In Modern Orthodox circles it has become a commonplace that the denomination suffers from a lack of the sort of rabbinic personalities whose combination of talmudic erudition, piety, and an ability to speak on the pressing issues of the day confer a larger-than-life authority—figures known in traditional terminology as g’dolim, or great ones. (The absent, archetypal great rabbi is usually taken to be Joseph B. Soloveitchik.) The Ultra-Orthodox (Ḥaredim), by contrast, suffer from no such problem: the great rabbinic leaders of yesteryear have been replaced by a steady stream of new talent. Chaim Saiman ventures a reason for this:
Modern Orthodoxy’s ongoing failure to find its share of g’dolim . . . leads the community both to question whether it is even capable of producing g’dolim and, alternatively, whether it should continue to feel inferior to communities that routinely produce them. Inevitably, the conversation shifts to criticizing the Modern Orthodox educational system. . . .
The problem with the structure of this conversation is that it focuses almost exclusively on the supply side, while wholly neglecting the question of demand. . . . To be sure, on the supply side, anyone worthy of the title gadol must have certain baseline qualifications. But equally important is that for someone to become a gadol, . . . he must exist within a community searching for one. . . .
Thus, in the ḥaredi communities where the demand for g’dolim is high, the threshold for what constitutes a gadol is comparatively low. Soon after the passing of a reigning gadol, the best available talent is promoted. . . . Upon being crowned, the [new] gadol is addressed in the third person, and stories attesting to his greatness circulate in the subculture. Everyone stands to attention when he walks into a room, and he takes on a distinctive style of dress. These critical components . . . have little to do with erudition or qualifications, but speak volumes about demands and expectations of what a gadol is.
[By contrast], Modern Orthodoxy will fill the position only with a Hall-of-Famer, so to speak. If there is a gadol worthy of the title, he will be treated as such, but, as many sports teams have learned, nothing ensures that Hall-of-Fame talent is available. In these situations, several trends are likely to emerge. First, the shadow of previous g’dolim is cast longer, which is why one can still find arguments about what Joseph B. Soloveitchik or, more recently, Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) would have said about a given subject. Likewise, the role of authorized interpreters of these prior g’dolim becomes more important.