Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: Elyashiv's Greatness Was Due to His Modesty

Rabbi Yona Metzger says Elyashiv was concerned only with what halakha says, pure and simple.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was admired in the religious world not only for his halakhic rulings, but for his great modesty, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said yesterday.

Asked by Haaretz what significance Elyashiv had for Israeli society, Metzger began by noting that when hundreds of thousands of Israelis turn out at 2 A.M. for a man’s funeral, he is clearly of considerable importance. Aside from his scholarship, Metzger said, “the astonishing modesty of a man who insisted on living in a two-room apartment, with a refrigerator in the bedroom and not a square meter without books,” earned Elyashiv great admiration.

Elyashiv, Metzger continued, was concerned only with “what halakha pure and simple says. The term ‘interests’ had no voice with him.”

Asked whether Elyashiv’s image as a hard-liner who didn’t care about the state was accurate, Metzger said Elyashiv considered the Chief Rabbinate “very important,” both because “he understood its power and influence,” and because it was important to his mentor, former Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

“Many people came to ask him personal questions, and he’d lift his head from the Talmud, answer, and immediately stick his nose back in the Talmud,” Metzger said. But when the chief rabbi − in this case, Metzger − walked in, “He’d stand up. He didn’t stand up because of me, but to show that the chief rabbi of Israel is important.”

To further prove his point, Metzger cited Elyashiv’s response to then-Education Minister Limor Livnat’s complaint about ethnic discrimination in certain ultra-Orthodox schools. “He hold her flatly that if an educational institution funded by the state to accept students in a nondiscriminatory manner instead accepts students in a racist or selective manner, it’s stealing from the state,” Metzger said. “He permitted halting funding to such institutions.”

Asked whom he would consult now that Elyashiv is dead, Metzger cited both Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the Shas party, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a contender to succeed Elyashiv as head of the “Lithuanian” ‏(non-Hasidic‏) ultra-Orthodox community.

Metzger said he recently asked Steinman whether to convene a conference against state funding for Reform rabbis, and Steinman said no. “He has a very moderate and sober outlook,” Metzger said. “You have to know when to fight and when not to fight.”