Rabbi's Death Could Splinter Ultra-Orthodox

Yosef Shalom Elyashiv Could Be Last Consensus Haredi Leader

Revered Rabbi: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is carried from his home in Jerusalem. The Haredi rabbi may be followed by different leaders competing for prominence.
getty images
Revered Rabbi: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is carried from his home in Jerusalem. The Haredi rabbi may be followed by different leaders competing for prominence.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 19, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Israel’s most revered rabbi, died on July 18 at the age of 102, he left his community at a crossroads.

Elyashiv, broadly accepted as the leader of the “Lithuanian” Haredi community — meaning all Ashkenazi Haredim who aren’t members of a Hasidic sect — took this important post from another consensus leader, Elazar Menachem Shach, upon Shach’s death, in 2001.

During his 11 years at the community’s reins, the Jerusalem-based rabbi has promoted the same kind of religious conservatism as his predecessor: He encouraged the growing push toward gender segregation, opposed any imposition of a secular school curriculum on Haredi boys schools and condemned all moves to draft Haredim into the army.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
wikicommons
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv

Such positions worked wonders in uniting Haredim against perceived threats to their way of life from secular Israel, and his declarations provided what many thousands accepted as the “authentic” Jewish stance on these issues. But when it came to his attempts to regulate how Haredim live their own lives in their own communities, Elyashiv’s edicts didn’t have the desired effect.

Many of the same Haredim who cite him as the revered authority whose rulings mean there is no way they can go to the army nevertheless surf the Internet — an activity he flatly condemned. Under his watch, more and more Haredim have started to enter secular higher education, despite his opposition. And while he attached the same importance to large families as previous leaders of his community and never relaxed the Haredi antipathy to family planning, Haredi women were averaging one fewer baby by 2010 than they were five years earlier — 6.5 instead of 7.5.

And so, his death raises the question of whether the future leadership of his community will continue his ultra-conservatism or make some concessions to the modernizing tendencies that exist in certain areas of Haredi life. Some in his community see all his positions as sacred; others believe that there must be an improvement in the educational and economic level of the community, which can come about only by an engagement (carefully regulated by rabbis) with secular society for such purposes as professional training.

In all likelihood, Elyashiv will turn out to have been the last consensus leader of the Lithuanian Haredim. He will be followed by different leaders competing for prominence who will take different positions on this question. None will propose revolution, and initially they will not differentiate themselves from each other on questions of modernity and wider society. Over the coming months, however, some will subtly accept evolution in Haredi norms.

Signs of fracture in the community and the emergence of rival leaderships are already evident. A few days before Elyashiv died, there was a previously unthinkable media development in his community. Yated Ne’eman, the only rabbinical-endorsed newspaper, suddenly had a competitor endorsed by rabbis of similar stature, Ha-Peles. In fact, the new newspaper is run by Yated staff appointed years ago by Shach, Elyashiv’s predecessor, but later ousted in a coup of sorts. Yated’s new management since then has been loyal to one man believed to be jostling for Elyashiv’s position: 98-year-old Aharon Leib Shteinman. Ha-Peles is loyal to another potential successor to Elyashiv, 86-year-old Shmuel Auerbach.

This development in the Haredi media is a sign of things to come in the post-Elyashiv era. Many secular Israelis imagine, and hope for, something akin to a party primary, with various rabbis going head to head on the issue of the Haredi world’s approach to wider society. This won’t happen. But as at Yated, where a personal rivalry has broken an important monopoly on information, the competition between different rabbis for prominence will lead to a less centralized system of authority. In this less tightly controlled setting, different approaches on key issues are likely to emerge.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.