A Real Leader With Limits

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv hated being a leader. What he really wanted was to be left alone to study the Torah: God’s words and His most direct interaction with mankind.

But what could he do? His grasp of the Torah was so vast, so deep and wide at the same time, that much of the Jewish world came to trust his knowledge and judgment – either directly, or indirectly through proxies. He was the last word on some of the most difficult problems facing today’s Jewish world. For many years there was simply no-one alive who understood better how to fulfill God’s Torah-stated will, as delineated in the Written and Spoken traditions.

His life was a statement in understatement. His apartment – the same one where he lived for decades, raising a large family of boys and girls – was filled ceiling to floor with books, books and more books. The walls still sport 19th century wallpaper that has never been upgraded, and there are no pictures gracing the walls of the little apartment in Mea She’arim, the quintessential ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.

During his long life, Rabbi Elyashiv saw Jerusalem develop from a backwater Ottoman outpost into the living, thriving capital of the reborn Jewish nation. He came to Israel as an immigrant from Lithuania, accompanying his elderly maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv. Rabbi Elyashiv the elder (known by the name of his masterwork, “The Leshem”) was the greatest kabbalistic mind of the generation who was invited to Israel by the brilliant and controversial Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. Rabbi Yosef Shalom the grandson was trained early on in the greatest intellectual kabbalistic tradition of European Jewry – a polar opposite of the ‘kabbalah’ of scarlet thread bracelets and Madonna and Co.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom hid from publicity and the open trappings of an undisputed community leader. But eventually, the position that he held failed to keep pace with the development of the Jewish nation.

In his earlier years, he cooperated with the State of Israel, serving as one of the Chief Justices on the highest Rabbinical Court of the land. But over time, the Haredi world which was his home page became disaffected with the Zionist dream as it played out into history. And as secular governmental leaders took on more and more importance to the man in the street, Rabbi Elyashiv withdrew into a world of ‘four cubits of Jewish Law alone,’ ruling more and more on matters of Jewish Law that pertained to the individual rather than collective responsibilities of the Jewish People.

Once, the leaders of that other world – the Prime Ministers of the State of Israel – were also men who eschewed the public trappings of office. Prime Ministers like Ben Gurion, Begin and Shamir were more worried about proper leadership than the luxuries that wealth could provide. But with the arrival of Binyamin Netanyahu and the two Ehuds – Olmert and Barak – a new breed of leader, carrying signs of heavy influence from an American model, arose to shepherd the Zionist Dream.

Too bad that Rabbi Elyashiv withdrew from the national, collective questions facing the entire Jewish People, and not just those of the ultra-Orthodox. Too bad that in our times, a man of his integrity and modesty would never be found in the halls of the Prime Minister’s Residence. Too bad that the laser-sharp reasoning of such a simple, modest and holy man could not take an active, rather than behind-the-scenes, role in the governance of our young country.

May his memory be blessed.

About the Author
Yisrael Rosenberg is a former New Englander who made aliyah 30 years ago. He lives with his wife and four children in Jerusalem.