Death of a rabbinic giant

For over a decade, ‘Lithuanian’ haredim turned to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as spiritual, social guide.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
(photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
The foremost rabbi of the Ashkenazi non-hassidic haredi community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, died on Wednesday afternoon in Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center at the age of 102.
The rabbi may turn out to be the last of the undisputed leaders of the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” haredi community, whose members are accustomed to the security of a clear religious and moral authority to direct their lives.
For more than a decade the ultra-Orthodox world has looked to Elyashiv for its spiritual and social guidance. The lack of a consensus leader with the authority of former rabbinic figures may be a turning point for the haredi community in Israel.
Elyashiv succeeded to the role of posek hador (leading arbiter of Jewish law) following the death of Rabbi Menachem Elazar Shach in 2001, and to a large degree continued the conservative path of his groundbreaking predecessor.
Shach was the fiery haredi leader who broke with the Agudath Yisrael movement that had traditionally represented the haredi world in Israel, but is now the domain of hassidic Jewry.
He formed the Degel Hatorah Party in 1988 as the home of nonhassidic haredim, and adopted a hostile approach to wider Israeli society, which Elyashiv largely continued.
Elyashiv, having less charisma and dynamism than Shach, sought to preserve the established order. Like Shach before him, Elyashiv set the political stance for Degel Hatorah and instructed the party’s elected representatives in the Knesset on all matters of public policy. He thereby exercised significant influence within Israeli political life, as well as over the lifestyle and direction of the Lithuanian haredi community.
The Degal Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties today make up United Torah Judaism.
And on the critical question of ultra-Orthodox accommodation to the demands of broader Israeli society, Elyashiv took a firm and uncompromising stance, opposing the growing phenomenon of the “new haredim” – those from a small but growing segment of the community who serve in the IDF and have joined the mainstream labor force.
This was in evidence as late as December, shortly before the severe deterioration in his health, when Elyashiv spoke out against the integration of haredim into mainstream society, declaring that haredi educational institutions must be under the control of the rabbis and exclude all paths that lead to national service, secular studies, or the army, since this would put haredim under the control and culture of secular Jews.
Born in 1910 in Siauliai (Shavel in Yiddish), Lithuania, Elyashiv was the only child of Rabbi Avraham Erener and Chaya Musha, born to them 17 years after they married. The family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1922.
Elyashiv married his wife of 65 years, Sheina Chaya, in 1929, on the recommendation of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, and the couple had 12 children.
He served for many years as a rabbinical judge in the Chief Rabbinate and on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, during which time his stature as one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Jewish law, or Halacha, grew rapidly.
Recognized for his outstanding scholarship in Talmudic law, the published works of Elyashiv are largely compilations of his rulings on Jewish law and responsa to questions posed to him over his many years as a leading halachic authority.
In the late 1980s, Shach, whose health was declining, called on Elyashiv to take on a greater role in the leadership of the Lithuanian haredi community that gradually increased during the 1990s as Shach withdrew from public life.
Shach essentially anointed Elyashiv to be his successor, a role he assumed in 2001 when Shach died.
For a society used to being able to turn to an ultimate authority for answers, the death of Elyashiv may well mark a turning point in the history of the haredi community in Israel at which the security and sanctuary of one supreme spiritual guide was taken away and replaced with the uncertainty of several lesser lights.