Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, leader of the Lithuanian haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community (also known as mitnagdim) in Israel, passed away yesterday at the age of 102.
The non-Chasidic haredi community went to Elyashiv as the final arbiter for any dilemma, not just in the field of religious practice, but also in matters of politics, business and even matchmaking. For the believers who turned to him, Elyashiv's rulings carried the weight of someone privy to God's will.
Elyashiv was primarily concerned with “safeguarding haredi Orthodoxy’s parochialism.” He successfully fought to keep secular subjects out of haredi schools, opposed “occupational training for haredi men” and disapproved of haredi women working outside the home. His political arm in the Knesset was the Degel HaTorah party, which currently has two mandates and followed his political direction.
Throughout his life, Elyashiv spent most of his time studying Talmud; Professor Brown of Hebrew University attributes “Elyashiv's extreme conservatism to his limited social contact with the outside world.” The effects of his conservatism were felt beyond his own Litvak community:
In large part due to Elyashiv's opposition, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has not instituted the use of prenuptial agreements that could help reduce the agunah problem – women who are “chained” to husbands who refuse to grant them a religious writ of divorce, or “get” – by imposing hefty monthly fines on uncooperative husbands.
Elyashiv’s impact was vast and he has left an immense power vacuum at a time when the haredi community is in desperate need of leadership. Though haredim like to portray the choosing of a leader as unanimous communal elevation of the most worthy man, the process is in fact very political. The struggle for succession among the haredi elite began a few weeks ago with fights over control of Yated Ne'eman, the Litvak haredi newspaper. Given the current debates in Israel over women’s rights and haredi exemption from military service, we hope Elyashiv’s successor will match him in Torah knowledge but surpass him in social engagement.