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Greatness by the Book

Mishpacha Staff

A staple of the Orthodox Jewish community’s reading list is the “gadol biography,” an account of the life of a great man (and less commonly, woman). We asked several of Mishpacha’s writers, all of whom have written or contributed to such works, to respond to some of the questions this literary genre raises. Responding: Rabbi Moshe Grylak… Worth the Words | Yonoson Rosenblum… It’s About the Struggle | Yisroel Besser… Greatness and Normalcy Don’t Clash | Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz… Never Say Always

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

RabbiWhat are authors/publishers of such books looking to accomplish?


Do you think this type of book has a lasting influence on the reader?


Are the effects of the gadol biography entirely positive, negative or some combination thereof? If there is a downside to such books, is the problem inherent in the genre itself or, perhaps, in the type of personalities that are chosen as subjects, or in some other factor?


What can an author do to “break the mold” of this genre and distinguish his work from what has come before not just in its subject but also in style and substance?


There are obvious sensitivities involved in writing a gadol biography. There are heightened standards of kavod and circumspection when writing about great people, the standards and sensitivities of the generation in which they lived may not be precisely those of the present one, and care must be taken to present certain matters in context and omit others to avoid misunderstanding. How have you or other authors/contributors dealt with these issues?


Worth the Words

Rabbi Moshe Grylak


More than forty years ago, when I was collecting material for a biography of the Chazon Ish ztz”l, one of his close talmidim told me that the Chazon Ish had once said to him that the life stories of gedolei Yisrael should be written down in order for people to understand, through the behavior and wisdom of these gedolim, how great the Torah is. As an example, he mentioned a psak from the Chafetz Chaim, who determined that hurting a child is more serious than hurting an adult since a young child cannot forgive a wrong done to him, whereas an adult is able to forgive. The Chazon Ish felt that only through personal, living examples of the sensitivity of those carriers of Torah tradition could Torah be learned in a tangible way.

I was still a young lad when the Chazon Ish ztz”l left this world. It was an indescribable shock to those of us who had known him, who had lived as his neighbors knowing that an angel of G‑d walked among us — and suddenly he was gone! A year or two after his passing, I remember sitting in yeshivah with a few fellow bochurim, and our conversation drifted to our memories of him. At that time, stories about him were abounding in every circle of Israeli society, and many things were said that went beyond what we ourselves had known of him. But I remember one of the boys saying, “We who knew the Chazon Ish, even if only slightly, don’t need any proofs that the Torah is Divine and min haShamayim, because if the Torah can make a human being like the Chazon Ish, that’s the most overwhelming proof you could ask for. No human philosophy could form a personality that tremendous.”

Herein lies the benefit of writing biographies of great Torah personalities. A glimpse into their actual lives can move halachah from something abstract and dry to something pulsing with life. The reader sees a lifelike image of a person who lives every moment by the dictates of Torah and halachah.


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