And at a superficial glance, what sets gadolim apart from the rest of us?
In Recognizing a Gadol Hador, Rav Avigdor Miller gives basic pointers:
- See who other gedolim are calling a gadol.
- Do great rabbanim from outside his group consider him a gadol?
In another lecture (the Q&A of Chanukah: Hyrcanus’s Downfall), Rav Miller adds 3 more:
- A gadol doesn’t go on TV
- A gadol doesn’t go by names like “Alfred” or “Norman.”
- A gadol is better at thinking then speaking.
Needless to say, gadolim appear in video clips—the Lubavitcher Rebbe in particular—which can theoretically make their way to TV—or worse. Yet Rav Miller clearly considers the Lubavitcher Rebbe a great talmid chacham and Torah leader. So I guess the answer is that "going on TV” is different than when others film you as you simply go about your business of serving Hashem and tending to Am Yisrael. I think there's also a difference when you pursue the TV shows and when you're just doing your Torah stuff and that gets on TV without you even thinking in that direction or wanting to publicize yourself. Rav Miller made the point that appearing on TV means being squeezed between forbidden programming. People tune in to watch you, but they end up getting all the forbidden stuff too. This is different than if people watch a CD of just you, etc. Rav Miller himself did not allow people to make his lectures available on the Internet and they only became available online after his passing. (Please see Rav Avigdor Miller on the Internet for that source.)
"S'micha [rabbinical ordination] is very far from being a gadol."
It doesn't mean we start lambasting rabbis (or any other people) and dissecting their character to bits. But people need to know that smicha is about academic ability.
Spiritual greatness is something else.
Gadolim & Personality Types
Character refinement doesn’t produce clones.
Outgoing extroverted talmidei chachamim remain outgoing and extroverted.
Introverted talmidei chachamim remain introverted.
Yes, they’re able to stretch themselves past their innate nature when necessary, but someone with great physical energy and extroversion (like the Lubavitcher Rebbe) will channel his spiritual greatness through that.
Other great talmidei chachamim possess incredible mental energy. They’re known for their hasmadah and their ability to remain awake for most of the day immersed in a Gemara. But they don’t physically move around much.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was known for his smile, in addition to his exceptional character and vast Torah knowledge.
Rav Aryeh Levine is one of the most beloved tzaddikim in the past century. Stories of his outreach to Jews on all levels, his profound love and warmth, and his humility often overshadow the tremendous Torah scholarship he also possessed. In conjunction with his dedication to Torah study, Rav Aryeh Levine was tremendously active at the community level.
In addition to their vast Torah knowledge and untiring dedication to Am Yisrael, Rav Meir Shapiro and Rav Avigdor Miller were also known for their wit and humor.
For many gadolim, their speech is short and to-the-point. Such speech can be softened if the gadol possesses a very warm personality, but others are more serious by nature and can come off with more curtness.
So we see that our great rabbis come in a variety of flavors.
This is no surprise because our founders—Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah—all possessed different personalities from one another. Some were even opposites and served Hashem in very different ways (like Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, for example.)
Your personal preference (and soul-needs) pull you toward one type or another, but it doesn’t mean that a contrasting type is a lesser person than the gadol you’re most pulled toward.
Certainly, they can also be fiery and strong as iron when necessary—but all for the sake of Hashem, not their ego.
Rabbi Wallerstein offers an amusing example of this when describing his interaction with Rav Shteinman. (Please see Rav Shteinman: My Personal Experience.) Rav Steinman was stern with him at the outset (partway through the clip)—but the reason why became clear later at a follow-up meeting.
And this is in line with what was written in an earlier post, that some great rabbanim behaved in strange or unusually stern ways, but those with ruach hakodesh have good reason for doing so. They choose to do so; it's not coming from bad middot.
When people enthused over Rav Shteinman’s ruach hakodesh after he knew a Jew lacked a kosher brit mila just by looking at his face, Rav Kanievsky commented that you don’t need ruach kodesh to see such a thing on someone’s face—but added that aside from that, Rav Steinman indeed possessed ruach hakodesh. So if Rav Shteinman was unusually stern, he had a good reason for it.
Anyway, back to humility...
For more on Rav Scheinberg, please see Living for Others.
P.S. I remember seeing Rav Scheinberg when Rebbetzin Scheinberg was sitting in her wheelchair next to him, both of them in their nineties. She was on oxygen or something and she was giggling away like a young kallah while Rav Scheinberg beamed with sheer bliss just being in her presence. It may sound strange to say this about such chashuv people, but I remember thinking they were such a cute couple.
Compare this to narcissists who, when confronted with even the smallest wrongdoing on their part, go wide-eyed and huff, “I can’t even imagine what you’re talking about! Who, me? How could you even think such a thing about ME?”
But despite the gross insensitivity (and chutzpah), Rav Kanievsky merely responded in a very soft & pained voice, “What do you want from me? My father! My father!”
And what was Rav Bender's description of the calamity?:
"...I understood that I had made a bitter mistake. Why had I not warned the host to come himself and take the sefer Torah, and not send one of his people to do it?"
He blames himself! The host was well-aware of the danger to everyone in hosting Rav Bender—why would anyone think there's any need to remind the host to get the sefer Torah himself?
Rav Bender achieved great things and merited amazing miracles. Yet when asked about his greatest accomplishment, he's reputed to have answered: "I lived 30 years in Russia, and I still believe in God!"
(By the way, I’m also personally grateful to Mr. Shelby—and everyone else involved—for organizing the class and the recordings. And I’m grateful to those involved in transcribing his lectures into books and online articles.)
Also, when Rav Miller expressed his regret at the Torah he was missing while attending a grandchild’s wedding, another guest asked him if it wasn’t a joyous thing to attend a grandchild’s wedding? Later, Rav Miller thanked the man, revealing that since the man made that comment, Rav Miller was much happier at his grandchildren’s weddings. (It takes a certain humility to accept correction from a regular person and to even thank them for it later.)
Here are some samples Rav Miller's straightfoward humility:
A Random Selection of Short Q&A’s [#2]
Why did Yosef demand that all the Mitzraim get a bris milah in order to be fed during the famine?
I’m going to leave that unanswered for the time being. That ma’amar has to be studied by me.
Rav Avigdor Miller: Random Q&As
How would a bochur today go about acquiring the amount of secular knowledge that you have?
And the answer is that I don’t have much. The little bit that I have, I show off and I make a big fuss, a whole fuss about it. But I don’t have much.
(TAPE # 613)
Who was wiser, Avraham Avinu or Shlomo Hamelech?
And the answer is, I don’t know. If I ever find out I’ll tell you. Shlomo was definitely wiser than the famous wise men that they knew in history. But Avraham Avinu was something different, I cannot tell you. Avraham was such a pioneer that I’m not able to say if he’s included in that. I just don’t know. If you find out, you’ll tell me.
(TAPE # 403)
The Q&A of Chanukah: Hyrcanus’s Downfall
…Now, up until now I personally, outside of perhaps you, Rabbi, I haven't met very many gedolim.
I'm not a gadol, very far from it.
Well, I'm very much impressed with your--
I'm not a gadol.
Well, I'm very impressed with your delivery--
A gadol doesn't have any good delivery. A gadol stammers when he talks. A man who has good delivery is not a gadol. He's a public speaker.
Well, I think you understand the subject matter, I think you have some element of gedulah.
I'm a speaker. A gadol can't speak. A gadol can think!
Anyway, there are many more “humble gadolim” examples.
But that's it for now.
Hope this helped.
Which Rabbi Should I Listen To?