The Haredi leadership has experienced tumultuous times over the last five years, and the passing of the “leader of the generation” of Haredi Jewry, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, on Tuesday will further complicate the picture.The situation as it appears at the moment is that there will be no clear “leader of the generation,” and that two figures, Rabbis Haim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, will assume some form of joint leadership in matters of public policy for the Haredi community. Kanievsky, 89, has for many years been one of the most revered and respected rabbis in the community, referred to as the “Prince of Torah” and whose advice and blessings are sought out by many thousands of people.He has traditionally refrained from taking responsibility for public leadership and would often defer to Shteinman, and refer those asking weighty questions of communal importance to his senior colleague.Kanievsky has of late, however, become more involved in such decisions, especially as Shteinman’s health began to decline, and has been more willing to issue instructions.Edelstein, 94, is the dean of the renowned Ponovizeh Yeshiva and has been groomed for public leadership by Shteinman and Kanievsky. In recent years, he had the honorific “maran,” meaning “our master,” appended to his name in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, and was asked to make decisions on issues of public matters which Shteinman felt unfamiliar with.
According to one source close to the rabbinic leadership, a situation could now develop in which Kanievsky and Edelstein coordinate with each other when the political leadership of the Degel Hatorah party (part of United Torah Judaism) that represents the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” Haredi community needs rabbinic guidance on a matter of public policy.The politicians have been consulting with both figures during Shteinman’s last months of illness, and it seems that this situation will continue.Kanievsky is perhaps even more highly considered than Edelstein, but his previous reluctance to take a position of public leadership may mean that the latter will bear a significant part of the burden when it comes to decision-making on matters affecting the Haredi public.Given this state of affairs, it would seem that the period of an undisputed “leader of the generation” is over. Until his last illness, Shteinman was the ultimate authority whom no one in the mainstream Lithuanian community would challenge or gainsay.Now there appears to be two leaders, and however much they coordinate and cooperate, they constitute two addresses instead of one for the political leadership to consult with.And the Lithuanian community has also been riven by a hitherto unheard of political divide which took root when the former leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv died in 2012.Although Shteinman was acknowledged by the leading rabbis as the “leader of the generation,” including by Kanievsky, prominent leader and ultra-conservative Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his entourage strongly fought to gain control over the community, and, when this ultimately failed, established their own political grouping known as the Jerusalem Faction.The Jerusalem Faction is thought to have the support of 10% to 15% of the Lithuanian community, and has established its own institutions including a political party and a newspaper, while educational institutions have grown gradually more segregated between the mainstream and the Jerusalem Faction, and marriage between members of the groups is also increasingly uncommon.Elyashiv, and Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Man Shach before him, was never challenged in this way, and their authority never undermined in this manner.If the era of the “leader of the generation” is now over, it would indicate an erosion of authority within the Haredi community and perhaps presage further division as different sub-sectors of the community follow their own rabbinic leader, and his political advice.But such political splintering looks unlikely, at least in the short term.It has been pointed out that Elyashiv, during the period of his leadership, would often defer to Shteinman and state that he relied on the latter for issues of public concern.The kind of joint leadership that existed then could be emulated by Kanievsky and Edelstein, with no impact on the clarity of instructions given to the political leadership.The two rabbis have been ever more prominent in recent years in assuming leadership roles and a level of coordination and amiable relations is already well established, so it seems almost impossible for the kind of bitter rivalry and opposition that has characterized the Jerusalem Faction’s split from the mainstream to take place amongst the current leadership.Kanievsky’s authority in particular is practically unassailable and should he wish to wield it, it seems unthinkable that he will be contradicted or challenged.
The funeral procession of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman passes through the city of Bnei Brak (Credit: Jeremy Sharon)