Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was known throughout Israel as the posek hador − the generation’s leading arbiter on matters of halakha, or Jewish religious law.
But among the quarter million people who attended his funeral on Wednesday, how many knew what his halakhic rulings actually said? Not many, to judge by a group of young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men we questioned during the procession. Not a single one could answer.
And indeed, it’s a difficult question, because unlike many halakhic scholars, Elyashiv never wrote a single book − not even a collection of halakhic responsa. Nevertheless, the halakhic policy of the man who led the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) faction of Israeli Haredim can be summed up in four words − a mantra that his students say he frequently recited in response to questions: “I’m afraid to change.”
Elyashiv saw halakhic decision-making as a dangerous enterprise, and often spoke of his fear of making an incorrect decision. And that fear outweighed all other considerations: the good of the state, political correctness and popular approval.
Most of his rulings were answers to questions posed by individuals about day-to-day affairs, and these were later collected into books by his students.
For instance, he told several couples that instrumental music was forbidden at weddings in Jerusalem, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Once, he backed out of officiating at a wedding scheduled to take place the very next day after learning that the couple did intend to have a band. “They can find another rabbi,” he said.
But the very fact that he was willing to answer such questions contributed to his status, said Dr. Ariel Picard of Bar-Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Many rabbis are unwilling to take responsibility,” he said. “But Rabbi Elyashiv was known as a decision-maker. If you went to him, you’d get an answer.”
Nevertheless, Picard added, Elyashiv often refused to explain his decisions − in contrast to many great halakhic arbiters of the past, who offered detailed explanations of their reasoning.
One example of Elyashiv’s aversion to change was his refusal to approve organ donations from people who were declared brain dead. He insisted that halakha doesn’t recognize brain death; the only death it recognizes is when the heart stops beating, so taking organs from someone whose heart still beats is tantamount to murder. He maintained this view even after witnessing the well-known experiment in which a sheep’s heart is kept beating even after its head is cut off. And given his reputation as the posek hador, that view guided many other rabbis, including the state’s official chief rabbis.
Elyashiv also opposed the state-run conversion courts, and he upheld a ruling by his student, rabbinical court Judge Avraham Sherman, retroactively invalidating thousands of conversions performed by these courts. If evidence emerges that a convert never intended to observe Jewish law, then the conversion is null and void, Elyashiv ruled.
But the late journalist Adam Baruch, in his book “Hayeinu” (“Our Lives”), insisted that Elyashiv was much more open-minded than most Israelis gave him credit for. As an example, he cited Elyashiv’s decision to back Efrat, an organization that tries to prevent abortions by offering pregnant women financial and other support, despite Haredi reservations about unwed mothers.
Sherman, Elyashiv’s student, said the rabbi’s attitude toward halakha stemmed mainly from his view that halakha is the principal vehicle for serving God. Citing the Talmudic dictum that “since the Temple was destroyed, God has no place in this world but the four walls of halakha,” Sherman said that Elyashiv adhered to this view − and in so doing, “he connected us to sanctity.”
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