Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Sacks: The legacy of two Jewish leaders - opinion

Over the past year and a half, two of the prominent rabbinic figures of our time have passed away.

 Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather during the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the streets near the cemetery  in the city of Bnei Brak, on March 20, 2022 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather during the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the streets near the cemetery in the city of Bnei Brak, on March 20, 2022
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

What are the defining characteristics of leadership? What does it take to leave a lasting legacy?

Over the past year and a half, two of the prominent rabbinic figures of our time have passed away. They both left millions of followers mourning their deaths and celebrating their lives. What they shared was common heritage and faith.

Yet, their personalities, course of their lives and focus of their works were worlds apart. The respective cores of their greatness were antithetical and they touched people in vastly different ways. One left a handbook on how to live day by day, the other, a guide as to how to live life.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was born into the highest ranks of Lithuanian haredi nobility in 1928 in Pinsk, which at that time was part of Poland. In 1934, his family immigrated to Israel and settled in Bnei Brak which was to become his bastion. He was schooled exclusively in yeshivas, yet he served in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1948 war.

But, his place was behind a shtender, surrounded by books. For 17 hours a day, month after month, decade following decade, he pored over the classical Jewish works, returning again and again to those same well worn texts, honing his understanding, with the sharpest intellect and undivided dedication. He held no official position, did not lead a congregation or yeshiva and had no use for worldly pleasures, living in a tiny apartment on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak. Given the esteem in which he was held, his humility was staggering. He was no great orator, almost never gave shiurim and spoke sparingly, but he wrote prolifically.

 CHIEF RABBI Jonathan Sacks handing over the position to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at a ceremony in London in 2013. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS) CHIEF RABBI Jonathan Sacks handing over the position to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at a ceremony in London in 2013. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

The reverence he attracted was not based on charismatic sermonizing or ground breaking theses. Rather it stemmed from an admiration for the sharpness of his mind, diligence of his study and the depth of his Judaic knowledge, which was so vast that he was trusted to make halachic rulings that hundreds of thousands considered definitive. His adherents willingly complied with his wide ranging rulings, on matters ranging from the use of marijuana to the kashrut of grasshoppers.

For decades he studied and wrote in relative solitude. But following the death of his father, the famed Steipler Rebbe, and having received countless requests, he began providing public guidance and accepting visitation at his humble abode. He was not widely known outside of his huge haredi constituency until the beginnings of the corona crisis, when he communicated extremely contentious instructions to his flock. Many believe that aged 92 at the time, he was manipulated by his close entourage.

Be that as it may, he soon understood the dire ramifications of his pronouncements and amended his rulings. This ability to change course is a testament to his lack of ego and, I believe, a direct consequence of his methodology of poring over the same texts again and again, relentlessly self-evaluating and fine tuning his thought in the service of truth.

Chaim Kanievsky died at the age of 94, his funeral bringing together hundreds of thousands who venerated him.

How different, the journey and impact of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Born in London in 1948 to a textile seller with very little Jewish knowledge, he was schooled at St Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College, Finchley and completed his higher education at Cambridge, where he studied Moral Philosophy. It was only when he was in his twenties that Sacks was persuaded to pursue the rabbinate, inspired by Rabbis Schneerson and Soloveitchik. By the age of 30, he had been appointed rabbi of a large London congregation and within 13 years he was elected Chief Rabbi of the United Orthodox synagogues of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. He held professorships and received many prestigious awards and titles, too many to mention here.

The source of Sacks’ greatness lay in his gigantic intellect, original thought and incredible oratory powers. As with Kanievsky, he dug deep within, but rather than resolving the day to day dilemmas of a close constituency, Sacks reached out to the world and touched millions of co-religionists across the range of observance and thought and more so, a multitude of gentiles. His 35-odd books cover the gamut, from commentary on the traditional texts to deep philosophical and moral reasoning. What runs through them all is brilliant prose, the search for life’s essence and ways to enhance the world.

He possessed the ability to weave a narrative of meaning, gathering the thoughts of great intellects across a vast range of endeavor, unafraid to adopt the wisdom and truth of other philosophies. Sacks was an internationally sought-out speaker and used online media prolifically to communicate his thoughts. His response to Corona was to publicly recite a prayer for the health of all people and to encourage united global action. Dying at the age of 72 during the height of the crisis, his funeral was attended by 30 sanctioned mourners.

Despite, or perhaps because of the vast differences between these two men, their legacies are complementary. One was known as the Prince of Torah, the other as Lord and Professor, yet both were essentially humble men. Rabbi Kanievsky answered the questions of his huge, like-minded flock, whereas Rabbi Sacks encouraged a heterogeneous global following to ask questions.

Kanievsky’s world centered on his modest living room. He did not own a mobile phone and his son Shlomo remembers him making two phone calls in his life. As for Sacks, the world was his living room, flying frequently across the globe, meeting with presidents and popes, and making speeches at many prestigious venues.

I am reminded of Jacob’s ladder, firmly planted on earth and reaching to the heavens. Mankind is constantly in need of emissaries striving for heights and those with their feet solidly grounded. Rabbi’s Kanievsky and Sacks fulfilled the very different requirements of so many by dedicating their lives to contemplation and care. What they both possessed was clarity of vision, integrity, intelligence and deep belief.

Whether or not you subscribe to their teachings, it is likely that the legacy of both these men will echo through the ages of Jewish thought and wisdom.

This article is dedicated to my friend, MP.

The writer is the author of Poetry in the Parasha.