Monday, July 30, 2012

The Legacy of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv



The recent passing of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv has brought mourning to World Jewry, especially to the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Many articles about Rav Elyashiv have appeared recently in the media and some of them require clarification on many points. Although I have only merited to meet Rav Elyashiv several times in my life (the last time occurring only a few weeks before he was hospitalized for his last time), many of my teacher and acquaintances are students and/or had much interaction with Rav Elyashiv. Many of the recent articles recently written about Rav Elyashiv contain facts which are simply mistaken or unclear in what they are attempting to preach. In order to better understand Rav Elyashiv's legacy, I suggest that one read the Hebrew Wikipedia article about him, it's a good place to begin (the English Wikipedia article is dearth in terms of its content). I would also like to try and clarify some of these points of contention. This is also a good start.

In an article for the Times of Israel, Matti Friedman writes (he also writes verbatim the same thing in this article):
Inside the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world, Elyashiv represented a hardline faction opposed to almost any encroaching of modernity into the insular community. This faction is identified with the city of Jerusalem, while its rivals, relative pragmatists, are largely grouped in Israel’s second ultra-Orthodox center in the city of Bnei Brak.
This rather simplistic analysis not only reflects an outdated stereotype but is simply factually wrong. The faction represented by Jerusalem in Friedman's generalization is most likely the Eidah Chareidis of Jerusalem, an anti-Zionist union of Jerusalemite communities famous for its prestigious Badatz Eida Chareidis Kosher certification and for staging protests against the State of Israel and others for perceived affronts to Shabbos, Tznius, and other basic tenets of Judaism (some of these protests have become quite violent which is for another discussion). This union is known for taking a fierce opposition to anything which brings even an iota of secular Israeli culture into the Jewish home. Rav Elyashiv was not a member of this union who did not accept Rav Elyashiv's rabbinic authority and largely seemed to detest his popularity within the mainstream Hareidi community (especially given that Rav Elyashiv lived in Meah Shearim, the bastion and center of the Eidah Chareidis' sphere of influence). Thus, Rav Elyashiv was hardly the typical "Yerushalmi extremist", his position was probably more like that of the mainstream Bnei Brak community than the mainstream Jerusalemite community (perhaps he was even more lenient and open-minded than they because he rejected many stringencies imposed by the Chazon Ish which are accepted by the Bnei Baraq community). Furthermore, Friedman's uninformed generalization ignores the large Hareidi communities of Kiryat Sefer (Modiin Illit), Beitar Illit, and Elad. Where do they fit into this imagined rivalry?

Friedman tries to have the read believe that Rav Elyashiv was ungrateful and disloyal to the State of Israel by implying that Rav Elyashiv was originally raised as a Religious Zionist and eventually turned his back on his upbringing to adopt a more insular view of Judaism. For exmaple, he writes:
Although he later helped steer Israel’s ultra-Orthodox toward a rejection of the State of Israel, Elyashiv began his rabbinic career in Israel as a protégé of religious Zionist rabbis and as an employee of the government’s religious court system. His marriage was conducted by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook, the spiritual father of religious Zionism, and he was an early protégé of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog.
After Israel’s creation in 1948, Elyashiv was given a prominent post as a judge in the state-established High Rabbinic Court, part of an official religious system that existed parallel to the secular courts. Elyashiv’s first legal rulings came as a judge in the pay of the state he would later reject, and some were seen as notable for their leniency.
Friedman twice stresses in the above paragraphs that Rav Elyashiv was an "employee of the government" and that he originally served "in the pay of the state" before opting to reject the very source of his early employment (i.e. the Chief Rabbinate). Firstly, Rav Elyashiv had good reason to leave the service of the rabbinate system due to the politicization of that body as evident in the infamous case of the "Langer siblings" in which a certain candidate for Chief Rabbi (who shall remain nameless) essentially permitted a marriage which was clearly forbidden according to Torah Law. This case illustrated the detachment of the rabbinate from Jewish Law and its capitulation and allegiance to the Israeli government. Rav Elyashiv was not interested in politics, he was interested in Torah. Therefore, he duly resigned from his post in the rabbinic court. Interestingly, this article seems to lightly criticize Rav Elyashiv for not taking a more active role in govenment affairs (if I understood his intent correctly), but for one who understood Rav Elyashiv's goal and commitments, this criticism is quite laughable. Secondly, even after leaving the rabbinate, Rav Elyashiv exerted much influence of that institution; and in fact, Rabbi Yonah Metzger, who ascended to the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbinate of Israel due to the influence of Rav Elyashiv, recently spoke of Rav Elyashiv's reverence and respect for the office of Chief Rabbi (see here). Interestingly, it was due to Rav Elyashiv's influence that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef accepted the candidacy for Chief Rabbi of Israel.

