On Writing Gadol Biographies

More than twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled, “Are Gadol Biographies Good for Us?” Little did I dream at the time that I would soon be asked to write the first of many biographies of major Jewish leaders. From that experience, I learned to be careful with my words lest they come back to haunt me.

At least one person benefits greatly from the writing of a “gadol biography” – the author himself. The best such biographies require a total immersion in the subject’s life, until one is constantly asking oneself: How would he have approached this subject? Why did he make that choice? Living with a great person for years can only uplift a person, though, as with everything in life, no degree of inspiration lasts unless translated into concrete actions.

At their best, biographies of gadolim should provide the reader with the experience of living in the presence of the subject. I have witnessed how a maggid shiur with sterling middos can, over a period of years, transform every single person in a shiur. And the same thing should be true of a “gadol biography.”

At the same time, specific biographies will have a different impact on particular readers, depending on the nature and interests of the reader. Someone who aspires to be an askan(community activist) will get much more out of the biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer than one who does not.
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