Soldiers from the Nahal Haredi unit, the ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Israel Defense Forces.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The ultra-Orthodox world mourns the loss of Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community, who died this week at the age of 104. A few hundred thousand Haredim converged on Bnei Brak for his funeral, with many more Haredim watching on live stream or listening on the radio.
While the rest of Israel was just amazed by the size of the funeral and the roads that had to be shut down, the vast majority didn’t really feel any sense of loss; but they should.
Rav Shteinman was certainly a leader who walked the party line when it came to issues of religion and state. Indeed, he set the line as the spiritual leader and decision maker for Degel Hatorah, the Lithuanian faction within United Torah Judaism. The redline he and they fought hard to prevent being crossed was the integration of the Haredi population into Israeli society.
Nevertheless, there are elements of Shteinman’s leadership that have impacted broader Israel, giving reason for him to be missed by all Israelis.
Many are unaware that the Nahal Haredi unit, the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox battalion, was created with Shteinman’s blessing. I would even go one step further: it could not have been established without his approval.
The concept of the unit was not to pave the way for yeshiva boys to join the army, but rather to provide young ultra-Orthodox men who did not want to continue studying in yeshiva with a framework for army service, which also provided for their spiritual needs.
Without the support of a leading rabbi, even those who had no interest in continuing to study in a yeshiva would never have enlisted in the IDF. I vividly recall when the head of the first-ever Haredi yeshiva that combined study with military service asked for my assistance in obtaining recognition from the defense minister.
I asked whether the rabbinic leadership would condemn the project, and the yeshiva head answered that Shteinman would not come out against it. That set the stage for the yeshiva’s first class, which attracted a small group that has now increased tenfold.
It was Shteinman’s courageous blessing of the Haredi unit and his silence regarding other programs like the yeshiva-plus-service that enabled introducing the ultra-Orthodox population into the IDF, despite his continuous public criticism of any attempt to draft all yeshiva boys.
All of Israel owes him a debt of gratitude for the reality of today: more ultra-Orthodox boys serving as soldiers and officers than ever before.
Rav Shteinman was aware of the need for change in the ultra-Orthodox world, and while he didn’t publicly advocate for it, he did set the tone for a more moderate and normal approach. For example, one of his closest students, Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstein, made the following statement a few years ago: “The Holocaust came and there was a destruction of Torah. The Chazon Ish [who lived in Bnei Brak] said: ‘Now we have to establish the world of Torah anew. The Torah world was destroyed, the Torah world has to be rebuilt anew. But in order to rebuild the Torah world anew, all have to sit and learn after their weddings. Kollels must be established and the Torah world has to be rebuilt anew.’ “That is what the Chazon Ish taught. Now, is someone going to try to tell me that that was not a temporary decree? If the generations before that time did not do this, and the Chazon Ish said, ‘Because of the Holocaust we must do this.’ I want to know based on defining the words – what is ‘this’? ‘This’ is not a temporary decree? Now the Torah leaders have to decide – that temporary decree of the Chazon Ish, when does it end? Is it over, or if it’s not over, when will it be over?” A close student would not have made these statements had he not heard ideologies in this spirit from Rav Shteinman directly.
When I served as a member of Knesset from 2013 to 2015, I headed the task force that helped Haredim enter the workforce.
During that time, we saw Haredi male employment rise to over 50%, and this was only possible because of Shteinman’s quiet support of this growing trend.
Because of him, an atmosphere was established in which young men were not chastised and made to feel like outcasts for joining the workforce. That in and of itself was a major change for Haredi rabbinic leaders, and broader Israel must recognize Shteinman’s vital contribution on this front.
Finally, Shteinman was not looking to make waves and create strife with secular Israel. He certainly was capable of coming out against others in the harshest of terms, but he usually did so in one context: against Haredim whom he felt were too extreme.
For example, he led the battle against Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach’s Jerusalem Faction, which railed against any Haredim serving in the army and refused to even show up at the draft board to receive their military exemptions.
Rav Shteinman did not use rhetoric or campaign against secular Israel, a stance which has enabled some level of healing between mainstream Haredim and the rest of Israeli society. To be sure, his position was more of a passive stance, but it was nevertheless a fundamental shift away from some of the language which was often heard from previous Haredi leaders. While we have a long way to go, this stance has set the stage for improving relations in the future between these populations.
Rav Shteinman was a pious, quiet, and humble leader who strove to maintain the traditional Haredi approach, while also leaving room for change and adaptation based on the needs of the time. All of Israel should mourn his passing, with the hope that the next Haredi leader will continue this approach: enabling more Haredi integration into Israeli society, and less friction between the Haredim and the broader population.
The author served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid Party.
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