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A letter Rav Elyashiv wrote to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef telling the latter that it is a Mitzvah for him to run for Chief Rabbi. (Source: here) This letter was written in the midst of the Langer scandal.

Friedman stressed that Rav Elyashiv was particularly close with Rabbis Kook and Herzog who are recognized as early leaders of religious Zionism. My personal opinion is that it should be noted that should Rabbis Kook and Herzog have been judged by today's standards' they would very likely be considered "Hareidi" as opposed to "religious Zionist" despite their lasting influence on Religious Zionism, they were very much more Religious and less Zionist than the contemporary Religious Zionist camp. On the other hand, Rav Elyashiv was very much a part of the Jerusalemite community, in which he was raised and his father-in-law Rabbi Aryeh Levin was active, which opposed Zionism in many ways. In fact, Rabbi Elyashiv received his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Reuven Zelig Bengis, who was the head of the anti-Zionist Eidah Chareidis. Two of Rav Elyashiv's daughters married the sons of prominent Hareidi Rabbis who were not at all associated with the the religious Zionist camp or the Israeli rabbinate (one daughter married Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, son of Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky who was recognized as the spiritual leader of mainstream Hareidim in Bne Baraq and another daughter married Rabbi Ezriel Auerbach, son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was recognized as the posek of the mainstream Hareidim in Jerusalem). The marriage of his children obviously occured  before his chasm from the rabbinate, thus even prominent Hareidi leaders had already deemed him worthy of marrying into their respective families.

Freidman continues:

His first ruling dealt with the case of a Yemeni girl who arrived in Israel after having been betrothed by her mother in Yemen to a man who subsequently converted to Islam. In Israel, her status was officially that of an aguna, a wife trapped in marriage, meaning that she could not marry again. Elyashiv found a way out, ruling that because the girl’s father had not been present and she was too young to agree herself to the marriage – she was perhaps 11, though no one knew her precise age – the marriage was annulled.

Although I'm sure that many details of this case have been left out, one who has studied the Talmudic tractates of Kiddushin or Yevamos would see that there is nothing really noteworthy in this ruling and Rav Elyashiv's early rulings cannot be identified with that of an "activist judge".

He continues and writes:

But the rabbi’s life took him and the ultra-Orthodox community in a different direction. Elyashiv left the state court system in the early 1970s, and as time went on his rulings became less inclined to solve problems than to maintain an approach toward Jewish law that was undiluted by practical considerations.

