Looking for a leader of stature

The death of a string of luminaries in recent years has left the Orthodox world without any clear successors.

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The study hall at Yeshivat Har Etzion seemed to shake as pallbearers carried the body of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein out of the beit midrash for the final time. Many of the hundreds of former students, including some of the leading religious Zionist authorities in Israel, who had arrived at the yeshiva for early morning prayers to grab a seat for the eulogies, wept openly during the emotional service.
The scene was repeated outside the yeshiva, where thousands of mourners moved in near silence with blank stares of grief on many faces, as the funeral procession moved through the streets of Alon Shvut. “When Rabbi [founding Rosh Yeshiva Yehuda] Amital died [in 2010], I felt like the world was coming to an end. But at least Rav Aharon was still around. Now, I don’t know who is left to lead the national religious world,” said one mourner as the hearse left the settlement gates on its way to Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery.
Lichtenstein’s death was not the only one to rock the Orthodox world in Israel in April. On April 2, prominent haredi posek (halakhic decisor) Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, died on the first day of Passover, at the age of 101, the latest in a string of haredi leaders who have died in recent years, including former chief rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu (2010), and Ovadia Yosef (2013), and Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, spiritual leader of the Degel Hatorah political party (2012).
Stretching back even further, the post-World War II generation of Orthodoxy has been on the wane for decades, as European- educated luminaries such as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yosef Dov Ber Soloveitchik, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Elazar Menachem Man Shach, Moshe Zvi Neria and others have passed.
But, in contrast to previous generations, the rabbis who defined Orthodoxy in the second half of the 20th century, after the destruction wrought by the Holocaust in Europe, communism in the Soviet Union and assimilation in North America, do not appear to have left behind any clear successors. Over the same time period, however, Orthodox observance and yeshiva study has enjoyed an unprecedented resurgence with thriving communities from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak to Brooklyn to Gateshead, England, to Johannesburg, South Africa, and farther afield.
As a result, yeshivot have flourished over the past 50 years as never before. Bolstered in Israel by generous government subsidies and abroad by a fierce determination by Orthodox Holocaust survivors to rebuild the lost Judaism of Europe, today’s yeshiva population far outstrips any seminary numbers ever produced in Europe, North Africa or the Arab world. At the height of the Lithuanian yeshiva “golden age,” there were no more than 3,500 yeshiva students at any given time. Today, there are more than 8,000 full-time students at the Jerusalem branch of the Mir Yeshiva alone.
Yet, there appears to be a marked dearth of leadership in the Orthodox world, or at least a delayed adolescence. Whereas most of the men mentioned above had established themselves as leading thinkers, philosophers, theologians and halakhic authorities by the time they were in their mid-40s (Rabbi Lichtenstein was an acknowledged writer and thinker by the time he was appointed Rosh Yeshiva at Har Etzion at the age of 37; Soloveitchik, his father-in-law, published his first major theological treatise “Halakhic Man” in 1944, at the age of 41), there are no obvious luminaries on the horizon today in either haredi or modern-Orthodox circles.
“The most obvious explanation is that what we have gained in breadth, we have sacrificed in depth,” says Rabbi Ari Kahn, a senior lecturer in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University and at the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem. “There are many reasons for this, first and foremost the fact that top-level Talmud study is not for everybody.
It is for the intellectual elite, but we’ve created a system and a societal expectation that pushes everybody into Gemara (Talmud) study. In Israel, you’ve also got a societal issue in the haredi world about not serving in the Israeli army. Take away the military draft, and it isn’t clear how many yeshiva students there would be,” Kahn added.
Kahn also points to the phenomenon of formerly non-Observant Jews adopting Orthodoxy. “The ba’al teshuva phenomenon means that we have many Jews who want to observe halakha and participate in Orthodoxy, but they have no family traditions to observe. That means there is a need for simpler, more customized books. So, yes, there are more people studying in yeshiva, but the study is much more diluted than it used to be,” he says.
On a more fundamental level, Kahn suggests that present-day models of education are not conducive to creating spiritual greatness ‒ he calls the concept of school an “educational nightmare” ‒ because they are designed to nurture students toward a uniform standard of mediocrity rather than nurturing talented young people, and challenging outstanding students to greatness. He points out that a surprising number of great rabbis were not educated in yeshivot, having learned the bulk of their Torah education from their parents.
FINALLY, KAHN points out that today’s unprecedented access to books means students simply do not need the memorization skills they once did.
