We often conceive of Judaism as a religion devoid of central authority. There is no Jewish pope, no governing body to issue fatwas, no assumed powers of edict. In my time as a Jew (read: my entire life), I’ve found this to be largely true, no doubt because I didn’t grow up within the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community of mainly Lithuanian, non-Hasidic Jews.
Within that community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands in Israel and the United States, there have always been rabbis and halachic adjudicators called Gadolim, literally translated as “Great Ones,” who issue legal decisions about nearly every aspect of an adherent’s social and political life.
Today, the ultra-Orthodox community has lost perhaps the last man of that breed. His name was Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, and he died this afternoon in the Jerusalem hospital Shaare Tzedek of multiple-organ failure. He was 102.
One cannot easily eulogize a life that spanned more than a century, but it’s hard to overstate Rav Elyashiv’s (as he is universally known) influence in the Haredi community as its spiritual and political leader for the past thirty years. Yosef Sholom Elyashiv was born in a small village in Lithuania and emigrated with his parents to British-controlled Palestine in 1924 at the age of twelve. His father Avrohom Elyashiv was the head rabbi in their Lithuanian hometown, and he established a yeshiva in Jerusalem when they arrived. The young Elyashiv studied in his father’s yeshiva and was quickly recognized as a talmudic prodigy.
He was brought up by a generation of Orthodox rabbis who established the theological bridge between strict Orthodoxy and the idea of a modern and secularized Jewish state. Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and the progenitor of that movement, was Elyashiv’s mentor. Kook introduced Elyashiv to his wife, Sheina Chaya Levin, the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the tzaddik (greatly righteous man) of Jerusalem.
Over time, after the Jewish state’s establishment in 1948, Elyashiv began taking over official rabbinical duties. He at first served as the chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Ramle and then became a judge in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the authority that decides policy on a variety of social issues in Israel related to marital status, burial processes, and a variety of other issues.
Elyashiv’s mentorship by Kook and other rabbis including his father-in-law, and most notably, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, gave the young rabbi a chance to contend for a leading part in Israel’s well-established Rabbinate as that generation passed. But, he broke from that path in 1974, when he resigned from the Rabbinate’s court over a decision made by its chief adjudicator, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in a marital-status case that became a national controversy when the Rabbinate initially refused to marry two children because they had determined that they were mamzers, bastards, under Jewish law. Powerful secular leaders in Israel were calling for the establishment of civil marriage to avoid such complications, and Goren’s decision was seen by Elyashiv and the rest of the ultra-Orthodox world as a concession to the secularists rather than a decision made following the strictest interpretations of Jewish law.
The Langer case, called after the family name of the “bastards”, is illustrative of Elyashiv’s worldview and important for two reasons. First, because it prohibited him politically from becoming the Chief Rabbi, as Goren did, but more importantly, because it allowed him to maintain an intellectual rigidity in his legal rulings without dealing with the political fallout that an official position would come with.
As he ascended among the ranks of the Haredi community, out-thinking and out-learning his contemporaries, Elyashiv developed a reputation for his obdurate treatment of halacha, Jewish law. The law, to him, was set firmly in stone, a never-changing guide for every aspect of life codified by previous Gedolim, those great rabbis.
Elyashiv, who reportedly sung his talmudic studies to complicated melodies while learning, possessed enough intellectual acumen to become a Gadol himself, and in the ‘90s he began taking over the decision-making authority within the Haredi community. Though the ultra-Orthodox philosophy favors a cemented halacha, many complicated cases arise within the Haredi community that need to be brought in front of a halachic decision maker, or posek. The old joke is that some Orthodox Jews can’t even order dinner or decide what to wear without consulting their rabbi first. Since the ‘90s, Elyashiv has acted like a one-man Supreme Court within the community, handing down decisions in the most complicated or politically fraught cases.
During that time he has maintained his reputation as both a master of halachic theory, and as a guard for the Haredi’s Old World mentality. Though he never held official positions, he soon became known under the unofficial title of posek ha’dor, or decision maker of the generation. With that, Elyashiv was able to exercise unparalleled control over Israel’s religious climate. The Chief Rabbi effectively served at his favor: one not approved by Elyashiv would find little acceptance in Israel’s relatively small, but politically powerful Haredi community. As a result, the Rabbinate has maintained and, in cases bolstered, socially regressive policies, prohibiting civil marriages, non-religious burial, or Haredi service in the army.
Elyashiv was a masterful political tactician. Harnessing his community’s lemming-like tendency to follow his every word, the rabbi spurred the Haredi population in Israel to vote for Haredi political parties in every election. Elyashiv ensured that the Haredi community always enjoyed Israel’s highest voter turnout rate and thus gained a critical number of seats in Israel’s party-based Knesset. Elyashiv would then often team up with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, Shas, to lend their key coalition seats to whichever major party would grant them power over socially-minded institutions like the education or interior ministry.
Elyashiv leaves this world amidst signs that the Haredi community’s vise on Israeli politics might be weakening. Much of the popular “tent” protests that sprung up in the past year vocally challenged Haredi influence, leading to serious conversation of reforming the Rabbinate and ending many programs that favorable to the community—including most controversially the Tal law that exempts Haredi men from serving in the otherwise compulsory military. Just yesterday, talks to reform the Tal law fell apart and the Kadima party withdrew from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
Within the Haredi world, there are few who could possibly play heir apparent to Elyashiv. He leaves behind no one who can be as readily deemed a Gadol and posek ha’dor for the next generation as he was. Without the guiding, almost dictatorial role that Elyashiv assumed, the Haredi community might find itself under the influence of multiple rabbis struggling for power. Whether that happens, and whether Elyashiv’s death means the fall of Haredi political power in Israel, will be revealed in the following months.
In the meantime, Jerusalem, and the entire Orthodox Jewish world mourns. Tens of thousands are gathering outside Rav Elyashiv’s home in Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, in preparation for a funeral service that will begin there at 10:00 PM and wind its way through Jerusalem’s cobble-stoned streets until it reaches Har Menuchot, a mountain cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where Elyashiv will be put to rest tonight. The memorial will be attended by Israel’s ruling class along with a large majority of Jerusalem’s population. For one night, all else will be suspended and Israel will remember a man they called “Giant.” Tomorrow, the politics will resume, and Israel may very well be facing a new day.
Rav Elyashiv [Yeshiva World]
David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.