Friedman mentions nothing about the events leading up to Rav Elyashiv's break with the state court system. It is unclear what Friedman means when he wrote "and as time went on his rulings became less inclined to solve problems than to maintain an approach toward Jewish law that was undiluted by practical considerations". Perhaps his intent is that the alleged stringent bend of Rav Elyashiv's later rulings were less practical and created problems rather than solved them. However, the accusation that Rav Elyashiv adopted a stringent interpretation of Jewish Law is simply ludicrous because, as any serious scholar of Jewish Law knows, there are certain rulings of Rav Elyashiv which are considered quite lenient. Notably, Rav Elyashiv ruled that hot water running from a faucet is considered a Kli Sheni (כלי שני), while most other deciders of Halacha have ruled that such water is considered a Kli Rishon (כלי ראשון). Another is example is found in the law of the separation of meat and milk: According to Halacha, after eating meat one must wait six hours before eating milk products. Most poskim (see Dagul M'Rvava and Aruch HaShulchan to Yoreh Deah §89) understand  that this means that one cannot begin a meal in which he will eat milk until six hours after he finished the meal in which he ate the meat. There is a leniency on which to rely whereby one can begin a meal in which he will eat milk six hours after he finished eating the meat. Rav Elyashiv ruled


Rav Elyashiv meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009. (Source: here)

Another common misconception found in the media of late concerning Rav Elyashiv's death is really a general misunderstanding as to the nature of Hareidi culture. The media imagines as if there is a fight between various rabbis (notably between Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinmen and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, an older brother to Rav Elyashiv's son-in-law as manifested in their run to control the Hareidi newspaper industry, see here). However, the reality is that Hareidi Jewry is not monolithic and each community, each synagogue, and each yeshiva has its own rabbinic leaders whose opinions are respected and usually binding by their constituents. These rabbinic leaders tend to refer more complicated or general matters to higher rabbinic authorities (as opposed to the more basic and/or personal issues which they themselves usually rule on), it is quite understandable that not every rabbinic leader will be of the same opinions as his colleagues and certainly not every rabbinic leader will refer his questions to the same higher rabbinic authority. Therefore, there is not really a conflict over who will prevail as the successor to Rav Elyashiv, rather there are multiple higher authorities who will probably replace him as opposed to during the latter years of Rav Elyashiv's lifetime in which Rav Elyashiv himself came very close to being the undisputed higher rabbinic authority (simply because most rabbis deferred to him).

With this background, one can debunk the story told by Friedman:

Though ultra-Orthodox rabbis are often mistakenly seen by outsiders as absolute rulers of obedient flocks, Elyashiv’s conservative efforts in the years leading up to his death were frequently unsuccessful, according to the Bar-Ilan University scholar Kimmy Caplan.
An attempt he led to ban secular studies in girls’ high schools failed, for example, as did campaigns against cellphone and Internet use. Modernity and economic realities proved stronger than rabbinic strictures.

The truth is that even in Rav Elyashiv's lifetime, rabbinic leaders argued with his views and did not necessarily accept everything he said even if they respected him as a leader of World Jewry. Rather, rabbinic leaders usually ruled based on their own higher rabbinic authorities and based on the interests of their specific community or synagogue or yeshiva. Furthermore, rumors of foul play amongst the handlers of Rav Elyashiv and accusations that he was misfed information  have led many people to outright reject most of what has been transmitted in Rav Elyashiv's name in his latter years simply because the veracity of the rulings said in his name have been called into question. It is well-known that many peoples with varying agendas have forged Rav Elyashiv's signature on public letters and on halachik responsa.

Another recent "obituary" about Rav Elyashiv attempts to paint the Hareidi population as mindless ignorant drones who do not even know the stances of their own leaders. The articles states:
But among the quarter million people who attended his funeral on Wednesday, how many knew what his halakhic rulings actually said? Not many, to judge by a group of young Haredi ‏(ultra-Orthodox‏) men we questioned during the procession. Not a single one could answer.
Firstly, I find it hard to believe that not many young Hareidi Jews are unfamiliar with the halachik rulings of Rav Elyashiv. I have been studying in Yeshiva since my early teenage years and the ruling of Rav Elyashiv were always prominently presented when analyzing halachik issues, even in instances when the prevailing halachik practice in not in accordance with Rav Elyashiv's view. Secondly, Rav Elyashiv was of the opinion that one's halachik decisions should be based on his own personal understanding of the issues involved (not including details which are dependent on facts, but rather in regard to details which are dependent on understanding of texts). Accordingly, on many issues Rav Elyashiv regularly retracted and amended his own halachik stance in order to fit with his understanding of the texts. Each time he learned something anew, he was ready to change his ruling on the topic if he felt that his newer understanding was more accurate. This is actually to Rav Elyashiv's merit that he had the humility to admit when he was wrong and change his rulings. Because of this "flip-flopping", it is sometimes unclear what exactly was Rav Elyashiv's final ruling on a given subject, different Rabbis might present Rav Elyashiv's stance in different way depending on when they heard a said ruling from Rav Elyashiv.

