Last Wednesday night, in the middle of a blazing heat wave, a quarter of a million people flocked to the funeral of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. At the request of the deceased, no eulogies were delivered, but for the rest of the week, the Haredi press spoke of little other than the man, his life, and the vacuum left in his wake. Even the New York Times published a long obituary, and virtually every Jewish media outlet covered the story.
Who was Rav Elyashiv, as he was widely known, and why was this 102-year-old so revered?
Those who know enough to judge speak of the rabbi as a staggering Torah mind, with a compendious command of Jewish law, enormous intellectual creativity, and great clarity of expression. Crowned as the posek ha-dor (the foremost halakhic arbiter of his generation), few wielded greater influence on the Haredi community. In an age when great rabbis can earn big bucks by running elaborate Hasidic courts or by performing "miracles" for a price, Elyashiv stood out as an unassuming ascetic who continued to live in the dilapidated, one-bedroom Jerusalem apartment in which he and his wife had raised 12 children. He met with tens of people a day, offering halakhic decisions and personal guidance, and never taking payment or gifts.
Many will be surprised to hear that like some of the 20th century’s greatest rabbis, such as the Hazon Ish and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Elyashiv never studied in yeshiva—and never taught in one either. He studied on his own, spending 16-20 hours a day hunkered down in his apartment or this or that synagogue, eating little and sleeping less. Consequently, his commitment to Jewish law was uncompromising: no amount of political pressure or self-interest could sway him from what he thought was demanded by the halakhah. To the Haredi community in general, and its Lithuanian, yeshiva-oriented strand in particular, he represented the greatest living model of the pious Torah scholar, and the community looked to him not only for halakhic decision-making, but also for political guidance and spiritual vision.
To those outside his natural circle of followers, however, he leaves this world with a complex legacy. To begin with, Elyashiv’s own perspectives changed over the course of his long life. He exemplified the changing attitude of some Haredi rabbis to Israel’s chief rabbinate, moving from respectful disagreements and even cooperation, to outright antagonism, to hostile takeover. In his youth and into his forties, though still Haredi, he was close with leading religious-Zionist figures such as Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Yitzhak Herzog (relationships hardly mentioned in the Haredi eulogies). He also served as a judge on the State's High Rabbinical Court. But he resigned unceremoniously in the 1970s after the “Langer Affair,” in which Rabbi Shlomo Goren permitted the children of a particular woman to marry, despite suspicions that they were illegitimate (and therefore prohibited from marrying according to Jewish law). To Elyashiv, the decision suggested that the State’s official rabbinate had been compromised by politics and public relations concerns. For decades afterward, he kept a cold distance from anything Zionist.
That stance changed with his rise to prominence at the end of the 20th century, at which point he began pushing non-Zionist and anti-Zionist rabbis into Israeli rabbinical courts and into chief-Rabbi positions. This was motivated not by renewed warmth toward Zionism and the State, but by concern for unemployed Haredi rabbis, and by the prospects for increasing Haredi influence on Israeli religious and public life. Today, the situation has been fully reversed: religious-Zionist rabbis struggle to find posts in state rabbinical courts, and very few are appointed as municipal rabbis. Now many Israelis, alienated by the hard-line rulings of the Haredi rabbis, are calling for fundamental reform of the rabbinate, if not complete dismantlement.
Many of those hard-line rulings, including the most controversial ones, were inspired by Elyashiv’s thousands of halakhic decisions. For example, he took a strong stand against putting any pressure—economic, social, or physical—on husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, a halakhic writ of divorce, out of concern that such a divorce might be invalidated as having been granted under duress. He even opposed the contracting of prenuptial agreements aimed at evening the balance of power between men and women in divorce proceedings.
Further, Elyashiv disputed the validity of conversions of converts who did not adopt an observant lifestyle—despite at least some halakhic precedents to the contrary. This policy led directly to the infamous decision by Rabbi Avraham Sherman to retroactively disqualify conversions performed by the religious-Zionist Rabbi Chaim Drukman, and has since spawned international political and halakhic infighting. In each of these cases, one must ask: Was Elyashiv faithfully upholding the integrity of Jewish law, or was he ignoring the complex religious and political reality of the largely unobservant modern Jewish people and empowering an irresponsible rabbinic establishment?
Either way, Elyashiv’s influence in such matters stemmed from an ideology that may well be in the process of disintegration. That ideology, known as Da’as Torah, holds that all political, social, economic, and public policy questions should be put to the great rabbis, who represent the sole legitimate arbiters of Jewish practice in all spheres of life.
Elyashiv’s immediate predecessor as leading Lithuanian rabbinic leader was a man who embodied Da'as Torah to the fullest: Rav Elazar Menahem Man Shach (1899-2001) was actively involved in Israeli political life, forging alliances, punishing political enemies, and founding parties. Elyashiv, by contrast, had little interest in political maneuverings and perhaps a somewhat limited view of the wider world. He left political and public policy matters to circles of activists (askanim in Haredi parlance). This might presage the democratization of leadership, as suggested by Hebrew University professor Benjamin Brown, but alternately it might mean what it has traditionally meant in circles of power: manipulation by advisors who filter the incoming information, and simple corruption.
Even so, whereas Shach could reasonably claim to be the most powerful Lithuanian rabbi to whom other rabbis must listen, Elyashiv never became such a figure, and perhaps never tried. Other rabbis, particularly in the Haredi stronghold of Bnei Brak, maintain significant followings even after taking more moderate stances than Elyashiv. It has become clear in recent decades that there is no one Da’as Torah, but many—issued from rabbis with different constituencies and competing perspectives.
If this by itself doesn’t portend the collapse of Da'as Torah ideology, there is the further fact that Elyashiv's name appeared on a series of bans that were largely ignored by Haredi Jews. His attempts to prohibit degree-granting vocational training programs for his constituents, or the inclusion of secular studies in the curriculum for young Haredi women (despite their need to financially support their husbands’ ongoing Torah study), fell largely on deaf ears. His name appeared prominently on prohibitions on Internet usage, Internet connections in the home, and cell phones with Internet service: all largely ignored. His name appeared on bans of books written in languages he did not read; the books became quite popular. There are only so many times that a rabbi’s bans can be ignored before his authority is diminished.
And so, the reverence displayed at his funeral notwithstanding, Elyashiv’s legacy is difficult to ascertain. He changed his ideological course somewhat, and his authority was more limited than is generally admitted. Nevertheless, he was a peerless Torah scholar, who confronted the profound challenges of modern Haredi life, aiming to balance Jewish law with communal welfare and self-protection. The stances he took were born of a deep concern for the community to which he devoted his life. Whether they will prove sustainable, only time will tell.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.
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