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.
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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.
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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
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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


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