Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman was one of the preeminent leaders of the Haredi world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who helped mold the community in Israel and direct it through the vicissitude’s of modernity.
He was guided by the desire to protect his flock from the blandishments of the outside world, but declined to oppose those parts of his community who began to engage with the demands of the state by entering the workforce, higher education and army.
It is for this position that he will be remembered, and although he strongly discouraged such trends, he did not seek to hold them back, thereby allowing them to develop and take root, and come to a certain accommodation with the needs of the modern State of Israel.
Shteinman was born in the city of Brest, in what is now Belarus, and which was then part of the Russian Empire, with the year of his birth disputed, but either 1913 or 1914.
He studied in yeshiva in Brest and was a student of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, known as the Brisker Rabbi, whose studying and teaching methods he would remain close to throughout his life.
To avoid military conscription in 1937 in Poland, which by that time controlled Brest, Shteinman and a friend escaped to Montreux, Switzerland, where they continued their studies in the Etz Haim Yeshiva.
Shteinman married in 1943 while still living in Switzerland, and came to Israel in 1945 after the end of the Second World War.
Settling initially in Petah Tikva, he became close with the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yishaya Karelitz, who was then the leading Torah figure of the generation, and the latter appointed Shteinman to head a yeshiva in Kfar Saba.
He eventually moved to Bnei Brak and in 1955 was appointed head of the Yeshiva Ketana, the yeshiva for high-school aged boys, at Ponovizeh Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the world by yeshiva dean Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kehaneman, and then head of the Ponovizeh Kollel, the yeshiva for married men, in 1964.
At this juncture, and slightly before, Shteinman would take up one of the most important missions of his life, promoting Torah study as the sole occupation for a Haredi man.
The Hazon Ish had been instrumental in promoting this ideal, and Shteinman sought to advance it more practically on the ground.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, it had been extremely rare for Haredi men to spend their entire lives studying in kollels, since it was simply not financially viable. In 1953 when the Chazon Ish died, there were only 1,240 yeshiva students who obtained a military service deferral due to being in full-time yeshiva study.
So Shteinman strove to open more kollels for married men to continue their yeshiva studies, to make entrance to kollels easier in terms of the standards required, and to raise money from donors in order to make yeshiva study viable financially.
In the 1980s, the dynamic and vigorous Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Man Shach had become the head of the Lithuanian community. He formed the Degel Hatorah political party in 1988, splitting from hassidic-controlled Agudat Yisrael.
Shach set up a Council of Torah Sages to guide the new political movement and Shteinman was immediately appointed to this council.
Shach however declined mentally in the mid-1990s and already then Shteinman adopted the leading role as decision maker for the Lithuanian community on matters of public concern.
Although Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was his senior, and considered to be the leading arbiter of Jewish law, Elyashiv frequently deferred to Shteinman on issues of public policy, such as whether Degel should run together in elections with Agudah, and regarding the issue of military service.
Indeed, Elyashiv only formally joined the Council of Torah Sages in 2002.
Shach died in 2001, but despite Shteinman’s greater role in public leadership, opponents of his, specifically Nati Grossman who ran the Yated Neeman
newspaper, the mouthpiece of Degel Hatorah and the critical organ of the Lithuanian community, maneuvered Elyashiv into the position of “Gagol Hador,” the great leader of the generation.
Regardless of the title, Shteinman continued to take the lead in most matters of public leadership, with Elyashiv openly saying that he trusted and relied on his rabbinic colleague to make the right decisions.
One of the critical issue which arose during this period was that of military service for Haredi yeshiva students. In 1998, the High Court of Justice ruled that the current arrangement whereby the defense minister gave out as many exemptions as he wanted was unlawful, and must be grounded in legislation to be justified.
However, the law needed to show that efforts were being made to integrate Haredi men into the IDF because of the inherent inequality in the mass exemptions from military service given to yeshiva students.
The Tal Committee was set up, headed by former Supreme Court justice Tsevi E. Tal, and Shteinman took up the task of leading the Haredi effort in shaping the recommendations the committee would make for legislation.
