Biographies and autobiographies

A clear difference between chassidic and non chassidic groups used to be the importance attached by the former to stories. Whether these were ‘Ba’al Shemsker’ Mayses or ‘Booba’ Mayses, the promulgation of stories about the wondrous acts and מופסים accredited to Rebbes was and remains a powerful ingredient in the glue known as אמונת חכמים

In the other extreme, due to the unreliable nature of many stories, anti chassidic groups often conclude a לא היה ולא נברא approach to any story; they don’t believe any of them.

The Rav used to treat chassidic stories with a large grain of salt. He would even assume a mirthful tone about these. In Brisk, there was a general feeling of derision towards describing the mundane. There was no room to read about someone’s יחוס or similar. They disdained the concept of biographies or תולדות אנשי שם. If there was something to learn about another person this was achieved through learning Torah. If they had not published Torah, then learn Torah. In Brisk, Torah was everything. Torah subsumed Mussar, and there was not even a Mussar Seder as part of the curriculum (let alone Chassidus).

Ultimately, Briskers would say למאי נפקא מינה, why do you need to know? If you seek inspiration, derive this from Torah itself.

Times have changed. Whereas once upon a time, תולדות אנשי שם was the purview of Chassidim, this is no longer the case. Stories and Biographies of Gedolim are no longer limited to Chassidic Rebbes. The emergence of Artscroll and Feldheim (in response to the needs of the masses) has meant that the non and anti chassidic student can now derive similar חיזוק from stories about the life of an arch Misnaged. Gone are the days that מופסים only happened among Rebbes. Now we have stories which are “moredik” among the misnagdim and non chassidim. We read about R’ Aryeh Levin ז’ל and are inspired. He wasn’t a Rebbe. We read about R’ Kook ז’ל and are inspired, and he was derided by anti Zionist elements common to Chassidim and Misnagdim. Books about R’ Shlomo Zalman ז’ל and others abound. Do they do any harm? I doubt it; as long as they tell the whole truth and only the truth.

Ironically, large volumes are written about people like R׳ Velveler Brisker ז’ל, the Rav’s own uncle, a scion and paragon of Brisk. It is difficult to see R’ Velvel approving of volume 1, let alone a volume 2, about him.

There have also been the so-called controversial books, such as ״the making of a gadol” by the now maligned Rosh Yeshivah, R’ Noson Kaminetzky. From the episode of banning his book, we see the opposite effect: as long as books never ever show a gadol in a human or fallible way, they are kosher. If they also tell the whole truth, this can mislead or deflate readers and the book then gets shelved in the Apikorsus Cabinet or burned.

Applying the yardstick used in our day and age towards the Torah itself, one might well imagine many sections would be banned. Who would publish the story of Moshe Rabbeinu and the rock, or the pilegesh B’Givah or indeed Shir HaShirim? Luckily, these were authored through Ruach HaKodesh and stay unimpeachable and impervious to bans.

This brings me to my point. It is one thing for the students or followers of a Rabbi or Rebbe to write a biography about him (or her, as was the case with Nechama Leibovitz and ‘Tales of Nechama‘) but what about an auto biography? Biographies, especially today, are sanitised and homogenised so that the subject of the biography is painted in only a positive (and often unrealistic) light.

Autobiographies are much rarer (see “Jewish Autobiography: The Elusive Subject,” Jewish Quarterly Review 95:1 (Winter 2005): 16-59 by Mosely). There is the well researched edition of R’ Yehuda Aryeh of Modena‘s auto biography, Chayei Yehuda. More recently, there was the scandal surrounding the editing of the second edition of R’ Kook’s (first) father in law, the Aderes‘s autobiography, Seder Eliyahu. Questioning the “real audience” of the auto biography, family members contrived to edit and remove crucial elements of the auto biography.

Recently, I finished reading R’ Ya’akov Emden‘s autobiography of 1896, Megilas Sefer. My copy was the new translation.

R' Ya'akov Emden

Some have claimed that this wasn’t an autobiography written by R’ Emden, as seen in this book. Serious researchers, however, pay no credence to that attempted besmirching.  Indeed, as I understand it noted historian, R’ J. J. Schacter (not to be confused with R’ Hershel) is completing a scholarly work on Megilas Sefer in the not too distant future. The Ya’avetz, as he was commonly known, was a famous son of the equally famous Chacham Tzvi. R’ Emden is known for his fierce opposition to the alleged neo-sabbatean R’ Yonasan Eybeshutz. What struck me, though, about the autobiography was how human R’ Emden was and yet, how much of a Tzadik and upright example he was despite the revelation that he was a fallible human being, albeit a Rabbinical Giant. To give you a feel for what I mean, I’ve copied a few random pages from the translated version. Ask yourself when the last time you read a biography from Artscroll or Feldheim which basically told the whole truth. Does our generation need only sanitised versions of human beings? Are we likely to have less יראת שמים if we read that someone was angry, jealous, sad, moaning, groaning, in pain, in fear or the like? Our generation is crying out for more אמונת חכמים. We do ourselves a great disservice if we don’t tell the whole truth and instead portray them all as מלאכים.

 כי אדם אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא

is not a statement of weakness! It is a statement of human condition.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

5 thoughts on “Biographies and autobiographies”

  1. Very interesting blog – thanks.

    Rav SR Hirsch has a very clear position on this matter that presumably Artscroll and Feldheim take great objection to:

    “Our Sages never hesitate to point out to us the errors and shortcomings, great and small, of our forefathers, and precisely thus they make the Torah great and glorious…” (Breishis 25:27)

    Aside from contradicting the central principle of intellectual honesty and human fallibility that Rav Hirsch makes, I’ve also often wondered whether the heavy editing of hagiographies or that of downright editorial censorship is consistent with the principle of “midvar sheker tirchok”. As an example, the Artscroll English translation of the Oznayim Latora outrageously (in my opinion) explicitly censors the original pirush on “v’zacharti es brisi Yaacov” presumably because it is too Zionistic (it frankly sounds as if it could have been written by Rav Kook zt”l!). Where is the emes in that?

    As an aside, I’m only part way through it myself, but Binyomin Brown’s book (magnum opus) on the Chazon Ish is no hagiography either. It’s a body of serious academic work co-published by YU. Perhaps someone should end a copy to the editors of Feldheim and Artscroll.

    Another favourite non-hagiography of mine is “The Rebbe”. Chabadniks, particularly those who can’t help but deify the Rebbe, will of course hate it, but aside from a couple of inferences that even I winced at, it sounds a lot more plausible than a myriad of Rebbe-maases that I was “taught” at school.

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  2. איני יודע כיצד אתם מתייחסים לספרי סיפורים ושמועות, על דמויות ש”עלו לקדושה ולגדולה”, כשלעצמי, איני מייחס להם כל חשיבות, ואיני קורא אותם, אין ספק אצלי שאילו היו ה”גיבורים” קמים לתחייה, הם לא היו מכירים מקריאה ב”ספריהם”, את אבותיהם, אמותיהם, חבריהם או אף את עצמם.

    ממספרם הרב של ספרים חדשים המספרים על “חיי גדולים וצדיקים”, היוצאים לאור מדי שנה, ברור שלא כולם חושבים כמוני, ולספרי הדמיונות והחזיונות יש ביקוש גדול, רבים מהסיפורים החדשים, הם סיפורים ישנים ש”שופצו”, או שהם “ממש חדשים”, (הם מעולם לא “היו” בעולם עד שנדפסו), מקורם של רבים מהסיפורים הוא: “ידוע לכל”, “שמעתי מ… ששמע ממ… שחושב ששמע ממ…”, הקונים הקוראים את הנאמר בהם ומספרים את אשר קראו לילדיהם, וילדיהם לחבריהם, וחבריהם לחבריהם, וסיפורים שלא היו הופכים לסיפורים ידועים לכל, ואחרי דור, הם הופכים לעובדות, שהמפקפק באמיתותן ייחשב לאפיקורוס.

    רבים מהספרים פותחים באמו של “קדוש” שהיתה עקרה שנים רבות, ונפקדה מברכתו של “צדיק”, או “גדול”, או משניהם, (אמו “הלכה על בטוח”, מפני שחששה שברכתו של האחד, תהיה ברכה “עקרה”), כך שהוא היה “קדוש” עוד מלפני הריונה של אמו, וקדושתו נודעה לכל, כשסירב לינוק מאמו בבוקר, עד שהיא נטלה את ידיו, או שעוד לפני שהחל לדבר הוא לא אכל ללא ברכה לפני האכילה או לאחריה.

    יהושע מונדשיין טוען שסיפורי חסידים רבים הם “צ’יזבטים גמורים”, ולא יכלו להתרחש מבחינה כרונולוגית או גאוגרפית, והוא פירסם מאמרים רבים בנושא זה באתר “שטורם”: http://www.shturem.net/index.php?section=special&id=29&oldlang=english

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  3. When rabbi Sholem Kaminetzki was here he was asked about his uncles book “the making of a gadol”, and in his answer he told that Reb Noson told him that he wasn’t trying to Mevaze talmidei chachomim, but to show to what a person can achieve if he “works on himself”, and reb sholem added, that even that I knew that all the stories are true, I answered him:

    ‘אם ראשונים כמלאכים אנו כבני אדם; ואם ראשונים כבני אדם אנו כחמורים’ (שבת קי”ב ע”ב, ירושלמי שקלים פ”ה ה”א)

    What did he answer?

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    1. One could argue that those who banned the book are חמורים!!
      R Noson is a very balanced person. He points out that the reason for the banning is that most of the leadership post war was dominated by Chassidim and non chassidic leadership was basically wiped out. He says that non Chassidim have simply morphed into their own chassidic sects. You of course have written eloquently about this topic. R Noson wanted to show today’s non Chassidim that the previous Dor’s leaders were above all fallible human beings!

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