Kanievsky's generation of leaders is dying out - analysis

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky's death leaves Degel Hatorah under the firm control of Ponevezh Yeshiva head Rabbi Gershon Edelstein.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein  (photo credit: COURTESY OF OFFICE OF RABBI GERSHON EDELSTEIN)
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein
(photo credit: COURTESY OF OFFICE OF RABBI GERSHON EDELSTEIN)

Before Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away in 2013, when Shas officials were asked who would succeed him, they would initially compare him to Moses and say he would live until 120.

Only when the Shas officials made sure they were completely off record, and only after looking over their shoulder a couple of times to make sure no one was listening, did they point to Rabbi Ovadia’s successor: Rabbi Ovadia – or rather, the rabbi’s picture on the wall.

The Shas officials remarked that the Lubavitcher Rebbe also was replaced by a picture on the wall and that Chabad has expanded by leaps and bounds since the rebbe’s departure. The officials said they expected the traditional Sephardi masses who voted for Shas because of their respect for Rabbi Ovadia to continue to do so after his death.

Formally, Rabbi Shalom Cohen took Rabbi Ovadia’s title as head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages. But during all the election campaigns since then, Rabbi Ovadia’s face has still dominated the party’s ads, and the average Shas voter doesn’t even know what Cohen looks like.

That strategy has worked for Shas, which has remained relatively strong.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country on Tisha Be'Av. (credit: SHUKI LERRER)Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country on Tisha Be'Av. (credit: SHUKI LERRER)

United Torah Judaism, by contrast, has been less obsessed with its leaders. Rabbi Elazar Shach of UTJ’s Degel Hatorah Party had a dominating presence, but his successors made sure to put the Torah front and center. UTJ’s other party, Agudat Yisrael, is made up of hassidic sects whose mentors are their rebbes.

Since Shach, Degel Hatorah has gone through many Torah giants as its mentor, including Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, and since Steinman’s death, Rabbi Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who passed away on Friday.

Each had their own approach and influence. Each was involved in making decisions for the party in a different way.

Kanievsky’s departure leaves Degel under the firm control of Ponevezh Yeshiva head Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. Unlike Kanievsky, who never held a formal position and learned Torah full time, Edelstein has been a leader for tens of thousands of students and proven his leadership over decades.

Edelstein could have an easier time relating to the mundane political questions that will be asked of him. For instance, he may have to decide whether to join the next government and whether to keep the party firmly on the Right or return to holding the balance of power.

But Edelstein turns 99 next month. He is the last of his generation that was educated in European yeshivas before the Holocaust.

Whenever he passes away, the aura of rabbis of that generation will go with him. There will be a significant leadership vacuum that will leave with him.

But at that point, the party can use the pictures of many of its past leaders in its ads. Time will tell whether those pictures prove nearly as effective as in Shas and Chabad.