It is not easy to find men who are recognized by the public to be righteous Torah scholars, as these are few and far between. So when three such people die in one year, it is significant.
The past few months saw the deaths of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the head of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem; Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, the head of Yeshivat Torah Ohr in Jerusalem and, most recently, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an arbiter of Jewish law and leader of the Lithuanian-haredi community in Israel and abroad.
These men were the focal point for entire communities and they were often called upon to assist individuals in making life-altering decisions.
Finkel (1943-2011) was born in Chicago.
He was a great-grandson of the Alter of Slabodka, an influential leader of Orthodox Judaism in Eastern Europe and founder of the Slabodka Yeshiva in the town of Vilijampol, Lithuania, after whom he was named.
Finkel, nicknamed Natty, grew up as a typical American Jewish boy. He enjoyed playing baseball and was a starting center fielder for the baseball team at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a co-ed high school.
A cousin recognized his talents and diligence and invited him to study in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he ended up at age 18. Eventually, he became the man capable of running one of the most famous yeshivot today.
Other notable rabbis who studied under the tutelage of the Alter of Slabodka are Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman and Rabbi Aharon Kotler – all of whom would go on to lead communities in America.
Finkel’s legacy is one of perseverance.
Although struck with Parkinson’s disease that left him trembling constantly, he struggled to maintain a normal schedule and often traveled abroad to raise money for his yeshiva.
Those who ever held audience with him appear to have been awed by his ability to rise above his physical disability and often walked away with a fresh perspective on life.
SCHEINBERG (1910-2012) was a Polishborn, American-raised, Israeli haredi rabbi and head of yeshiva who, from 1965, made his home in the Kiryat Mattersdorf neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was the head of the Torah Ohr yeshiva in Kiryat Mattersdorf and Yeshivat Derech Chaim in Brooklyn. He was a posek (halachic decisor), gadol hador (great of his generation) and one of the last living Torah scholars to have been educated in the yeshivot of prewar Europe.
Scheinberg and his wife spent their first five years of marriage in the town of Mir, Belarus (then Poland). They lived next door to the yeshiva, where Scheinberg immersed himself in study. He developed a reputation as one of the yeshiva’s most diligent students and was one of the few American students at the Mir.
He was also famous for wearing many layers of tzitzit (ritual fringed garments).
At first, he wore about 150 pairs, but later, due to his declining health, he wore only about 70 pairs.
ELYASHIV (1910-2012) was born the same year as Scheinberg and died the same year as well. He was a haredi rabbi and posek who lived in Jerusalem. Until his death at the age of 102, Elyashiv was the paramount leader of both the Israeli and the Diaspora Lithuanian-haredi community, and many Ashkenazi Jews regarded him as the posek hador, the contemporary leading authority on Halacha.
At the suggestion of the chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, Elyashiv married a daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. They had five sons and seven daughters.
Elyashiv, stern and cold in appearance and mannerism, appeared to have little patience.
One of his daughters is quoted in an interview as saying he was uninvolved in raising his 12 children and had little interaction with them.
Regardless, he was known for his vast knowledge and ability to judge difficult cases.
Elyashiv can be lightly compared to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, who was world-renowned for his expertise in Halacha and was regarded by many as the de facto supreme halachic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America during his lifetime. In the Orthodox world, he is widely referred to simply as “Reb Moshe,” and his halachic rulings are widely quoted in contemporary rabbinic literature.
Feinstein, also known to be stern, was revered by many as the gadol hador, including by Rabbis Kamenetsky, Kotler, Elyashiv and Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler), even though several of them were far older than he. He was also recognized by many as the preeminent Torah sage and posek of his generation.
FINKEL AND Scheinberg appear to have had similar personalities in that they were warm individuals who made themselves approachable even to strangers.
The three men epitomize what haredi youth are encouraged to become. Together, their personalities are a sum of the haredi ideal – to become talmidei hachamim (Torah scholars) and tzadikim (righteous people).
There is no doubt these three men rose to great personal heights. It also goes without saying that if it hadn’t been for their wives, they would not have been able to become the men they were.
It is unfortunate, then, that the very community that insists its youth emulate revered rabbis does not give them the chance to study how these rabbis became so honored.
When Kamenetsky’s son, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, wrote his book, Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities, he was slammed by no small number of rabbis and zealots for exposing the perceived ugly side of becoming a tzadik and talmid haham.
His attempt to show how the Torah sages of his father’s generation became great was shot down by those who felt it was inappropriate to expose the faults of the rabbis. (Both Elyashiv and Scheinberg were signatories to the letter banning the book.) It is almost like expecting young athletes to become another Michael Jordan without showing them the special talent with which he was gifted in addition to the many hours of hard work and practice he put in to perfect his game.
The successes of these rabbis are well-known, but few, if any, of their failures ever became public knowledge. Few know how they formulated strategies and perfected their own game.
In a recent article titled “Rabbi Elyashiv’s empty legacy,” journalist Anshel Pfeffer criticizes Elyashiv, writing, “He bears the responsibility for stifling any internal debate on resolving the tensions between an insular and traditional community and the modern Israeli society within which it exists and refusing to come up with solutions to the challenges threatening the sustainability of the haredi model in the 21st century. He could have used this unique opportunity to prepare his followers for the inevitable clash with the outside world, but he preferred to stop the clocks and freeze them in time... A century from now, Rabbi Elyashiv will not be revered as a Torah giant, but as a reactionary figure by the few who remember him.”
While he is right about Elyashiv’s rigid approach to Halacha, Pfeffer is wrong about his legacy.
These rabbis, including Elyashiv, will live on for generations, as other great rabbis have, in the memory of hundreds of thousands. Generations to come will hear the legendary stories attributed to these men.
The question is whether the rabbis’ failures and subsequent struggles to become who they were will also become part of their legacy.