The article continues and cites an example of Rav Elyashiv's decisions:
For instance, he told several couples that instrumental music was forbidden at weddings in Jerusalem, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Once, he backed out of officiating at a wedding scheduled to take place the very next day after learning that the couple did intend to have a band. “They can find another rabbi,” he said.
The article implies that it was Rav Elyashiv's innovation to forbid musical instruments at weddings in Jerusalem. However, such a prohibition has been in effect already since at least the time of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin and is the accepted custom in Jerusalem.

In a "timeline" of Rav Elyashiv's life, one Haaretz article writes some interesting points which are not solid events like the rest of their "timeline" but are subjective descriptions of history intended to implicitly discredit Rav Elyashiv:
1994-1995 – Begins to slowly take over the leadership of the Lithuanian public
2001 – Elyashiv becomes "posek ha-dor," the leading authority on halakha
2003 – Set a precedent when he appointed the first ultra-Orthodox representative and relative Uri Lupolianski to replace Ehud Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem.
Some of these points need further clarification. How did the author of the article decide that it was during the years 1994 and 1995 that Rav Elyashiv "[b]egins to slowly take over the leadership of the Lithuanian public"? Is the leadership of the Lithuanian Jewry like a mob boss where one can "slowly take over" by, for example, "eliminating" competition? What steps did he supposedly take to achieve that goal and specifically during those years? Furthermore, the timeline states that Rav Elyashiv became the "posek ha-dor" in 2001. Who crowned him with such a title and why was it only decided that he should be the leading posek in 2001? Perhaps the author of the timeline intended to explain that Rav Elyashiv assumed greater responsibility in terms of halachik decisions upon the death of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (whose son is Rav Elyashiv's son-in-law) in 1994, by accepting the greater responsibility he began to "slowly take over..." Similarly, in 2001 World Jewry suffered the death of its preeminent Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shach. Although he had been largely incapacitated since around 1995, his leadership was still strongly felt until his passing. Even though he primarily served as a Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shach was also a political leader of the Hareidi world. Upon his passing, the mantle was passed to Rav Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinmen. Perhaps this is the intent when the timeline mentions that Rav Elyashiv became the "posek ha-dor" in 2001, although one can argue that 2001 did not really bring about much change vis a vis his role as a posek in halacha.

The timelines states that Rav Elyashiv "set a precedent when he appointed the first ultra-Orthodox representative and relative Uri Lupolianski to replace Ehud Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem." How exactly did Rav Elyashiv "appoint" Rabbi Lupolianski as the mayor to replace Olmert? This point of the timeline suggests that Rav Elyashiv had some sort of mystical power to appoint people to elected positions. Lupolianski became mayor of Jerusalem because he was the deputy mayor and the mayor had to forfeit his position because he attained higher office. Then, there were regular elections which confirmed Lupolianski's in his position as mayor. He won an election fair and square. What was Rav Elyashiv's role in this? Perhaps he influenced the UTJ party to back Lupolianski as their candidate, but he most certainly did not "appoint" Lupolianski as the mayor. Accordingly, what did the article mean when it said that Rav Elyashiv "set a precedent" in doing so?

There is a lot more to write about, but I don't have more time. If someone notes something specific in the comments, I will try to my best to address their comments and questions...

After writing this article I found another article entitled, "Putting Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in Context" which expressed much of the same ideas I wrote about here.

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