He appointed delegates who would participate in the deliberations of the Tal Committee, and firmly insisted that the position should be that any yeshiva student who wanted to study and was indeed studying in a yeshiva, be allowed to do so.
The principle of allowing anyone who wants to study in a yeshiva without disturbance was and remains the sacrosanct doctrine of the Haredi community, and Shteinman would never concede on this point.
He did however take the position, in opposition to more conservative rabbinic leaders in the Lithuanian community, that he would not fight for those young Haredi men who were not studying in a yeshiva.
Although emphasizing that every young Haredi man should be in yeshiva, he refused to insist on a situation in which he would be forced to request exemptions for those who were not.
This enabled the drafters of 2002’s so-called Tal Law to include a stipulation that any Haredi yeshiva student who was not fulfilling the terms of his deferment, which included studying for 45 hours a week, would be obligated to enlist in the IDF
In addition, the law encouraged young Haredi men to enlist in IDF units designed for Haredi men or to perform civilian service.
This was relatively unprecedented, and was opposed by some members of the Degel Council of Torah Sages, but Shteinman insisted that in order to preserve the rights of all Haredi men to study in yeshiva, the ability to avoid military service of those who were not or could not study appropriately in yeshiva must be conceded.
In the years of Elyashiv’s leadership of the Lithuanian community, Shteinman was largely ignored, and even deprecated, by Yated Neeman
Important engagements Shteiman undertook such as teaching a class at Ponovizeh or his visits to the US were largely ignored by Yated in this period.
And the newspaper tried to present a reality in which the two rabbis were at odds on various issues, despite the fact that Elyashiv continued to insist that he trusted the stance of Shteinman on issues such as enlistment, general education and similar matters.
Shteinman therefore remained the leading figure in terms of matters of public import for the Haredi community, and was the most senior figure, alongside Elyashiv, in the rabbinic leadership.
But when Elyashiv was hospitalized in 2012 and on life support, Grossman backed Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a hard-liner and member of the Degel Council of Torah Sages, to take the reins of leadership, seeking to once again shunt Shteinman aside.
But Shteinman set in motion a series of events which wrested control of Yated Neeman
away from Grossman, and put it firmly in the control of the rabbinic leadership in Bnei Brak which overwhelmingly supported the senior rabbi to be the new leader of the generation.
After Grossman was ousted, Yated Neeman
published a letter by Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the most influential Haredi rabbi next to Shteinman, declaring that the leadership of the Haredi community had passed to Shteinman.
This was not the end of the story however. Grossman and others refused to acknowledge Shteinman’s primacy, and gradually formed their own grouping around Auerbach with their own institutions.
First the Hapeles newspaper was created as the mouthpiece of the new faction, and eventually a political party, Bnei Torah, was created. Bnei Torah ran in municipal elections in 2013, winning seats in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit, but did not run in the national elections in 2015, instructing its flock not to vote at all.
This split has plagued the Lithuanian community ever since, and has been one of the dominant themes of Haredi political life in the five years since Elyashiv died.
It has also been a unique problem for Shteinman’s leadership, since no Haredi leader in the last 35 years has had to deal with the bifurcation in authority that he had to endure.
In particular, the Jerusalem Faction, as Auerbach’s camp became known, campaigned intensely and often violently against changes to the ability of young Haredi men to defer their military service.
The High Court struck down the Tal Law in February 2012, with Elyashiv already weak and in and out of hospital.
The Jerusalem Faction jumped on this development, and the subsequent legislation passed by the last government to draft Haredi men into the IDF in 2014, and embarked on a vitriolic campaign against enlistment
It advocated a more uncompromising line than Shteinman, instructing its yeshiva students to not cooperate with the army in any way, leading to numerous demonstrations and rallies by the Jerusalem Faction and more visible and identifiable gap between it and the Degel Hatorah mainstream.
Even once United Torah Judaism gutted the new law in 2015, Auerbach and his faction continued to ban their yeshiva students from cooperating with the army, falsely alleging that some yeshiva students were being coercively drafted regardless and that the new legislation would pave the way for mass Haredi conscription.
