HaRav Elyashiv z’l and the Haredi Mind — Part 01

By Rabbi David Bar-Hayim

HaGaon HaRav Yoseph Shalom Elyashiv z’l passed away recently at the age of 102. A renowned Tora scholar, the Rav was considered the ultimate authority in the ‘Lithuanian’ Tora world.
HaRav Elyashiv’s singular devotion to Tora study was well known. My father went to HaRav Elyashiv 41 years ago to ask him a Question. My father related that the Rav heard the Question, thought for a moment, gave his response, and immediately returned to the volume of the Talmud that was open before him. It was clear, said my father, that one could not impinge upon the rabbi’s time more than absolutely necessary.
As the announcement of HaRav Elyashiv’s passing was announced over a loudspeaker in my Jerusalem neighbourhood, I took note of the language used. An analysis of that language follows.
First there was a call for the Tora to gird itself in sackcloth (תורה, תורה, חיגרי שק). This is not unusual in such cases. What came next was more interesting. The following pasuq from M’ghilath Ekha (4:20) was paraphrased: רוּחַ אַפֵּינוּ מְשִׁיחַ ה’, נִלְכַּד בִּשְׁחִיתוֹתָם: אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְנוּ, בְּצִלּוֹ נִחְיֶה בַגּוֹיִם. (Translation: “The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of HASHEM (=the Jewish nation’s king, see Rashi and Ibn ‘Ezra) has been ensnared in their pits; about whom we said: ‘In his shadow we shall live among the nations.”) The paraphrased version, which involves a play on words, went like this: רוּחַ אַפֵּינוּ מְשִׁיחַ ה’, אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְנוּ בְּצִלּוֹ נִחְיֶה, נִלְכַּד בִּשְׁחִיתוֹתֵינוּ. (Translation: “The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of HASHEM (= HaRav Elyashiv), about whom we said: ‘In his shadow we shall live’, has been ensnared by our sins.”)
Two Questions come to mind:
How does the king, the political leader of the Jewish nation, transmogrify into a Tora scholar who, while looked up to by hundreds of thousands of Jews, was certainly not the leader of ‘Am Yisrael?
Is it reasonable to suggest that when a great rabbi dies at the age of 102 it is due to our sins? Did Moshe Rabenu die at the age of 120 due to someone’s sins or because HASHEM decreed that a human life-span will not exceed 120 (B’reshith 6:3)? Does the pasuq in Ekha not refer to a relatively young Jewish king whom the people hoped would continue to lead them for many years to come, but who would eventually die and pass his crown to his successor?
Regarding the first Question, one needs to internalize that according to Haredi hashqapha (outlook) we are not a nation. We are simply a collection of communities. Communities don’t have political leaders; they have no need of them. Jewish communities, according to the East European Galuth model, have rabbis; seeing that the Beth K’neseth and Beth Midrash are the only areas of public activity, the rabbi is the leader. And even though a rav is not a king, it’s nice to pretend. (This is one reason for the tendency of Hasidim to treat their rebbes like royalty. The goyim had a king who held court, and the Jews wanted one too.) So Rav=king.
Regarding the second Question, one must recognize that the Haredi world has developed the idea that great rabbis are practically immortal. “If the Rav died, we must have sinned.” The idea that the Rav died because he was very old is apparently too exotic. So death=sin.
The announcement continued: HaRav Elyashiv was referred to as M’or HaGola (the Light of the Exile). While true that HaRav Elyashiv was born in Lithuania, he and his family moved to Y’rushalayim when he was 14 years old. His entire adult life was spent in Y’rushalayim. So why the Light of the Exile? The fact that many Jews outside Israel followed his rulings is true but irrelevant. The explanation is simple: according to the Haredi hashqapha, we, the Jewish people, wherever we live, are in Galuth. Galuth=Jewish existence. It follows that if one lives in Galuth, M’or HaGola is the highest accolade one could possibly bestow upon an individual. Even if you do live in Y’rushalayim.
Next the Rav was referred to as Poseq HaDor (the ultimate Halakhic authority of the generation), an appellation coined by the hard-line ‘Lithuanian’ Yathed Ne’eman newspaper in 2001 as part of their campaign to crown HaRav Elyashiv as leader of the ‘Lithuanian’ world after the passing of HaRav Shakh z’l. This too is very telling. From the point of view of the ‘Lithuanian’ Tora world the matter is clear: “We are the Tora world=We are the generation=the Rav was the ultimate authority of the generation.” The ‘Lithuanian’ Tora world is convinced that they, and only they, know what Tora Judaism really is and how it works. Put simply: the rest of us don’t count. And no, I do not overstate the matter.
More worrying to my mind is the following fact that I have noted ever since the Rav was hospitalized over 6 months ago. The religious but non-Haredi radio station Gale Yisrael adopted the ‘Lithuanian’ line and referred to HaRav Elyashiv as Poseq HaDor. One would have thought that Gale Yisrael, which caters to the national-religious crowd, would have known better. Maqor Rishon, a nationalist newspaper, got it right: they consistently referred to HaRav Elyashiv as Poseq HaDor HaLitta’i (the ultimate Halakhic authority of the ‘Lithuanian’ world), a precise and objective description.
There cannot be one, universally recognized and accepted Tora personality, or even a universally accepted Beth Din or collection of Tora scholars, for the obvious reason that there is no one, cohesive Tora world. There are multiple Tora worlds, or outlooks, each with its own agenda and priorities. To that extent the Haredim are correct: we continue, for the meantime, to our shame and detriment, to exist as independent communities or networks.
Who will be the new Poseq HaDor HaLitta’i? Almost certainly no-one. The Haredi world is in the throes of an historical upheaval and is monolithic no more. The cracks are not only visible; they are widening.
I shall, be’H, elaborate upon the goings-on in the Haredi world and its ramifications in coming blogs.