(Jewish Ideas Daily) — Last Wednesday night, July 25, in the middle of a 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. 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?
A staggering Torah mind, he was the foremost halakhic arbiter of the generation, and few wielded greater influence on the Haredi community. Despite this, Elyashiv was an unassuming ascetic who continued to live in the dilapidated Jerusalem apartment in which he and his wife had raised 12 children. He met with tens of people a day, offering guidance, and never taking payment or gifts.
He spent 16-20 hours a day studying alone in his apartment or this or that synagogue, eating little and sleeping less. Consequently, his commitment to Jewish law was uncompromising. 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 for halakhic decision-making, political guidance, and spiritual vision.
To those outside his 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, exemplifying the evolving attitude of some Haredi rabbis to Israel’s chief rabbinate. In his youth and into his forties, he was close with leading religious-Zionist figures such as Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Yitzhak Herzog (relationships hardly mentioned in the Haredi eulogies), and served as a judge on the State’s High Rabbinical Court. But he resigned unceremoniously after a controversial case that to him suggested that the State’s official rabbinate had been compromised by politics.
For decades thereafter, he kept a cold distance from anything Zionist, but with his rise to prominence at the end of the 20th century, he began pushing non- and anti-Zionist rabbis into the rabbinical courts and 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. However, the hard-line rulings of the Haredi rabbis he helped to install have alienated many Israelis from the rabbinate.
Many of those rulings, including the most controversial, were inspired by Elyashiv’s thousands of halakhic decisions. For example, he took a strong stand against putting pressure 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 also disputed the validity of conversions of converts whose religious observance later lapsed, a policy that spawned international political and halakhic infighting.
Elyashiv’s influence stemmed from an ideology known as Da’as Torah, whereby great rabbis are the sole arbiters not just of “Jewish” questions but of questions pertaining to all spheres of life. However, unlike his immediate predecessor as leading Lithuanian rabbinic leader, Rav Elazar Menahem Man Shach (1899-2001), Elyashiv had little interest in political maneuverings, and left such matters to circles of activists. Whether or not this was a deliberate democratization of leadership, it left him vulnerable to manipulation by those around him.
Moreover, whereas Shach could reasonably claim to be the most powerful Lithuanian rabbi to whom others must listen, Elyashiv never became such a figure, and perhaps never tried. Naturally, this bodes badly for the Da’as Torah ideology. So does the fact that Elyashiv’s name appeared on a series of bans that were largely ignored by Haredi Jews, including on the inclusion of secular studies in the curriculum for young Haredi women (despite their need to financially support their husbands’ ongoing Torah study), and on Internet usage. There are only so many times that a rabbi’s bans can be ignored before his authority is diminished.
And so, Elyashiv’s legacy is difficult to ascertain. He changed his ideological course somewhat, and his authority was more limited than is generally admitted. Nevertheless, this peerless Torah scholar confronted with deep concern the profound challenges of modern Haredi life. Whether the stances he took 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” (Academic Studies Press). This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.)