvishe" circles the one seen as a gadol is likely to be an elderly rosh yeshiva or, less commonly, a posek.

4. To your final point: I think that both in the Orthodox and secular communities big-picture thinkers who don't get seduced into a very limited realm of investigation and speciality, but instead insist on maintaining a broad curiosity taking in, to whatever degree the mortal mind can manage, vast swathes of knowledge in widely disparate fields--and who can integrate such knowledge into wisdom, and not merely an encyclopedic storehouse of information--such people are rare. But they represent a community's finest intellectual flowering.

G*3 said...

It’s not just that there was less to know overall, it’s also that there’s now access to all there is to know. The Rambam had to study from expensive and rare hand-written manuscripts. Did he even have a complete set of Shas? Today anyone can go to their local seforim store and get pretty much any work they want, printed in standardized and easily legible block letters.

As for the volume of what there is to know, not only can’t one be an expert on both Torah and science, one cannot really be an expert on any subject in its totality. Any given scientists isn’t an expert on “science”, they’re an expert on their particular specialty within their particular field. The same is true of other fields of study. Professional historians tend to be experts on a particular period or culture. Sometimes even on a particular event. Rabbonim, insofar as there is specialization, are experts on kashrus, or hilchos Shabbos, or the halachos of business.

Garnelironheart said...

I'm not sure it's a volume difference. The Rambam didn't have access to any Acharonim or many Rishonim, of course, but he did have access to many books that we either don't have (the works of the Jewish community of France that were subsequently destroyed) or don't really look at, except for high level individuals (the works of the Geonim, for example).
In addition, there has been a shift over the last 50 years in how knowledge is accessed. In the Rambam's time it was all through memorization. Today, in science as in Torah, it isn't so much how much you have in your head (although that certainly matters) as knowing where to access the info when you need it through a concordance, index, or similar such item.
For example, a good physician knows it's impossible to keep up with the changing literature, late breaking papers, etc but has access to systems that provide summary access to enable a large amount of perusing.

Shilton HaSechel said...

I dunno. How many "gedolim" were there in a given generation back in Europe. How many today? The difference nowadays is the words of every gadol can be spread quickly through the mass media making there presence a lot more noticeable. But obviously there is no innovative thinking going on.

Puzzled said...

Well, different communities call people gedolim, and anyone with a beard and a hat is referred to by shlita, and anyone who dies with a grey beard is referred to by zt"l.

Baruch Spinoza said...


But Rambam did know all of science! He was a million times to the power of infinity plus plus smarter than all the scientists of all time! In a single sentence he could write an entire scientific theory.

Ki Sarita said...

Aryeh Kaplan. (Although I don't share his belief system).

Guest said...

Also harder now to be a gadol, because people aren't as gullible when it comes to supernatural abilities, miracles and the like. Fundies say we are no longer worthy of miracles, but in reality we are too smart for miracles.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Lol yes people are less inclined nowadays to listen to a Besht sort of person who claims to have visited heaven so on and so forth. They will just lock 'em up in the loony bin.

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