A Reconsideration of Gedolim Biographies: The Power of Personal Inspiration

By: Kiki Arochas  |  November 20, 2023

By Kiki Arochas, Staff Writer

In recent years, I have found myself developing a love for many works by Jewish authors. During a difficult shana bet year in Israel, which saw my interest in gemara (Talmud) learning dip, I realized I needed other modes of Judaisim to quench my spiritual thirst. I discovered a love for many works in Jewish philosophy and morals (anything, really, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”tl). As I read more, I wanted to dive deeper into the realm of Jewish literature with a particularly popular genre; gedolim biographies. I then discovered that I had a strong disdain for many of them. 

My critique was based on the usefulness of the stories for the reader. How, I wondered, was the Vilna Gaon‘s superhuman learning schedule supposed to inspire me in any way? I don’t sleep for 20 minutes a week, with my feet in buckets of cold water to keep me awake. In fact, I struggle to get up on time for Shacharit. What could this story of a born genius offer me in terms of practical use, other than depressing me? Many other gedolim biographies follow this type of trend. In the words of Rav Aharon Feldman, “It would serve the reader better to put more emphasis on the hard work, the sweat and tears that went into making them gedolim. Portraying gedolim as geniuses tends to make their accomplishments appear unattainable” (The Eye of the Storm, Feldman 111). I was fairly convinced of this position and remained stubborn in my critique, and further flabbergasted when others cited their enjoyment of the works. But then, something strange happened. I found a book called Maran Harav Ovadia, a biography about Rav Ovadia Yosef. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I was at a loss to understand what appeared to me to be blatant hypocrisy on my part. How could I critique usual gedolim biographies for their lack of relatability, and then turn around and thoroughly enjoy a biography about one of the most brilliant, unattainable hachamim (sages) who ever lived? Because he had cool sunglasses? It seemed totally unjustifiable until I realized something. The biographies and stories of Rav Ovadia in particular serve a very different purpose than simple inspiration. The subheader on his biography reads, “The revered Gaon and Posek who restored the crown of Sephardic Jewry.” This, I believe, is exactly the point. As a Sephardic kid, growing up in a mostly Ashkenazic town and all Ashkenazic schools, I was not privy to much of my heritage. I heard many great stories about figures such as the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Moshe Feinstien, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky. But what about the Ben Ish Hai, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu? None of these Sephardic giants of the more modern era were ever discussed in my classrooms. This is not a criticism of these institutions, but just an acknowledgement: I was not taught to be proud of the greats of Hachmai Sefarad. For all I knew, all the great rabbanim of modern times were only Ashkenazim. The biography of Rav Ovadia fills that hole. The biography reminds the Sephardic people that we have who to be proud of, a Torah giant whose genius and breadth of wisdom went unmatched in his time. Rav Ovadia restored the Sephardic crown, not only onto my head, but into the general Jewish consciousness as well. 

This realization dwelled on me further. It seemed that, although I will never in any capacity be Rav Ovadia, I nonetheless found his stories inspirational to me. Which, I realized, can be true for anyone. Perhaps I personally would benefit more from gedolim biographies if the authors “put more emphasis on the hard work.” But others still have much to gain from these stories as they are. We all have to come close to God in our own unique ways, with our own unique experiences and worldviews. We all draw inspiration from different places. And that, I believe, is the beauty behind it all.