“The Yeshiva system does not aim for greatness or genius,” he says. “And it is important to note that genius is gained from stimulation from other geniuses. So, yes, there is more Torah learning today than ever before, but it is the worst culture of learning imaginable for greatness.”
Of course, there are alternate explanations for the apparent lack of leadership in the Orthodox world. On a simple level, one could look at the current state of Orthodoxy, as well as the overall health of the Jewish people, in historical terms as Judaism has certainly known periods during which there were no notable halakhic authorities, only to give way to outstanding scholars within a few generations.
AND THEN there is Jewish messianism, which has flourished in recent decades, both among Haredi groups like Chabad-Lubavitch and among supporters of Gush Emmunim, the branch ofreligious Zionism that views Zionism as a central component in the redemption process. The latter example is informed in large part by the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, who stood in opposition to the bulk of the Orthodox world to support secular Zionist efforts to restore a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel because he believed the return of the Jewish people to the biblical homeland represented a critical stage in the process of bringing the Messiah.
But Rabbi Kook also explained that secular nationalism ‒ the first stage of redemption‒ would eventually die out and leave the Jewish people rudderless and confused ahead of the second, final, Messianic stage. In that view, the argument could be made that the Jewish people is “cleansing itself” to make room for one overarching leader, unchallenged in his position as leader of the Jewish people, with the ability to unite Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Lithuanians and Hasidim, and who possesses the moral authority to resonate with both non- observant Jews and with the non-Jewish world.
Lastly, several Orthodox authorities argue that there is an additional element preventing the emergence of towering spiritual leaders: extremism. One individual, speaking to The Jerusalem Report on condition of anonymity because he feared backlash in his home community, said Torah greatness through the ages has often been defined not only by breadth of book knowledge, but also by the courage to make far-reaching halakhic decisions, often in the direction of leniency.
“But the extremists are running the show today,” the person said. “They are a minority, but every person with a few dollars to pay for a pashkevil [a large wall poster used for advertising events] can set community policy on issues like modest dress, even against the express wishes of the rabbinic leadership or prevailing halakhic opinion.
To illustrate the point, the individual cites the case of Manny’s, a popular bookstore in Mea She’arim that was subject to harassment by haredi extremists who demanded the owners put up signs warning immodestly dressed women to stay away. At first, the owners refused, but eventually caved in to the demands after the store suffered repeated attacks totaling more than NIS 250,000 in damage.
“That isn’t an atmosphere that encourages creative thinking or moral courage,” the person said.
Ultimately, it is important to note that nearly every individual interviewed for this article stressed their belief that the current, apparent lack of Torah scholarship is a temporary state of affairs. They also noted that great leaders often view themselves as inferior to their teachers. This is especially true in Orthodoxy, which venerates age and scholarship, in contrast to overall Western society in which the new and young are valued much more than the old. To Orthodox Jews, the opposite is true ‒ the old are valued much more, so religious leaders acquire their authority over time.
“Yes, there is a sense right now that Orthodoxy isn’t producing the leaders that will take it into the future, but it is entirely possible that now that the generation of baby boomers is entering old age, there is every chance you could see a new crop of leaders begin to emerge,” said Dr.Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College of the City University of New York, who has written extensively on contemporary Orthodoxy.
“Another relevant issue is health. People are living longer, but as long as Rabbi X is alive, no one will be recognized as the new authority. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach, but it’s the reality.”
“It’s hard to talk about a new generation of leaders so soon after the death of such a beloved rosh yeshiva and strong moral voice like Rav Aharon,” said Rabbi Menachem Schrader, founding director of the the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and a longtime student of both rabbis. “It is human nature that the death of such a towering figure will leave a void and feelings of emptiness.”
Schrader quotes the Gemara, which addresses this point: “When Rabbi Akiva died, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was born. When Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi died, Rav Yehuda was born. When Rav Yehuda died, Rava was born... This teaches us that there is no such thing as a tzaddik [righteous person] leaving this world without a tzaddik of equal stature being born.” (Kiddushin 72b) “So while it is impossible to diminish the enormity of the loss of Rav Lichtenstein, Rav Amital, Rav Soloveitchik, as well as others, we should not despair. I have no doubt we will see new luminaries emerge. But this is difficult to imagine while mourning Rav Lichtenstein’s passing and difficult to perceive when the new leadership is still up and coming,” Schrader said.