Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the 94-year-old head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, was the only person allowed to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of the leader of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shteinman, who died on Tuesday at 104. In the view of many, with that appearance at the funeral, which was attended by hundreds of thousands, Edelstein assumed the mantle of leadership that Shteinman had held. “There is no need for an official ceremony transferring the leadership mantle to Rabbi Edelstein,” a very close associate of Shteinman and Edelstein told Haaretz during the funeral procession for Shteinman on Tuesday. “That’s simply the reality. There is no one else,” the source said, adding: “It’s the end of an era. There are many who claim that Rabbi Shteinman was the last great one of a generation of the ultra-Orthodox public,” and that the future will be different.
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As Shteinman’s physical condition weakened in recent years, increasing authority was transferred to Edelstein in decision-making for the non-Hasidic, or Lithuanian, ultra-Orthodox community, as it is known. Edelstein’s leadership role was also reflected at a meeting several months ago of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Council of Torah Sages on the subject of Shabbat observance in Israel.
When journalists entered the room towards the end of the meeting, the rabbis were seen gathering around Edelstein, who had a pen and paper on which the council’s decision on the issue was written. He appeared to be in total control of the session. His increasing power has also become apparent in light of those who have been acceding to his authority, as Knesset members from the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah faction of the United Torah Judaism party began taking orders from him, as has the staff of the Degel Hatorah daily, Yated Ne’eman.
Speaking to Haaretz about Edelstein’s leadership style, a senior figure in Degel Hatorah who has been in daily contact with Edelstein in recent years, said “with minor, semantic changes, there is no difference between him and Rabbi Shteinman.” Edelstein is “extremely discerning, knowing exactly what he wants and exactly where he wants to go. He has no problem making difficult decisions and taking responsibility,” the source said.
Like Shteinman, Edelstein is “a pragmatist in the full sense of the word,” the Degel Hatorah source said. “On the issue of Shabbat, for example, he has taken a very pragmatic and moderate line that led the ultra-Orthodox parties not to quit, and even didn’t threaten to quit the [government coalition].”
The issue of Israel Railway’s Shabbat maintenance work had precipitated a coalition crisis with ultra-Orthodox factions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in late November, and prompted Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism to resign as health minister, and requesting instead that he run the ministry as deputy minister. Litzman is affiliated with the Gur Hasidic community, whose rabbinical leader, or admor in Hebrew, took a strong stand on the Sabbath work issue.
The Degel Hatorah source told Haaretz that Edelstein had asked that a loophole in the Shabbat labor laws be rectified, “and with that, the issue ended, without extremism, without threats and without a feeling of owning the country.”
“He understands that we don’t live in a country governed by halakha,” the source said, referring to traditional Jewish religious law, “and there is no way to impose religion on anyone, and that’s the path that he set down, despite the fact that there were a considerable number of rabbis who thought there was a need to go to all-out war over it.”
“Even after the recent resignation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from the cabinet against the backdrop of desecration of the Sabbath, Rabbi Edelstein did not get dragged into the decision of the admor of Gur, remaining cool-headed and deciding not to walk away. He didn’t surrender to the dictates, and dictated different priorities, first dealing with the draft of [ultra-Orthodox] yeshiva students and only then trying to maintain Shabbat observance.”
The burden of leading non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy will be shared with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, also of Bnei Brak, but the last word will be Edelstein’s. In recent years, Kanievsky has attained special status as a figure accepted by all factions of the ultra-Orthodox public, other than the extremist Jerusalem faction, and has also gained even broader recognition. As a result, Kanievsky has major influence in who succeeds Shteinman. In recent years, he has given his full backing to Edelstein, thereby strengthening his standing.
One of the major challenges facing Edelstein will be how he relates to the Jerusalem faction, which is headed by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. Over the years, Shteinman avoided conflict at any price with representatives of the wider Israeli public – including the army and academia – or with other factions of the ultra-Orthodox public, including the Hasidic Chabad movement. But when it came to the Jerusalem faction, he opposed it without compromise.
For example, when representatives of Degel Hatorah suggested before the last Knesset elections in 2015 that a compromise be reached with the Jerusalem faction and that they be brought into the fold, Shteinman refused, even at the price of major conflict, which was directed at him personally.
“The rabbi would not accept them under any circumstances,” a senior official in Degel Hatorah said. “There were contacts between representatives on a peace agreement, but Rabbi Shteinman vetoed it. As he saw it, Rabbi Auerbach’s approach is irresponsible and could lead to annihilation of the ultra-Orthodox public and Torah world.” Now it is Edelstein who must face the issue and who will need the full backing of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva heads if he is to deal with it successfully.