Two weeks ago, I felt the need to comment on the passing of Rav Elyashiv. In the time since then, a few people have drawn articles to my attention (either privately or on Facebook) that have presented views at odds with the one I shared. Rav Elyashiv had no relationship with his family. Rav Elyashiv was responsible for further estranging Haredim from the state. Rav Elyashiv’s rulings have harmed women and converts. From such allegations, I cannot (nor will not) defend him. Instead, I think it best to make my feelings about Rav Elyashiv more properly understood.
As many people know, I have a love/hate relationship with Haredi Judaism. It is difficult for me to speak about people like the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov without feeling my pulse quicken, but it is also difficult for me to speak about people like Rav Shach or Rav Steinman without some measure of contempt. Some time ago, a friend of mine asked me why I found the Steipler Gaon so admirable, and my answer probably goes for the former two whom I admire as well: I don’t know much about him.
It seems that the more I learn about individual Haredim whom I admire, the easier it is for me to remember why I left. I look at Haredi society today and I see a community becoming further and further mired in their trenchant opposition to modernity. I see people who seek stringencies where leniencies have greater precedent. I see people who are beginning to manifest attitudes that are revoltingly misogynist and terrifyingly racist. So far as how they got here, they largely have themselves to blame.
To an equally large extent, however, the blame lies with a belligerent Israeli government. Comprised originally of secular European intellectuals who thought their culture inherently superior, they treated North African Jews with disdain, Haredim with condescension, and Arabs with outright contempt. In all three cases, they grossly misjudged the people with whom they were dealing, and while the Knesset today is not plagued with this particular problem (leastways, not so far as Sephardim and Haredim are concerned), the damage has already been done.
That said, I cannot blame secular Zionists for their behaviour any more than I can blame Haredim for theirs; both attitudes were forged in the fires of the Shoah, and both are merely differing manifestations of trauma. With his typical astuteness, Raul Hilberg recognised the striking ferocity with which Zionists suddenly turned against the British and against the Arabs as a case of misplaced anger. The same could be said for the intensity with which Haredim turned against the fledgling state.
It is impossible to predict what Haredi society might have looked like in a world in which it had been allowed to flourish. With the recent advent of schools for girls, and with the solidarity that was afforded Haredim across Europe after the formation of the Agudah, it is tempting to imagine the development of a society both rigidly conservative in its interpretation of the law and socially progressive with its application of it. But such, in Israel, was not to be.
Instead, we see a society in which poskim seek to outdo one another with stringency, and in which any concession to the lifestyle or the background of the petitioner is deemed scandalously liberal. We see a society that is so phenomenally out of touch with the outside world that even the ways of North American Haredim are inscrutable to them. Most alarmingly of all, we see the utterly unprecedented phenomenon of people with deliberately machmir interpretations of the law, forcing their stringencies upon large communities of Jews who do not want them.
Without the politicisation of Haredi Judaism, such a thing would not be possible, but this politicisation was a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the formation of the Agudah in 1912 allowed for Haredi interests to be representated to the state – whether in Poland, where it was formed, or in Palestine. On the other hand, it has also afforded the potential, which we now see expressed, for foisting Haredi legislation upon the general public. This more recent and frightening manifestation was the brainchild of Rav Shach. Until he formed Degel haTorah and its media arm, Yated Neeman, Haredi power (insofar as it existed) rested only in a body of rabbis. The legacy of Rav Shach is such that power in the non-Hasidic world is increasingly coming to be represented in a single individual.
There is a certain irony to the fact that the Brisker Rov strongly opposed Heichal Shlomo, the office of the Chief Rabbinate, on the grounds that religious power should never be concentrated. His protegé, Rav Shach, has succeeded in creating just such a concentration – one that, through the machinations of the Eda haHaredis, is now exerting greater and greater influence over the rabbinate itself. While many Haredim look down on such political manoeuvring, and tend to value more highly a rav who does not dirty his hands in politics, it is frequently the one who professes the greatest disdain for power who wields it most of all.
Rav Elyashiv exerted greater influence than he could possibly have known. So divorced was he from the world around him that he had no comprehension as to how his rulings might affect the lives of other people – or even, perhaps, any real comprehension of other people at all. He was hardly alone for having lacked any vestige of empathy, but he was alone in having turned himself completely into a vessel for the halakha.
The breadth of knowledge of which Rav Elyashiv was possessed was savant-like, and I have great admiration for it. In the eighteen hours-or-so that he studied each day, until shortly before his death at 102, he very rarely opened the Shulchan Arukh. There was one time (and this, alone, speaks volumes), immediately after being informed that his daughter had died, when he is said to have closed the tractate of the Talmud that he was studying and opened up the laws of mourning in Yoreh Deah. Nonetheless, despite almost never consulting such material, when he deigned to answer people’s questions he demonstrated an awe-inspiring familiarity with the content of its commentaries. His preparation in this regard was to reacquiant himself with the relevant Talmudic passages – themselves the basis for the laws within the Shulchan Arukh, on which such texts were commenting.
I have no way of easily conveying just what it means to be able to do that. It’s like preparing yourself for a lecture on Newton’s understanding of Kepler by triangulating the stars. It doesn’t make any sense.
While eulogising him, Rav Nissan Kaplan of the Mir Yeshiva recounted an event when Rav Elyashiv was asked to issue a ruling on the legitimacy of wigs that came from India. He gave his ruling without consulting a single text. Wishing to understand it, a group of scholars came to his house to argue with him on the ruling. Their preparation for the argument was to learn Tractate Avodah Zarah in depth (with all of the mediaeval commentaries) and through to the halakha (to learn the relevant passages in the Rambam, the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh, together with all of the commentaries on the latter). Rav Elyashiv contented himself with merely revising the tractate, and after an hour of arguing they all acquiesced to his understanding of the law.
To so impress a community of people, in which it is not uncommon for a man to devote thirty or forty years of his life to uninterrupted study, is itself a powerful statement. That such a person should also exert so strong an influence over other people is a tragedy, but the problem lies moreso with his society in that respect than it does with him.
In a lecture on the genius of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Prof. Marc Shapiro opines upon the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi poskim. Where the former, for their own sociohistorical reasons, have come to favour stringency and to eschew any form of compromise as needless modernisation, the latter (for sociohistorical reasons of their own) have tended to adopt a more lenient and compromised position. Were I in the market for a posek, it would not be a Haredi posek whom I would want, though that doesn’t mean that I think that Rav Elyashiv was ever “wrong”.
I might disagree with him strongly, but my disagreement merely signals the fact that I do not like his rulings. That he, with his terrifying familiarity with the vastness of halakhic Judaism, should have felt that the rulings he made were consonant with the system as a whole is not something that I, with my knowledge of nothing, can either validate or deny. The greatest scholars often make the lousiest humanists, and Rav Elyashiv (who, were he not Haredi, would very likely be considered on the autism spectrum) was a lousy humanist. He was not a good father, nor a good husband, nor a good posek nor anyone’s friend. He had no personality, save what could be gleaned from his posture or the tone of his voice. He almost never smiled at anybody and his only relationships were with the books that he loved.
Bobby Fisher, despite all of the ugly things that could be said about Bobby Fisher, never ceased being the world’s greatest chess player. Rav Elyashiv, for all of the damage that he might have caused both within and outside of Haredi society, was an unparalleled master of the art of halakha. He had no peer.