Bnei Brak – The Torah world has been plunged into mourning following the passing of Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman on Tuesday morning at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak.
Renowned and revered as one of the biggest Torah giants in the Lithuanian Jewish community, Rav Shteinman was 104 years old at the time of his death.
Urgent requests for prayers were circulated throughout the world last night as word spread that Rav Shteinman was in critical condition.
Just last month Rav Shteinman had been gravely ill with a kidney infection, with Jews worldwide praying fervently for his recovery and members of the Knesset halting their daily proceedings to pray for Rav Shteinman.
Rabbi Shteinman was one of the preeminent leaders of the Haredi world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who helped mold the Haredi community in Israel and direct it through the vicissitude’s of modernity.
As a leader he was guided by the desire to protect his flock from the blandishments of the outside world, but declined to oppose those parts of his community who began to engage with the demands of the state by entering the workforce, higher education and the army.
It is for this position that he will be remembered, and although he strongly discouraged such trends, he did not seek to hold them back, allowing them to develop and take root, and thereby come to a certain accommodation with the needs of the modern state of Israel.
Rabbi Shteinman was born in the city of Brest, in what is now Belarus, and which was then part of the Russian empire, with the exact year of his birth somewhat disputed, but either 1913 or 1914.
He studied in yeshiva in Brest and was a student of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, known as the Brisker Rabbi, whose studying and teaching methods he would remain close to throughout his life.
In order to avoid military conscription in 1937 in Poland, which by that time controlled Brest, Rabbi Shteinman and a friend escaped to Montreux, Switzerland where they continued their studies in the Etz Haim Yeshiva in the town.
Rabbi Shteinman married in 1943 while still living in Switzerland, and came to Israel in 1945 after the end of the Second World War.
Settling initially in Petah Tikva, he became close with the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yishaya Karelitz, who was then the leading Torah figure of the generation, and the latter appointed Rabbi Shteinman to head a yeshiva in Kfar Saba.
He eventually moved to Bnei Brak and, in 1955, was appointed head of the Yeshiva Ketana, yeshiva for high-school-aged boys at Ponovizeh Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the world, by yeshiva dean Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kehaneman, and then head of the Ponovizeh Kollel, yeshiva for married men, in 1964.
At this juncture, and slightly before, Rabbi Shteinman would take up one of the most important missions of his life, promoting Torah study as the sole occupation for a Haredi man.
The Hazon Ish had himself been instrumental in promoting this ideal, and Rabbi Shteinman sought to advance it more practically on the ground.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, it had been extremely rare for Haredi men to spend their entire lives studying in kollel, since it was simply not financially viable. In 1953 when the Chazon Ish died, there were only 1,240 yeshiva students who obtained a military service deferral due to being in full time yeshiva study.
So Rabbi Shteinman strove to open more kollels for married men to continue their yeshiva studies, to make entrance to kollel easier in terms of the standards required, and to raise money from donors in order to make yeshiva study a viable financial option.
In the 1980s, the dynamic and vigorous Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Man Shach had become the head of the Lithuanian community, and formed the Degel Hatorah political party in 1988, splitting from hassidic controlled Agudat Yisrael.
Rav Shach set up a Council of Torah Sages to guide the new political movement and Rabbi Shteinman was immediately appointed to this council.
Rav Shach however declined mentally in the mid-1990s and already then Rabbi Shteinman adopted the leading role as decision maker for the Lithuanian community on matters of public concern.
Although Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was his senior, and considered to be the leading arbiter of Jewish law, Rav Elyashiv himself frequently deferred to Rabbi Shteinman on issues of public policy, such as whether Degel should run together in elections with Agudah, or regarding the issue of military service.
Indeed, Rav Elyashiv only formally joined the Council of Torah Sages in 2002
Rav Shach died in 2001, but despite Rabbi Shteinman’s greater role in public leadership, opponents of his, specifically Nati Grossman who ran the Yated Neeman newspaper, the mouthpiece of Degel Hatorah and the critical organ of the Lithuanian community, maneuvered Rav Elyashiv into the position of “Gagol HaDor,” the great leader of the generation.
Regardless of the title, Rabbi Shteinman continued to take the lead in most matters of public leadership, with Rav Elyashiv openly saying that he trusted and relied on his rabbinic colleague to make the right decisions.
One of the critical issue which arose during this period was that of military service for haredi yeshiva students. In 1998, the High Court of Justice ruled that the current arrangement whereby the defense minister gave out as many exemptions as he wanted was unlawful, and must be grounded in legislation to be justified.
