Rabbi Elyashiv's Empty Legacy

The prominent ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader could have prepared his followers for the inevitable clash with the outside world, but he preferred to stop the clocks and freeze them in time.

Haredi Jews are not given to calling up the Guinness Book of Records offices in London and claiming a place in its records. But were they prone to such a tendency, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodoxy who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 102, may have well been a record-holder. He was one of the few men or women alive with over 1,000 living descendants (all from monogamous relationships), including a handful of great-great-great-grandchildren. Now that he is dead, it is certain that the new record-holder is another Haredi centenarian living in Jerusalem with similar progeny.

Talk of family planning and birth control within the Haredi community is tantamount to heresy - how can anyone view zar'a chaya ve’kayama (literally, living and existing offspring) that do not stop uttering the words of the Torah, as anything but a good thing? The questions of whether all parents are equipped and talented enough to deal with such huge families; the physical and mental toll of constant childbearing and childcare on young mothers who never have a chance to live life for themselves; and the broader economic and social viability of a community that multiplies itself at such a breathtaking pace without preparing its younger members to lead productive lives in an advanced society have not been addressed.

This is Rabbi Elyashiv’s real legacy. He was not the only architect of this society; other rabbis put the foundations in place, and both religious and secular politicians are at fault for having tailor-made Israel’s welfare system to cater for the needs of a Haredi sector whose members do not work or partake in any form of national service, save for studying a stultified version of Torah. But it was Elyashiv – who for 40 years was venerated as Posek Hador, the arbiter of a generation, and had the final word on any issue of halakhic law – who wielded ultimate political power over the most influential section of Haredi Jewry since the mid-1990s. He bears the responsibility for stifling any internal debate on resolving the tensions between an insular and traditional community and the modern Israeli society within which it exists and refusing to come up with solutions to the challenges threatening the sustainability of the Haredi model in the 21st century.

He could have used this unique opportunity to prepare his followers for the inevitable clash with the outside world, but he preferred to stop the clocks and freeze them in time. Any attempt at modernizing the curricula for boys and girls was met with fierce opposition to and denunciation of those who sought to sully “the pure education.” Likewise programs for vocational training for the majority of young men who are not fit to spending a life studying ancient texts were blocked. One of his last public proclamations was against academic courses designed specifically for young Haredi men and women, and it is ironic that his death came at the height of the public debate over Haredi conscription to the Israel Defense Forces.

His legacy is an empty one. Thousands are already defying his orders by joining the special IDF units in which Haredi men both serve and learn valuable skills for civilian life, and the academic streams specially tailored for ultra-Orthodox needs are flourishing despite his prohibitions. His path of paralysis has served to slow down these inevitable developments, damning most of the next Haredi generation to poverty, but despite his dictates, they are beginning to evolved and adapt to modern life. A century from now, Rabbi Elyashiv will not be revered as a Torah giant, but as a reactionary figure by the few who remember him.

The full version of this column will be published in Haaretz on Friday.