Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Death of a Giant

Scene in Bnei Brak today - hundreds of thousands attended his funeral 
I am saddened beyond words to report the passing of a gentle giant, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. He died earlier today at age 104.

R’ Shteinman was a Gadol. A true role model for all Gedolim. I never met him. But I wish I had. Even though I did not always agree with his Charedi Hashkafos, I could not but admire his purity of heart, his humility, his compassion for the downtrodden and his full commitment to the ideals of the Torah.

His humility was obvious to anyone paying attention. He had no use for material things. He lived in a small modest apartment in Bnei Brak; furnished sparsely with the bare minimum needed to live. Which meant basically a bed, a table and a few chairs that looked every bit as used as their age must have caused them to be. That was about it. There are people living in poverty that probably have more than he did.

I recall an incident when a secular Jew was invited to meet with him. When he saw how this great rabbi lived, he offered to pay for refurnishing his apartment with newer furniture.  R’ Shteinman adamantly refused. He considered it wasteful and did not need or want to have any material improvements in his life.  He considered it wasteful since he was doing just find with what he had. He was upset  at even the suggestion. That secular Jew walked away amazed - thinking that this kind of humility was the mark of a true leader.

I have to admit that I never heard of Rav Shtenman unitl he was well into his eighties or perhaps even his nineties.  All of a sudden people started referring to him as the Gadol HaDor. I remember thinking, ‘Really?!’ Who made him the Gadol HaDor? Where was he til now? Why hadn’t I heard of him?

I soon came to realize that this was part of his great humilty. He never thought of himself as anything but a teacher of Torah. He shunned the limelight. He ran away from Kavod. But Kavod chased him.

Charedi leaders like Rav Cham Kanievsky knew about him. They realized who this great man was. And as other Charedi leaders started aging Rav Shteinman was urged to become more public. He did so reluctantly and only for the most altruistic of reasons. He never sought it for himself. Never started a party. Never sought adherents. All he wanted to ever do was teach Torah. After the passing of Rav Elyashiv, many Charedi leaders started referring to him as the Gadol HaDor.

Rav Shteinman was a gentle soul that saw all Jews as equal - to be treated the same regardless of background. It was this sense of justice and compassion where another incident comes to mind. R’ Shteinman was constantly approached for advice by a variety of Charedi communal leaders. One of those time involved a Charedi principal looking for justification to keep Sephardi girls out of his Ashkenazi School.

Rav Shteinman reacted immediately - almost in anger!  He shouted ‘Gavah’ (arrogance and conceit). He repeated that word several times and refused to listen to another word insisting that the girls must be allowed into his school.  Rav Shteinman could not abide injustice. It insulted his sense of the ethics that the Torah is all about. (See the video below)

What will be missed most about him now was his sensible approach to dealing with laws that he believed contradicted his Torah Hashkafa. Indeed when he believed that Yeshiva students were threatened, he had some pretty harsh words for those in government he believed were responsible for it.

But instead of confrontation he chose compromise and cooperation when that opportunity presented itself. Although the Israeli law requiring Yeshiva students to register for the draft was counter to his worldview, he nevertheless urged Yeshiva students to follow the law since by doing so they would be able to continue their uninterrupted Torah study by requesting and automatically receiving an exemption for as long as they remained in full time Torah study.

There are forces in the Charedi world that do not think much of compromise. They apparently saw Rav Shteinman as weak – and not capable of proper leadership. These extremists formed a political party called Peleg (The Jerusalem faction) and chose, Rav Shmuel Auerbach - a zealot like themselves to lead it.

Peleg has a mission to confront the government with violent protests and has no interest in the kind of compromise Rav Shteinman pursued.  And as if that isn’t bad enough, there was some actual violence directed at Rav Shtenman himself by some of the more deranged followers of Peleg.

The leadership backing Rav Shteinman has condemned Peleg and its leadership. But the fight goes on. Much of it involving violent confrontation. Confrontation between Charedi and Charedi. Great Charedi Yeshivos like Ponevezhin Bnei Brak  are now being shunned by many mainstream Charedi parents because of the physical and sometimes violeng confrontations taking place there - where students have actually been injured.

That I am not Charedi does not mean that I wish Charedim any ill, God forbid. Charedim are my brothers. My disagreements and criticism have always been in pursuit of what I believed to be in their own best interests. Never to in any way hurt them. Only to enable Charedim to thrive within their own Hashkafa. And to be viewed with honor and awe instead of dishonor and disdain by other Jews.

Which is why I fear the consequences of Rav Shteinman’s  Petirah (death). There is a very good chance that all hell will break loose. Rav Auerbach will now have little standing in his way of his supporters claiming for him the mantle of leadership in the Charedi world. From which to promote his confrontational ways. What the future holds now without Rav Shteinman’s calm guidance is anybody’s guess. I pray for calm and peace. But I fear the worst. God help us all.