Rabbi Shteinman, Leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox and 'Greatest Rabbi of His Generation', Dies at 104

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman was regarded as a pragmatist, but he continued to believe that the only education necessary was the Torah

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, center, at an ultra-Orthodox rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
Moti Milrod

The leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, died Tuesday at the age of 104.

Over the past year, the ultra-Orthodox leader was hospitalized a number of times. This week, he returned to the hospital although initially his condition was not deemed serious. In the hours just prior to his death, his condition markedly deteriorated, prompting leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community to halt study at yeshivas around the country to devote their attention to prayer for Shteinman's recovery.

Shteinman died shortly after his daughter Dvora, who passed away last month at the age of 72. Shteinman was not informed of his daughter's death.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, 2013.
Olivier Fitoussi

Hundreds of thousands attended Rabbi Shteinman's funeral procession in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, which proceeded from his home to a local cemetery. Rabbi Gershon Edelstein was the only person to deliver a eulogy for Rabbi Shteinman, an informal indication that he has been designated as Shteinman's successor. 

Reacting to Shteinman's death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "deeply saddened" by the passing of "a giant" of Jewish learning calling him a major figure of "spirit, tradition and ethics" who trained generations who will "carry the torch of the Torah." 

Rabbi Shteinman was regarded as a pragmatist, but he continued to believe that the only education necessary was the Torah. He was most likely the last ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi figure as it is known in Hebrew, about whom it can truly be said – or at least claimed – that he was “the” leader of hundreds of thousands of Haredim around the world, indeed gadol hador: the “greatest of his generation.”

These are currently Hasidic and Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) rebbes, authorities on Jewish  religious law, great scholars of the Hebrew Bible and rabbis bearing the title of “head of the council of great Torah sages,” but, as has been said for years, the passing of Shteinman marks the end of an era.

Shteinman never served in any official rabbinical or judicial position and, unlike many other great rabbis, his name, face and views are generally unknown to the Israeli public. But he was one of the most influential figures for Lithuanian Haredim around the world, particularly in Israel but also in the United States, France and Britain.

On assuming the leadership of his community in 2012, he faced growing opposition from the camp of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, which has led to what may be an irreparable historic rift.

Shteinman’s authority was decisive, influencing not only Lithuanian believers but other Hasidic and Sephardi Haredim as well. He was head of the Council of Torah Sages of Israel’s Degel Hatorah party, a faction of United Torah Judaism in the Knesset. He was considered responsible for formulating the definitive “viewpoint” and “method” used in the yeshiva world and at Haredi educational institutions in general, as well as at organizations that aim to bring Jews closer to religion and to embrace an observant Orthodox life.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman At a conference of Degel Hatorah and Agudath Israel for the elections, 2012.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Shteinman was born in late 1913 in Kamyanyets, which was then part of the Russian empire and today is located in Belarus, but was historically close to the border between Poland and Lithuania. He spent most of his childhood in nearby Brest-Litovsk (known in Jewish circles as Brisk).

Shteinman was an outstanding yeshiva student in his youth, which fell between the two World Wars, influenced by two of the greatest Jewish scholars of that era: Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, known as the Brisker Rav; and Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz.

In 1938, in part because he had received a draft notice for the Polish Army, Shteinman and his good friend, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, packed their bags and moved west to Switzerland – a move that saved them from the fate that befell their families and communities under the Nazi occupation. As refugees, the two were sent to a work camp, but survived the war; Shteinman was the only member of his family to do so. Subsequently, both men became heads of yeshivas and surrounded themselves with students.

Immigration to Palestine

In 1945, already considered to be an outstanding teacher and an extremely knowledgeable rabbi, Shteinman and his wife Tamar, with whom he eventually had four children, immigrated to Palestine. He received a teaching position in Kfar Sava and later moved to Bnei Brak. The leader of the Haredi community there, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish) extended his patronage to Shteinman, who went on to direct programs for high school-aged youths at the renowned Ponevezh yeshiva and was known as a legendary rosh yeshiva (head of yeshiva) for the rest of his life.

