Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the “leader of the generation” for the Haredi community and one of the most influential leaders of the sector since the establishment of the state, died on Tuesday at 104.
Several hundred thousand people took part in his funeral in Bnei Brak, while tributes to him flooded in from numerous leaders, including from the prime minister, president, and numerous other ministers and politicians.
Tens of thousands of Haredim traveled to Bnei Brak from around the country in order to participate in the funeral procession for the departed rabbi. Men, women and children lined the streets, watched from balconies and climbed walls, taking up any vantage point available to be able to watch the event.
Mourners who gathered spoke of Shteinman’s great depth of Torah knowledge, his great humility and his almost complete abstinence from worldly pleasures, fasting frequently and sleeping just a few hours per night.
The rabbi’s humility was borne out in his will, in which he requested that no eulogies be said for him, although Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the foremost leaders of the community, did give a speech about the rabbi.
Shteinman also requested that eulogies not be written about him in newspapers, saying that a picture of him in the newspaper would be enough, and added that no rallies should be held for him, that notices of his passing not be printed and that no announcements of his death should be made on the radio or in the streets over loudspeakers.
All of these requests have largely been ignored by the press and the public.
“It is enough that just 10 people come to the funeral,” said the departed rabbi in his will, read out in front of hundreds of thousands of mourners waiting for the funeral procession to begin.
He also requested a simple burial plot, saying: “My place in the cemetery is next to regular people.” He requested that no titles be written on his headstone, that it be “the cheapest and simplest” one available and that money not be wasted on an expensive plot in the cemetery.
Gedalia Finkel, a rabbi in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem who was present at the funeral procession and had in the past approached Shteinman on several occasions for advice, described him as “the shield of our generation” in whose merit the Jewish people were protected.
Finkel also noted how Shteinman was open to all members of the public, allowing them to come to him for advice. He described in particular the rabbi’s humility and how he was able to put those who visited him at ease.
“He had such a friendly sense of humor. He was very sharp. He was a brilliant man,” said Finkel.
“He used to say: ‘Any honor a person gets in this world comes on the account of that which he gets in the world to come.’ He was a humble Jew – so he was and so he preached.”
Mordechai, another mourner, described Shteinman as “the father of the Jewish people” to individuals and the broader community, adding that he had “guided the nation” during his life.
He also said that Shteinman had “unwillingly” accepted the mantle of leadership out of a sense of personal responsibility for the entire people. Like Finkel, Mordechai noted Shteinman’s willingness to meet with anyone who came to him for help and advice.
“He was curious about those who came to see him – would ask questions about them, what they do, how they support themselves. He was a very warm personality and would make you feel as if he had all the time in the world for you.”
In recent months, Shteinman had become exceedingly frail and was in and out of the hospital. His health declined dramatically early Tuesday morning and he was put on life support; he never recovered.
Shteinman has formally led the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic Haredi community since 2012, when the former leader of the group Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv died.
But he has been the de facto leader on issues of public importance to the Haredi community since the mid-1990s when the health of then-leader Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach went into severe decline.
Likewise, even when Elyashiv was technically the leader of the generation, Shteinman was making decisions on critical issues, such as military service enlistment, with the support of Elyashiv who was more involved with decisions pertaining to Jewish law than with Haredi daily-life choices.
Shteinman was not a modernizer or a reformer. He was a strong proponent of Haredi men studying Torah in yeshiva as the pinnacle of human endeavor, and was of the opinion that everything else was of secondary importance.
Shteinman’s five years of being recognized as the “leader of the generation” after Elyashiv had died was, however, marred by the bitter struggle against his leadership waged by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his entourage who formed the Jerusalem Faction.
In an unprecedented step, the group refused to accept Shteinman’s leadership, marking the erosion of the idea that there is one undisputed leader of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic Haredi community.
Indeed, it is thought that now after Shteinman’s passing there will not be one figure who takes over the mantle of leadership, but that Edelstein together with Rabbi Haim Kanievsky will form a joint leadership to whom the Haredi politicians will go to seek their rulings on matters of public policy.
Kanievsky is seen as the more senior and revered figure, but he has for many years been unwilling to take on much responsibility for public leadership, deferring instead to Shteinman.
It is thought that Kanievsky and Edelstein will now share the responsibilities of leadership and that the two will coordinate and cooperate to make decisions when required by the political leadership.