Note: If you find yourself bored by my long-winded drasha, please just skip to the last paragraph in the post.
So often when I've had debates with yeshivish people about a problem in frum society, and I've been able to convince them how real and serious the problem is, they inevitably fall back on the tried and true aphorism of, "The gedolim have set things up this way. It's da'as torah. We have to trust the gedolim. They're in charge. They know best."
In a different post I'll deal with the fascinating idea of da'as torah. There's so much to discuss about that fallacious concept. But for now, let me focus on the concept of me being told that I'm supposed to trust the gedolim. Let's take a closer look at this concept of trust.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that trust is not universal. It's exclusive to a specific (or a group of specific) aspects. That means to say that when one is trusted by another, they are being trusted for something specific. A doctor is trusted for his medical opinion, not for his knowledge of history. A family member may be trusted for their sincere efforts at assisting another, but maybe not for their investment advice. This is an obvious and self-evident observation, but needs to be pointed out because often enough people will mistakenly combine two totally unrelated areas of trust. For instance, when someone may decide not to follow the advice of a friend, the friend may feel betrayed and may respond with, "What? You don't trust me anymore?" The friend is looking at trust as a huge amorphous entity with no defined areas. Of course he's trusted, just not in this particular area. Obviously, often enough one is deemed trustworthy in more than one area, but the presence of trust in one area need not indicate that one is trustworthy in another.
The other important concept to understand regarding trust is that trust consists of two disparate elements. Both of these need to be present for there to be trust in any area. For illustration purposes, let's use the example of Jill looking to trust Jack.
Element one that is necessary is that Jill must be confident that Jack is looking out for Jill's best interests in the matter. If for any reason, Jill feels that Jack is not properly concerned about her well-being, or that he has other interests affecting his judgment, any trust that was previously there will be immediately undermined, and any further trust will be thwarted.
The second element that is needed is competency. Jill must be confident that Jack has a superior, or at least satisfactory, understanding of the issues related to the matter. Even if the first factor is present in Jack (that he is wholeheartedly dedicated to Jill's best interests), Jill won't trust his judgment if she feels that he doesn't understand the matter at hand well enough.
To use a concrete example, let's say Jill wants to leave her cat with Jack when she goes on vacation. She first needs to be assured that Jack is knowledgeable about caring for animals and has a certain degree of proficiency in that area. Then she will ascertain that Jack is concerned about caring for her specific animal. Only then will she feel confident enough to trust Jack to care for her pet.
If, let's say, Jack is an acknowledged expert in caring for animals, but Jill is aware that he occasionally does lab experiments on them, she won't trust Jack (the concern for her interests is lacking). On the other hand, if Jill knows that Jack would do anything for her and would only give his best efforts to help her in any way he could, but Jill also knows that Jack thinks animals grow well if they're watered regularly, she won't entrust her animal into Jack's loving care (the competency is lacking). Most definitely, if neither of these elements are present, Jill wouldn't ever entertain the thought of trusting him in this regard.
This understanding of trust is crucial for anyone to approach the issue of "trusting the gedolim" rationally.
In my particular case, how is it sensible for me to trust these people? They aren't displaying any of the necessary ingredients for a trusting relationship! Yes, they may have an encyclopedic mastery of shas and poskim, and they may display impressive proficiency in discussing fine halachic nuances, but when they make pronouncements about contemporary issues such as technology or science that reveals the most flawed and erroneous grasp of the subject matter, how can I consider them competent? How can I consider them fair minded and reasonable when they only allow one view to be expressed? When they consistently strive for the most strict and narrow view afforded? How can I view them as keen and discerning when I see them being taken in by charlatans and extremists who present distorted views of an issue in order to gain their support (successfully!)? How can I trust that they are men of foresight when they react to everything with knee jerk predictability? How can I trust that they have an appreciation of the grave problems of our society when their biggest concerns are things like exposed elbows and the manner of opening bottle caps? When their supposed solution to everything that they view as a threat is to circle the wagons ever tighter? How can I trust they are men of vision when they only point out the flaws of those outside their community? Or the most superficial and shallow of their own communities problems? How can I trust that they are men of integrity when they bow to public pressure, consistently retract their statements when pressured by others, and are so afraid to voice an opinion that deviates from the party line? When they are willing to rewrite history to suit their social agenda? How can I respect those who vilify the very soldiers who risk life and limb for their safety? Or those who will one moment gladly take money from a group and the very next moment tell their adherents how terrible that group is? How can I view them as humanitarian and charitable when the problems outside their community barely register on their radar? (And when they do acknowledge an incident from outside their ghetto, it's always framed in how it affects them, with practically no concern for those who are really affected.) How can I view them as understanding of human nature when many of their approaches are so dysfunctional it often borders on criminal? How can I view them as responsible leaders when they do so little to improve their devotees living conditions? When they try to keep their members ignorant of those opportunities which can help them better their lives? How can I trust them to be honest when I see them constantly using a double standard? How can I feel that they are concerned about my well being when they promote a society that cares nothing for the individual and is willing to let thousands be relegated to a life of deprivation and misery just so that the one "talmid chacham" should emerge? How can I view them as anything but hypocrites when they use torah and halacha as a shield to protect criminals and deviants? When they care more about maintaining their communities elaborate façade than about admitting that people are getting hurt? When they concoct teachings and interpretations that are so contrived and self-serving that they are laughable to anyone but their own constituents? How can I respect their efforts at trying to solve a problem when they haven't put a stop to the behavior that's causing it in the first place? If they can't even exhibit basic principles of human dignity such as sensitivity towards others, gratitude, appreciation of different lifestyles, different styles of Judaism, and different modes of growth, how can they expect to receive my trust and respect?
Would you trust such people?