Friday, June 02, 2023

The Making of a Gadol

Rav Edelstein at his home on Chanukah in a 2018 photo (JTA)
No, this is not about the book of the same name by R’ Nosson Kamenetzky, ZTL. Which was hurriedly (and in my view unfairly) banned by R’ Elyashiv due his to overly zealous Askanim (activists). This is about what it takes to be a Gadol - a religious leader in Israel. One of those leaders was the 100 year old R’ Gershon Edelstein, ZTL, who passed away a few days ago. 

There are of course many things required of a religious leader among the Jewish people. What to include in that list is a matter of debate. I am not going to get into what I personally think those requirements are other than to say that some of those requirements are more universal than others. 

Among the universal qualities are the following. He must be devout. He must be meticulous in his observance of Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (BALM - his relationship with God) and Bein Adam L’Chaveiro (BALC - his relationship with man). He must also be learned in matters of Halacha, tradition, and Torah study. If any of these qualities are missing, one cannot (or at least should not) be considered a Gadol.  

These are all qualities R’ Edelstein had in spades. His gentle and kind ways surely impacted all who met him. I had the privilege of briefly meeting with him last Chol HaMoed Sukkos at the time he reserves each day to meet with anyone who wishes to seek his advice and counsel. He took all comers. 

My grandchildren wanted to meet him so I took them there. When he asked me what my issue was, I told him that I had not come to discuss any issue but simply for the opportunity for my grandchildren to meet him. He seemed disappointed by that. I’m sure he did not like spending his valuable time that way 

Media personality, Eden Harel (VIN)
R’ Edelstein also had a huge influence on secular people. That was illustrated by the following story at VIN

(Eden) Harel, a former model, and (Oded) Menashe, who were an iconic couple even before they became religious, both work in the media, performing popular shows together as well as hosting individual programs. During the course of her morning news show on Israel’s channel 14, Harel received news of the passing of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. 

Overcome with emotion… She said that Rabbi Edelstein, who had assisted them during the course of their becoming Baalei Teshuva. Breaking down in tears, Harel said that the rabbi had died “at a very old age- one hundred years old” and recollected how close her family had been to the Rabbi.

But nothing tops this. His care for fellow Jews became even more evident to me when I was directed* to a 2018 Jerusalem Post article featuring an interview of R’ Edelstein by Rabbi Avi Fishoff. Rabbi Fishoff is involved in reaching out to Jews that are OTD (no longer observant). He wanted to know how parents should deal with such children.

The questions asked are the kind that I’m sure come up all the time in these situations. None of them should be a surprise. But R’ Edelstein’s responses were. They were almost shocking, in fact. But if one understands what is at stake, they should be neither shocked nor surprised. Here is what I’m talking about:

A remarkable video (in Yiddish - see below)* has emerged of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein… advising families with children who have become non-religious not to reprimand them or kick them out of the house, but instead to show them warmth and kindness. 

The rabbi even went so far as to say that in a case where a mature boy brings home a girl and ostensibly sleeps with her in the house, the parents should not reject or reprimand him… 

Asked whether or not a parent should throw a son out of the house if he brought home a girl, Edelstein says simply: “God forbid!” 

“It is forbidden to shout at them; it’s like putting a stumbling block before the blind,” says the rabbi, meaning that by reprimanding them, such children would be likely to further distance themselves from religion. He said that pressure on them “damages and hurts them.” 

One might have thought that in the strict quarters of the Charedi world, children that go OTD should be kicked out of the house and even shunned. That’s because there is a not a so unreasonable fear that an OTD child might negatively influence his or her siblings. Rav Edelstein would not have any of that. His first concern was for the troubled, most vulnerable child. Who dare not be mistreated.

This is the mark of a true Gadol. This is not to say that I agreed with his point of view on every issue. I did not. In some case profoundly (based on the teachings of my own mentors, like R’ Ahron Soloveichik.) But I did agree with the way he treated fellow human beings of all stripes.

Leaders like this don’t come easy these days. I have no clue who will replace him.  He will be sorely missed. 

Baruch Dayan HaEmes.


*HT: Nachum1