He wrote numerous books on religious law, the Talmud and Bible, and compilations have been published of his speeches on moral subjects and the Jewish holidays.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinmanת  center, in Bnei Brak, 2010.
Moti Milrod

When Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the successor to Karelitz, passed away at age 103 in 2001, he was succeeded as community by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, but in fact Shteinman – who was more involved in strengthening the community and was sought out by many for his advice – shared that position with Eliashiv. He was responsible for the spiritual leadership of Degel Hatorah and wielded a powerful influence over a range of educational areas, whether involving parents who were having problems with their children’s schools or formulating political responses to mounting attempts to force ultra-Orthodox schools to teach the core curriculum of Israel’s Education Ministry.

It was clear that Shteinman would head the community after Eliashiv’s death, but in light of the rebellion led by Auerbach – a battle that was mostly over leadership and not ideology per se – it was also clear that the title of “leader” would lose some of its former meaning and power.

For his part, Shteinman was considered, albeit not always correctly, to be a pragmatist, mainly because he and his colleagues were quietly involved in initiatives involving the secular authorities. Those included the establishment of the Nahal Haredi battalion in the Israel Defense Forces (the first-ever unit for Haredim in the army), formulating the so-called Tal Law regarding the military service of the ultra-Orthodox and the status of full-time yeshiva students, the Kinneret Covenant, which tried to unite the various elements of Israeli society, and a new law for the military draft, in both its 2014 and 2015 versions.

At the end of the 1990s, while still considered Rabbi Eliashiv’s second-in-command, Shteinman became a target of ultra-Orthodox zealots in Jerusalem who criticized his involvement in the Nahal Haredi project. Graffiti comparing Shteinman to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook – an icon of religious Zionism but disdained by Haredim – appeared in the city’s Mea She’arim quarter. A harsh comparison indeed, in those circles.

In rare instances, Shteinman openly favored change – such as in 1999, when he, along with other sages such as Eliashiv and Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, gave permission to male members of the community to pursue studies toward bachelor’s degrees. As in other instances, the signatories on the declaration weren’t the three senior figures but their representatives, who made it clear that this applied only to those interested in computer studies, accounting and business administration, and “as long as the curricula don’t include studies of literature, philosophy or ideas, or anything that could, God forbid, lead to apostasy.”

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman during his tenure as head of the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva in Kfar Sava, 1945.
Wikipedia

In public, and until the very end, Shteinman was always careful to express “official” Haredi positions, rejecting modern Western culture and many elements of Israeli life and society. In December 2016, at an event at which ultra-Orthodox women were discouraged from academic studies, a video was screened showing 103-year-old Shteinman warning against taking such a path, even for the purpose of making a living.

Despite his approach, figures show that academic programs catering particularly to Haredim drew more than 11,500 students – mostly women – in 2016. That is a substantial proportion, particularly when the figures are broken down by age group. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis who pursue such studies, join the army or who have smartphones in defiance of rabbinical edicts, apparently feel fairly comfortable living on the wide, soft margins of the ultra-Orthodox public.

And, equally important, in most cases, the ultra-Orthodox public doesn’t wish to reject them from its midst. That too is a Shteinman legacy: the shaping of the community as an embracing tent, a sociological “tribe,” without imposing sanctions on anyone who does not adhere to ideological demands, such as is the case in smaller Orthodox communities.

The fact is that during his tenure as leader of the Lithuanian Haredim, tens of thousands of his followers in Israel studied, joined the army, were exposed to the internet and used smartphones, in many cases to look for a livelihood – without paying an overly heavy price in the community, let alone being ousted.

While Shteinman formulated a rigid ideology that the community could not live up to, in practice he left substantial breathing space for “transgressors.” That was a result of the size of the community and the limited ability it had to impose iron rule, but it’s not clear if he would have imposed sanctions, even if he could have done so.

