Haredi Community Returns to Pragmatic Leadership With Kanievsky's Successor

The choice of 98-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who symbolizes the classical Lithuanian leadership style, signals a shift in the ultra-Orthodox community

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (L) with a fellow rabbi in 2021.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (L) with a fellow rabbi in 2021.
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

With the death of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the so-called “Lithuanian” leadership is returning to a more familiar and natural style that is rational and pragmatic, in contrast to Kanievsky’s spiritual leadership.

Kanievsky’s successor is 98-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who until now was Kanievsky’s junior partner. Head of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, Edelstein symbolizes, above all, the classical Lithuanian leadership style of his predecessors – Rabbi Elazar Shach, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.

In fact, this marks the second time that Edelstein is being crowned successor. In December 2017, with the death of the previous Lithuanian leader, Rabbi Shteinman, Edelstein was chosen as the only eulogist at the huge funeral in Bnei Brak. His style of leadership, which is similar to Shteinman’s, marked him as the natural successor, with Kanievsky as his deputy. But aggressive maneuvering by the latter’s grandson, Yaakov (Yanki) Kanievsky, succeeded in getting his grandfather to assume the premier leadership role that Chaim Kanievsky had tried to avoid all his life. Edelstein was somewhat marginalized and became a junior “partner.”

FILE: The late Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the main spiritual leaders of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in Bnei Brak, Israel, 2019.Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (L) and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (R) in Bnei Brak, Israel, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

His associates succeeded in winning him the status of supreme Lithuanian leader by taking advantage of the public’s affection for Kanievsky, which extends even beyond the Lithuanian community, due to his blessings and his family connections. The result was that the once pragmatic Lithuanian leadership became more Hasidic, relying more on mysticism and the power of blessings. As opposed to Kanievsky, who made major decisions offhandedly, Edelstein acts only after consultations and examining all the particulars, much as his predecessors did.

In recent years, there have been bitter behind-the-scenes struggles between followers of Kanievsky, who was dubbed Rashbam, and those of Edelstein, who is known as the Ra’abad, after the street where he lives.

Nevertheless, the difference between the leadership styles of the two was not reflected in day-to-day matters until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. While Edelstein called for his followers to obey the government’s COVID-19 regulations, Kanievsky ordered the community’s schools and yeshivas to ignore them and carry on as usual. The tension between the two leaders reached a peak when Edelstein ordered the editors of the Haredi daily Yated Neeman, who do as he says, not to publish a letter from Kanievsky on the matter.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak, Israel, Sunday. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Edelstein is considered first and foremost an authority on education, since as a yeshiva head he has educated thousands of students over the decades. He takes a conciliatory approach towards dropouts and those abandoning religion. In a 2018 video, for instance, he said publicly that a child who does not observe the commandments should be accepted with love.

“A child who has left the path has to be treated with respect and friendship,” he told activists, adding that they also should accept with understanding a young man who brings a young woman home and that his parents should buy him “secular clothing,” if he wants because there’s no choice.

“Even if he desecrates Shabbat at home, there is no other way except respect and friendship,” he added. “We have to explain to parents who find it difficult to accept the child that this is the only way.”

Edelstein also believes that confrontation with government institutions should be avoided as much as possible and prefers reaching agreements with them over disputes.

FILE: Haim Walder

After the suicide of the Haredi author Chaim Walder following allegations of sexual assaults against women and girls, Edelstein was the only ultra-Orthodox leader who dared mention the affair. Although he directed most of his comments to expressing the viewpoint that these matters shouldn’t be discussed publicly, he also expressed the unprecedented view that if a person is suspected of such offenses, the police should be informed. Edelstein explained that the prohibition against a [relations with] “married women” is less stringent than the prohibition against “causing embarrassment,” but it’s not clear whether he knew about the suspicions of child abuse against Walder, even though he was considered very close to him.

In recent years the public got to know one well-connected grandson in the form of Yanki Kanievsky. Now they’ll get to know another – Moti Pelai, who is about 30 and is considered Edelstein’s right-hand man. He whispers into his grandfather’s ear and decides who may enter the rabbi’s house and when. Other prominent personalities considered close to Edelstein are MK Yakov Asher, Bnei Brak Deputy Mayor Menachem Shapira, Yated Neeman CEO Zelig Orlansky and David Shapira, the grandson of Rabbi Shteinman.

Despite his advanced age, Edelstein is independent, lucid and astute. Nevertheless, everyone is talking about Rabbi Dov Landa and Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the joint heads of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as possible future leaders. Both already have the requisite status and influence, which are expected to increase significantly in the Edelstein era.

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