However, the law needed to show that efforts were being made to integrate haredi men into the IDF because of the inherent inequality in the mass exemptions from military service given to yeshiva students.
The Tal Committee was set up, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, and Rabbi Shteinman took up the task of leading the haredi effort in shaping the recommendations the committee would make for legislation.
He appointed delegates who would participate in the deliberations of the Tal Committee, and firmly insisted that the position should be that any yeshiva student who wanted to study and was indeed studying in yeshiva, be allowed to do so.
The principle of allowing anyone who wants to study in yeshiva without disturbance was and remains the sacrosanct and inviolate doctrine of the Haredi community, and Rabbi Shteinman would never concede on this point.
He did however take the position, in opposition to more conservative rabbinic leaders in the Lithuanian community, that he would not fight for those young Haredi men who were not studying in yeshiva.
Although emphasizing that every young Haredi man should be in yeshiva he refused to insist on a situation in which he would be forced to request exemptions for those who were not.
This enabled the drafters of the Tal Law to include a stipulation that any Haredi yeshiva student who was not fulfilling the terms of his deferment, which included studying for 45 hours a week, would be obligated to enlist in the IDF.
In addition, the law encouraged young Haredi men to enlist in IDF units designed for Haredi men or to perform civilian service.
This was relatively unprecedented, and was opposed by some members of the Degel Council of Torah Sages, but Rabbi Shteinman insisted that in order to preserve the rights of all Haredi men to study in yeshiva the ability of those who were not or could not study appropriately in yeshiva to avoid military service must be conceded.
In the years of Rav Elyashiv’s leadership of the Lithuanian community, Rabbi Shteinman was largely ignored, and even deprecated, by Yated Neeman and Grossman and this did not augur well for the future.
Important engagements Rabbi Shteiman undertook such as giving a class at Ponovizeh or his visits to the US were largely ignored by Yated in this period.
And the newspaper tried to present a reality in which the two rabbis were at odds on different issues despite the fact that Rav Elyashiv continued to insist that he trusted the stance of Rabbi Shteinman and issues such as enlistment, general education and similar matters.
Rabbi Shteinman, therefore, remained the leading figure in terms of matters of public import for the haredi community, and was the most senior figure, alongside Rav Elyashiv, in the rabbinic leadership.
But when Rav Elyashiv was hospitalized in 2012 and on life support, Grossman backed Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a hardliner and member of the Degel Council of Torah Sages, to take the reins of leadership, seeking to once again shunt Rabbi Shteinman aside.
But Rabbi Shteinman set in motion a series of events which wrested control of Yated Neeman from Grossman’s hands, and put it firmly in the control of the rabbinic leadership in Bnei Brak which overwhelmingly supported the senior rabbi to be the new leader of the generation.
After Grossman was ousted, Yated Neeman published a letter by Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the most influential Haredi rabbi next to Rabbi Shteinman, declaring that the leadership of the haredi community had passed to Rabbi Shteinman.
This was not the end of the story, however. Grossman and others refused to acknowledge Rabbi Shteinman’s primacy, and gradually formed their own grouping around Auerbach with their own institutions.
First the Hapeles newspaper was created as the mouthpiece of the new faction, and eventually a new political party, Bnei Torah, was created. Bnei Torah ran in municipal elections in 2013 winning seats in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Modiin Illit, but did not run in the national elections in 2015, instructing its flock not to vote at all.
This split has plagued the Lithuanian community ever since, and has been one of the dominant themes of Haredi political life in the five years since Rav Elyashiv died.
It has also been a unique problem for Rabbi Shteinman’s leadership, since no Haredi leader in the last 35 years has had to deal with the bifurcation in authority that he had to endure.
In particular, the Jerusalem Faction, as Auerbach’s camp became known, campaigned intensely and often violently against changes to the ability of young Haredi men to defer their military service.
The High Court struck down the Tal Law in February 2012 with Rav Elyashiv already weak and in and out of hospital.
The Jerusalem Faction jumped on this development, and the subsequent legislation passed by the last government to draft haredi men into the IDF in 2014, and embarked on a vitriolic campaign against enlistment.
It advocated a more uncompromising line than Rabbi Shteinman, instructing its yeshiva students to not cooperate with the army in any way, leading to numerous demonstrations and rallies by the Jerusalem Faction and more visible and identifiable gap between it and the Degel Hatorah mainstream.
