Two Rabbis leading the Lithuanian community to the future

#39 - Leading rabbis of the haredi world: Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein

(L-R) Rabbis Gershon Edelstein and Chaim Kanievsky (Photo credits: Flash 90) (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
(L-R) Rabbis Gershon Edelstein and Chaim Kanievsky (Photo credits: Flash 90)
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
A measure of the power an individual holds might be the number of people over whom they hold sway and influence, and who will obey their instructions.
On such a scale, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the two most senior and authoritative leaders of the non-hassidic, so-called “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community, are two of the most powerful men in the Jewish world.
In Israel, hundreds of thousands of men and women in the non-hassidic haredi community look to these two men as the ultimate authorities in their temporal and religious lives.
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They look to Kanievsky and Edelstein for guidance on how to educate their children, how to address the challenges modernity poses to ultra-Orthodox life, and even matters of life and death, such as how to act during the current pandemic.
Many tens of thousands of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox Jews in the US, UK, Europe and beyond similarly see Kanievsky and Edelstein as the highest religious authorities in the constellation of Jewish leadership.
As the titular heads in the ultra-Orthodox world, their influence and the direction of their religious leadership also seeps down to a certain extent to the rest of the Orthodox world.
Four members of Knesset for the United Torah Judaism Party are accountable to the two rabbis, including the powerful chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, with UTJ in turn holding huge sway over the fate of the current government, and many before it.
Although for several decades the Lithuanian community had been accustomed to a single, ultimate rabbinic authority known as the “great Torah scholar of the generation,” the death of Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman in 2017 ultimately led to what is now a more bicameral leadership, with Kanievsky the ultimate leader, and Edelstein often taking up responsibility for more immediate, practical concerns.
There is of course a trend of modernization among parts of ultra-Orthodox society, and in a world where many members of the community are participating to a greater extent in Israeli society, the absolute authority of rabbinical leaders is thought to be on the wane.
Furthermore, much power is de facto invested in the advisers and associates of the two rabbis, Kanievsky especially. These advisers act as gatekeepers for access to the religious leaders and as filters for what information they receive.
Ultimately, however, the prodigious Torah scholarship of Kanievsky and Edelstein, and the admiration and respect held by the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian public means that these two men do hold and will continue to hold significant sway over ultra-Orthodox life in Israel, the zeitgeist of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora more broadly, and the political map in the Jewish state as well.