Hagedolim (The Gedolim)

Magnes/Van Leer, 2017

There are many wonderful things about life in Israel, and one of them is the interface between religion and academia which – often but not always – enables religious issues and personalities to be examined with academic rigour while at the same time maintaining a deep level of warmth and respect for the subjects being treated.

This is particularly evident in the growing number of scholarly biographical works that examine the lives of great religious figures and which enable readers of all backgrounds to gain an understanding and an appreciation for those whose teachings continue to shape and influence halakha and policy today.

Earlier this year the Hebrew University Magnes Press and the Van Leer Institute joined together to publish ‘The Gedolim: Leaders Who Shaped the Israeli Haredi Jewry’ edited by Benjamin Brown and Nissim Leon. This 968-page book contains twenty-eight monographs, each written by a different scholar, about the lives of great rabbinic leaders. In almost every case, the scholar for each essay has either written a PhD or a book about the life of the Gadol they are writing about. In addition to this, The Gedolim contains three further essays about the notion of ‘Gedolim’, and the literature about, and the study of Gedolim.

In contrast to many contemporary rabbinic biographies which often gloss over significant facts given their preference for stories, each essay in The Gedolim places and explores its respective personality in his historical context, and in doing so, this enables the reader to appreciate the challenges they faced and the contribution they made. At the same time, each essay focuses on specific themes that emerge from the leadership and scholarship of each Gadol, and in some occasions, their wives too. 

In The Gedolim you can read – amongst other things – about the halakhic intuition of the Chatam Sofer, the Chafetz Chaim’s response to secularism, the analytic approach towards Torah study of Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik, the bold leadership of Rav Hayyim Ozer Grodzenski, the faith of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the relationship of the Gerrer Rebbe to Zionism, the Munkatcher Rebbe’s approach to Jewish Education, the influence of the Maharil Diskin’s wife on some of his rulings, the attitude of Rav Zonnenfeld to the Chief Rabbinate, the political leadership of the Maharitz Dushinski, the attitude of the Satmar Rav to Hebrew, the forceful leadership of Rav Kotler, the halakhic methodology of Rav Moshe Feinstein, the campaigns of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in inspiring Jews to return to their faith, the faith shown by the Chazon Ish in the words of Torah and Chazal, the difficult life of the Belzer Rebbe, the role that the Brisker Rav played in inspiring Torah learning, the ‘Soft Zionism’ of the Ponevitcher Rav, the spiritual outlook of Rav Dessler, the political activity of Rav Shach, the inspiring example of the Steipler, the Sanzer Rebbe’s attitude to secular Jews, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s unique halakhic analysis, Rav Wolbe’s educational philosophy, Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul’s halakhic creativity, Rav Eliyashiv’s strict approach to conversion, and the literary output of Rav Ovadia Yosef.

Because each essay is written by a different author, some provide a more macroscopic view of the Gadol, while others examine specific events in greater detail. Moreover, the writing styles differ greatly between each essay, with some writing in denser Hebrew, while the writing style of others is a little lighter and easier to read. Notwithstanding this, The Gedolim is a monumental achievement and it offers more than a glimpse to the lives, teachings and contributions of many well-known, and some not-so-well-known lives of great religious figures. For anyone with an interest in the lives of Rabbis and the development of the Israeli Haredi community and its influence on us today, this is a must read.

To purchase a copy of this book, click here.