Even once United Torah Judaism gutted the new law in 2015, Rav Auerbach and his faction continued to ban their yeshiva students from cooperating with the army, falsely alleging that some yeshiva students were being coercively drafted regardless and that the new legislation would pave the way for mass haredi conscription.
It was Rabbi Shteinman’s lot that when he began to take up the reins of leadership as Shach began to ail in the mid 1990s the haredi community was increasingly confronted with two critical challenges; growing poverty in the sector and the advent of the internet age.
But throughout his years in public leadership for the haredi community, including as “leader of the generation” Rabbi Shteinman cleaved closely to the critical principles of the haredi community, seeking continuity and resisting change.
And change was coming exactly as he was becoming the preeminent leader of the haredi masses, with increasing poverty causing greater difficulties for haredi families, the advent of the internet breaking open “the walls of holiness” of the community, and increasing demands for the haredi world to participate in bearing the country’s economic and security burdens.
But nevertheless, like his predecessors, he continued to extol the value of Torah study to the exclusion of all else and learning full time in yeshiva remained the pinnacle of human endeavor.
He conceded however, as has always been the stance of the Haredi leadership, that if necessary a man can find a profession and go to work, especially given the increasing poverty in the Haredi sector.
But Rabbi Shteinman strongly opposed introducing core curriculum subjects such as math, english, and science into Haredi primary schools, much less Haredi secondary education, and was reluctant to say the least at best about allowing academic studies for those who wanted to join the workforce.
But in the mid 1990s he did give his consent, along with several other senior rabbis, to the establishment of a Haredi institution for higher education called The Haredi Center for Professional Training, where Haredi men could obtain vocational and academic qualifications that would help them join the workforce.
Nevertheless, this support was very limited, and he even stated once in comments relayed by Yated Neeman in 2001 that poverty was good for the spiritual well-being of the haredi community.
“If you’ll say ‘how will they exist’ because of the [economic] decrees [of the government] and what will the poverty cause? It’s preferable, they should live like poor people and not like rich people. From the poor comes Torah. From them come Torah scholars,” said Rabbi Shteinman.
It almost goes without saying that the rabbi, like all his colleagues in the Haredi leadership, viewed the internet as an extremely destructive force for the haredi community, describing it in 2014 as “the greatest corrupter” of our generation” and as “far from the righteous path.”
He never banned internet usage, understanding the limits of his power, but spoke of it negatively and warned people from using it.
Ultimately, Rabbi Shteinman’s efforts as one of the most prominent leaders of the haredi community in the late 20th and early 21st century were designed to shepherd his flock through the tumult of modernity and the increasing demands of the state, and to ensure that they remain unscathed by all of it.
He was not in any way a modernizer, and sought to continue the splendid isolation of the haredi community from broader Israeli society in order to preserve the people’s strict devotion to the Torah and Haredi Judaism.
But in spite of Rabbi Shteinman’s positions, the haredi community has indeed begun to change.
Men, and women, faced enormous difficulties supporting their large families and so employment among haredi men began to rise in 2003 and topped 50 percent by 2016, although this figure contracted slightly in the last year.
Some 13,000 Haredi men and women are currently in higher education as of 2016, compared to 5,500 in 2011, approximately 50 percent of the haredi community has some form of access to the internet, and enlistment rates to the IDF in recent years has reached cumulatively over 30 percent of the annual cohort.
But despite Rabbi Shteinman’s strong adherence to the principles of haredi isolation and Torah study above all else, he did not oppose the new trends that were taking root in the community.
Although this stance appears to be passive and even negligent, in truth it was a relatively brave position in the face of more hardline, conservative elements in the haredi leadership who wanted, and still seek, to oppose every process in which members of the community adjust their lives to allow them to gain a profession and a support themselves financially and thereby become more a part of Israeli society.
Professor Menachem Friedman, an expert in haredi society, says that the haredi community by the later 1990s and early 2000s were “voting with their feet” and embarking on this process to gain greater financial security because their economic situation was simply not tenable.
As we have seen in the years when Rabbi Shteinman formally took over the reins of leadership, a hardline leader has gained public prominence and is fighting a fierce war to halt and reverse these processes.
In the ultra-traditional and ultra-conservative haredi world, Rabbi Shteinman’s inclination not to oppose these changes, not to try and hold back the sea, but instead to allow a new generation to go along its own path is nevertheless a significant and important decision which will have a major bearing on the future of the community.