We believe that the leaders of each and every generation are specifically suited for that generation. Therefore, we do not second guess our gedolim, Torah leadership. They are Hashem’s choice. To impugn the integrity of their leadership is to question Hashem’s decision. The leader of each individual generation is the last word in Torah ruling. We do not compare him to the leaders of earlier generations. He is our leader – not the leader of a previous generation.
Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, relates an amazing story that occurred concerning the Gaon, zl, m’Vilna, which underscores this idea. We must remember that the Gaon was not only the greatest luminary of his generation, but he exceeded the scholarly and spiritual plateau of many leaders before him. Nonetheless, even the great Gaon deferred to the contemporary leadership of his time.
The story is told that one Erev Shabbos, the tailor whose house abutted the home of the Gaon, had a shailah, halachic question, concerning a chicken. In those days, every chicken was personally checked for any traifos, invalidations which would render it unkosher. Today, with quality control, very few issues arise, and, when they do, they are immediately addressed. The tailor was a G-d-fearing man, so he immediately dispatched his son to the Gaon’s home with the question concerning the chicken. The Gaon paskened, ruled, that the chicken was treif, unkosher.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the tailor, his wife had sent someone to the Rav of Vilna, Horav Shmuel ben R’ Avigdor, who ruled that the chicken was, in fact, kosher. They now had a problem: two rabbanim had ruled on the chicken – one kosher; one not kosher. This was a serious halachic dilemma.
The Rav represented the rabbinic leadership of the city of Vilna. Officially, he had the final word. The Gaon was the undisputed gadol hador, pre-eminent Torah leader of the generation. Would a “tug of war” ensue? When the Rav heard that the Gaon had ruled against him, he immediately proceeded to the Gaon’s home. The Rav explained that, while there was no doubt that the Gaon was many times his superior in Torah knowledge, nonetheless, if his word were not to be respected and heeded, he would lose his standing in the community, and his halachic rulings would be rendered deficient. The only choice available was for both of them to go together to the tailor’s house and both eat from the chicken. The Gaon agreed! The Gaon, who personally held the chicken to be unkosher, was prepared to eat from it! He understood that the viability of Torah ruling was at risk. To uphold the Torah, he would be compelled to eat a piece of chicken he held was treif.
By the way, when the two rabbanim arrived at the tailor’s home, the oil lamp on the table had fallen, spilling some of the unkosher fat used as fuel on the chicken, thus rendering it unquestionably treif. The Gaon did what he had to do; Hashem did what He wanted to do.