It was Shteinman’s lot that when he began to take up the reins of leadership as Shach began to ail in the mid-1990s, the Haredi community was increasingly confronted with two critical challenges; growing poverty in the sector and the advent of the Internet age.
But throughout his years in public leadership for the Haredi community, including as “leader of the generation,” Shteinman cleaved closely to the critical principles of the community, seeking continuity and resisting change.
And change was coming exactly as he was becoming the preeminent leader of the Haredi masses, with increasing poverty causing greater difficulties for families, the Internet breaking open “the walls of holiness” of the community, and increasing demands for the Haredi world to participate in bearing the country’s economic and security burdens.
But nevertheless, like his predecessors, he continued to extol the value of Torah study to the exclusion of all else, and studying full-time in yeshiva remained the pinnacle of human endeavor.
He conceded, however, as has always been the stance of the Haredi leadership, that if necessary a man can find a profession and go to work, especially given the increasing poverty in the sector.
But Shteinman strongly opposed introducing core curriculum subjects such as math, English and sciences into Haredi primary schools, much less secondary education, and was reluctant to say the least at best about allowing academic studies for those who wanted to join the workforce.
But in the mid-1990s he did give his consent, along with several other senior rabbis, to the establishment of an institution for higher education called the Haredi Center for Professional Training, where men could obtain vocational and academic qualifications that would help them join the workforce.
Nevertheless, this support was very limited, and he even stated once in comments relayed by Yated Neeman
in 2001 that poverty was good for the spiritual well-being of the community.
“If you’ll say, ‘How will they exist’ because of the [economic] decrees [of the government], and what will the poverty cause? It’s preferable, they should live like poor people and not like rich people. From the poor comes Torah. From them come Torah scholars,” said Shteinman.
It almost goes without saying that the rabbi, like all his colleagues in the Haredi leadership, viewed the Internet as an extremely destructive force for the community, describing it in 2014 as “the greatest corrupter” of our generation” and as “far from the righteous path.”
He never banned Internet usage, understanding the limits of his power, but spoke of it negatively and warned people against using it.
Ultimately, Shteinman’s efforts as one of the most prominent leaders of the Haredi community in the late 20th and early 21st century were designed to shepherd his flock through the tumult of modernity and the increasing demands of the state, and to ensure that they remain unscathed by all of it.
He was not in any way a modernizer, and sought to continue the splendid isolation of the community from broader Israeli society in order to preserve the people’s strict devotion to the Torah and Haredi Judaism.
But in spite of Shteinman’s positions, the Haredi community has indeed begun to change.
Men, and women, faced enormous difficulties supporting their large families and so employment among Haredi men began to rise in 2003 and topped 50% by 2016, although this figure contracted slightly in the last year.
Some 13,000 Haredi men and women were in higher education as of 2016, compared to 5,500 in 2011, approximately 50% of the community has some form of access to the Internet, and enlistment rates to the IDF in recent years has reached cumulatively over 30% of the annual cohort.
But despite Shteinman’s strong adherence to the principles of Haredi isolation and Torah study above all else, he did not oppose the new trends that were taking root in the community.
Although this stance appears to be passive and even negligent, in truth it was a relatively brave position in the face of more hard-line, conservative elements in the Haredi leadership who seek to oppose every process in which members of the community adjust their lives to allow them to gain a profession and a support themselves financially and thereby become more a part of Israeli society.
Prof. Menachem Friedman, an expert on Haredi society, says that the community members by the later 1990s and early 2000s were “voting with their feet” and embarking on this process to gain greater financial security because their situation was simply not tenable.
As we have seen in the years when Shteinman formally took over the reins of leadership, a hard-line leader has gained public prominence and is fighting a fierce war to halt and reverse these processes.
In the ultra-traditional and ultra-conservative Haredi world, Shteinman’s inclination not to oppose these changes, not to try and hold back the sea, but instead to allow a new generation to go along its own path, is nevertheless a significant and important decision which will have a major bearing on the future of the community.