Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gedolim Stories: Lies or Lunacy?

Yesterday Life in Israel had a post in which he related (and questioned) the following story:

A yeshiva bochur that was not interested in learning torah went to Rav Shteinman. He asked Rav Shteinman if he would like steak or ice cream.

Rav Shteinman asked what those things are, what the words mean. The boy responded that they are the names of very delicious foods. Rav Shteinman than said no, he would not want those foods.

The young man than said that if he is offering the rav food that everybody considers to be delicious, yet the rav does not want any of it, so "I can also not want to learn Torah even though everybody claims torah is very sweet. So why do they force me to learn torah?"

Rav Shteinman responded that if you would give someone honey and he would put it in his mouth and say it is bitter, it is a sign that this person has sores in his mouth. The same thing with Torah - someone who does not want to learn torah, it means that he has lashon ha'ra in his mouth and therefore has no desire to learn torah.

Like many stories meant to show the piety of the Gedolim, it instead makes its protagonist look foolish. It suggests both that R’ Shteinman is ignorant of something as common as ice cream and that he is not intelligent enough to understand that honey and ice cream fill the same niche in the analogies of this discussion.

It was while listening to a similar gadol story years ago that I realized that either these stories are less than accurate or the gedolim were nuts. In that story a group of talmidim were following a rav around while he did bedikas chometz. When he was finished, one of the talmidim said, “Rebbe, this is good, we searched the entire house and didn’t find even a crumb of chometz!” The rav ripped his shirt open, pounded on his chest, and cried out, “There is no chometz in the house, but in here, in here there is still chomtz!”

I think there are three possible origins for such stories.

1) It really happened as described. I can see that there are people who would be inspired by someone so holy that they are so immersed in Torah they don’t even know about common things like ice cream or who is given to effusive, exciting emotional displays of piety. To me, treating as near-divine the words of someone profoundly ignorant of the culture he lives in or of someone given to emotional outbursts seems foolish.

2) The story is based on a real incident, but is exaggerated for effect. There really was a bochur who complained to R’ Shteinman that he didn’t like learning, but there was no mention of ice cream. The rav pointed to his heart and bemoaned the presence of “chometz”, but he didn’t rip open his shirt, pound on his chest, and shout. This to me seems the most likely origin for gadol stories. Most people don’t make up stories, but will often embroider and exaggerate real incidents to make them more exciting.

3) The stories are completely made up.

Given the number of gadol stories circulating, chances are there are some that fall into each of the three categories.

It was crazy gadol stories like those above that started me questioning what I had been taught. For all that exaggerated stories may be inspiring to some, perhaps the frum community should think about the potential harm of such stories, both to people like me who may go from questioning silly stories about gedolim that are portrayed as semi-divine to questioning stories supposedly written by the Divine hand; and to the gedolim that both star in these stories and are made to look foolish by them.