Such a situation could be interpreted as reflecting wise leadership, which helped give the Haredi community the power it wields today. Did the policy of inclusion shown toward new “converts” and more liberal Haredim, to working people and others who left the fold contribute, in addition to natural population growth, to the fact that Israel’s entire ultra-Orthodox community now totals 900,000 individuals? Whatever the case, whereas in public Shteinman always expressed classic conservative positions, in small forums and in one-on-one meetings, he showed great flexibility on matters of education, making a living and even on national or military service.

Visit to France

In public, it was different. In 2007, for example, Haaretz accompanied him on a trip to Jewish communities in France, along with the leader of the Gur Hasidic sect.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (in the center with a suit and hat) with his students at the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva in Kfar Sava, 1951.
Wikipedia

“What is education today? It’s Torah, Torah, Torah! There is nothing else and whoever wants to be happy should teach his son the Torah,” Shteinman declared at the time. “The Torah is the entire purpose and we want generations that will continue, and thank the Lord Israel exists despite all its troubles. It’s hard to imagine the suffering, and France too saw the Crusades which inflicted so many victims. If someone wants to perpetuate the generations, he must study the Torah and teach the young generation the Torah and fear of God and then the people of Israel will remain forever.”

In Marseille, he was asked by local rabbis what to do about people who had left yeshivas and who couldn’t find themselves. “Can we establish a yeshiva where they learn a trade?” asked a local rabbi, one of Shteinman’s students. “Because he’s no longer good, you want to send him to acquire a trade? It’s like adding poison to poison. A trade is poison,” Shteinman said. He added that it is strictly forbidden to teach boys and young men a trade. “Everything must be the Torah.”

And what about his relations with the state?

The military draft law was Shteinman’s greatest test of leadership versus the state, as the sole leader of the “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community. While the United Torah Judaism party was in the opposition, his representatives maintained a secret channel of dialogue with representatives of Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, who headed the parliamentary committee that was working on the law. He wanted to soften the blow, an approach that exacerbated the rivalry in his community between himself, the leader of the mainstream, and the more extremist group, led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. The latter organized demonstrations by thousands of yeshiva students, opposing the law and the High Court of Justice, but also directed against Rabbi Shteinman. The question was whether his statesmanlike and passive approach had succeeded in preserving the world of Haredi yeshivas. Even after the bill passed in 2014 and was amended in 2015, it’s hard to know the answer.

Rabbi Shteinman believed in quiet lobbying more than in burning trash cans in the streets. He often preferred that state authorities coerce the Haredim to act in opposition to his will, rather than openly lending a hand to developments such as the draft law or the Kinneret Covenant or a compromise at the Western Wall.

One of his associates once described him as follows: “Think of Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir, who for years stubbornly refused to consider any diplomatic proposal. He too realized that a diplomatic solution was inevitable and that there would be compromise in the end. He knew there was a price for refusing, that there would be sanctions, but he thought that he could buy a few more years of status quo in the territories.

“The Haredim also realize that change is inevitable. They are simply delaying it in order to build another generation that will fill the yeshivas as in previous generations. Our leadership doesn’t need a strategy. It understands changes will happen and is trying to delay them, and Rabbi Aharon-Leib [Shteinman] does it not too badly.”

With or without regard to the campaign against him, Shteinman took a clear public position: stringent Haredi conservatism, pursued with an exceptional effort to avoid confrontation with the government. Shteinman, in contrast to Auerbach, moved away from any state of conflict. He often explained his restraint, according to one of his students, as based on the Talmudic equivalent of “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Rabbi Shteinman's death is a symbol for many of the end of an era in which the ultra-Orthodox community was headed by a leading individual. With the deterioration of Shteinman's health over the past year, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, was seen as Shteinman's successor as leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian faction of ultra-Orthodoxy, but he will not have the stature that Shteinman enjoyed. The authority to defend the Lithuanian community and the power to make public and political decisions on its behalf are expected to be more diffuse, shared by a number of other rabbis including Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak.