(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Veteran haredi parliamentarian Rabbi Avraham Ravitz died overnight Sunday at Jerusalem's Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem due to heart complications.
From an early age, the Tel Aviv-born Ravitz was an activist and a maverick. As a teen he joined the Lehi, a militaristic, anti-British paramilitary organization influenced by the philosophies of the secular Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
In 1951, a year after it was established, he joined Pe'ilei Hamahaneh Hatorati, a precursor to Yad Le'Achim, an organization that fights missionary activities by Christians and other religious sects in Israel.
Ravitz became friendly with Rabbi Shalom Dov Lipshitz, Yad Le'Achim's chairman, when the two studied together at the Hebron Yeshiva, one of the elite institutions of higher education for haredi men.
He also organized demonstrations and gave fiery speeches against attempts by the secular Zionist establishment to inculcate new immigrants from Muslim countries with anti-religious ideology. In addition, he fought for the establishment of separate school systems for traditional-minded Jews and helped lead the fight against autopsies, considered by the Orthodox to be a desecration of the human body.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Ravitz became involved with the burgeoning Israeli "Tshuvah" movement, which disseminated religious Jewish thought among secular Israelis.
Together with Rabbi "Ika" Yisraeli, who owned an apartment in Tel Aviv, he began teaching young secular Israelis classic Jewish texts with the goal of winning them over to an Orthodox lifestyle. Eventually, this outreach activity became known as the "Israeli branch" of the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva.
Mordechai Arnon, who met him for the first time in the 1980s in Yisraeli's apartment, said that Ravitz had been a superb teacher. "I still remember how he taught me Maimonides's Eight Chapters," recalled Arnon, who was brought up secular and became a celebrated Israeli singer and comedian known as "Poopick" before embracing a haredi lifestyle.
Arnon was introduced to Ravitz by an actor friend and was most impressed by the future MK's home life.
"Kids in the Ravitz family would fight for the right to help their mother wash dishes and clean the house," recalled Arnon. "I was totally dumbfounded by the incredible atmosphere of cooperation and love in Rabbi Ravitz's house."
Arnon maintained contact with the Ravitzes for the past three decades, at one point spending every other Shabbat with them after going through a divorce.
"Nineteen years ago to the day my father passed away," Arnon said. "Today I feel as though I have lost a second father."
In 1988, Rabbi Menachem Elazar Man Shach, at the time the undisputed spiritual leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, tapped Ravitz to serve in the 12th Knesset as a representative of the newly-created Degel Hatorah Party, which Shach established after a falling out with the Hassidic rabbinical leadership of the Agudat Yisrael Party.
Yisraeli said that Ravitz had no doubts whatsoever. "He has always been an activist," he said. "He aspired to be in the Knesset."
During his two-decade stint as a parliamentarian, Ravitz was close to Shach and later to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman, who, like Shach, was connected to the spiritual leadership of the Bnei Brak-based Ponevezh Yeshiva.
In more conservative haredi circles, however, Ravitz was a controversial figure. According to Ya'acov Eichler, a veteran haredi journalist and commentator, he embraced a conciliatory approach to politics.
"Instead of fighting an uncompromising war against military service for yeshiva students like we did against military service for religious women, Ravitz supported the Tal Law and the Nahal Haharedi," Eichler said.
The Tal Law opened the way for yeshiva students to enter the work force by allowing them to do volunteer work instead of army service. Before that, those seeking to postpone their induction were obligated to devote all of their time to yeshiva studies. Nahal Haredi is a special IDF track for haredi soldiers.
Both the Tal Law and Nahal Haharedi were strongly opposed by most of the haredi leadership.
"Ravitz had a way of announcing that Rabbi Steinman favored a particular issue and only later asking his opinion," said Eichler, who reckoned that Ravitz adopted his compromising approach during the time he was involved with Ohr Somayach.
Shmuel Poppenheim, a spokesman for the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Edah Haredit, criticized Ravitz for his liberal views on army service and educational reforms.
"We remember with fondness the Ravitz of his heyday as a zealot who fought against autopsies and against missionary activities," Poppenheim said. "But as an MK, Ravitz developed all sorts of independent ideas that he advanced quietly and deceptively."
Ravitz held a number of positions in the Knesset. Like other Ashkenazi haredi MKs, however, he never served as a full cabinet minister due to a theological distinction made by haredi spiritual leaders that by becoming ministers, haredi politicians would be indirectly responsible for a wide range of forbidden activities, including the desecration of Shabbat.
In June 1990, he was appointed deputy minister of housing and construction. When Ariel Sharon formed a new government in 2001, he became deputy minister of education, and in March 2005 was appointed deputy minister of welfare and social services. He retained his Knesset seat in the 2006 election.
In 2002, Ravitz was at the center of an inspiring family story. After he suffered kidney failure, his wife and children volunteered to donate one of their own organs to save him. His wife and daughters were disqualified for medical reasons, as were three of his sons. But his remaining two sons continued to fight for the right to donate the kidney. Eventually, one of his grandchildren chose lots to decide the matter.
Last November, Ravitz announced that he was leaving politics, although he continued to serve as chairman of Degel HaTorah. Earlier this month, he was hospitalized at Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem with heart problems. He is survived by his wife, 12 children and 77 grandchildren.
President Shimon Peres praised Ravitz as the "true symbol of a public servant," citing, in addition to his leadership as a politician, the example he set as a rabbi, educator, soldier and member of Lehi.
He was often a bridge between the Lithuanian Torah world and mainstream Israel, a man opposed to coercion, preferring persuasion through teaching, said Peres. He was a man who combined Torah scholarship with universal wisdom and knowledge.
When arguing with him, Peres recalled, one was careful not to denigrate his opinions.
Last September, barely able to walk, Ravitz headed the Degel Hatorah delegation that met with Peres prior to the president's decision to ask Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to form a government, a task in which she failed.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.