Putting Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in Context

I would like to begin by congratulating Matti Friedman on a very well written article. Possibly the best I have seen in terms of a biographical piece in the local media on this great figure. However, I have problems with it. The problems aren’t due to the quality of the penmanship or the research; the former is most definitely wonderful and I’m sure the latter is equally so. The problem is, as a member within the American Hareidi sector, I remember Rabbi Elyashiv differently.

Rabbi Elyashiv, with his acclaim as the Gadol Hador (The Torah great of the generation) was known not for his leadership, but for his committed goal of Torah scholarship. Undeniably his knowledge of Torah was unmatched by most. In fact, as members of Yeshiva we used to wonder aloud (during coffee breaks) who was the greater scholar, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. In the question of Torah knowledge, nobody else even entered the equation.

I recently found an amazing motivational video on Youtube called ‘How Bad Do You Want It?’ The audio was taken from Eric Thomas and the message that stuck out for me was “If you want to succeed as much as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” Rabbi Elyashiv personified this message in its entirety.  Matti Friedman writes about how Rabbi Elyashiv would stay up 16 to 20 hours learning every day. What he doesn’t write is why Rabbi Elyashiv spent so much time studying. For Rabbi Elyashiv it was the Torah that was the air he breathed. Nothing else could satisfy the burning need to sit and learn.

My problem with the article lay more with the headline than anything else, however. Mainly it has to do with my picture of Rabbi Elyashiv as a scholar as opposed to his leadership and his stance on modernity.

Among the Hareidi sector I was a part of, it was well known that Rabbi Elyashiv’s signature on something didn’t really mean much. Political sectors from both sides of an argument would lay claim to Rabbi Elyashiv’s name in the Hareidi world. In essence his name became a point that I would quickly disregard when brought up; unless it was a first person story told over to me by somebody I trusted. This leads me to the story that embodies Rabbi Elyashiv’s stance on modernity to me.

Another well respected Rabbi within the Hareidi world is Rabbi Akiva Tatz. His speeches tend to be more Kabbalistic in nature, but his knowledge of Torah is also very well respected. The speeches I prefer to listen to are those that are Halachically centric. In one of these speeches (Dangerous Therapy Risks in Medicine), which you can find online at SimpleToRemember.com, Rabbi Tatz describes how he once had to try and convince a Jewish couple to vaccinate their children for a whooping cough virus that was spreading around.

The problem was that the vaccine had a risk of its own. The infant mortality rate was about 1 in 20,000 from the vaccine and the parents didn’t want to take the risk of harming their children. “Look, the vaccine gives the child a risk in 20,000 while the risk of dying from the disease is 3 or 4 percent,” Rabbi Akiva Tatz argued. Then he realized that the logic was faulty at its core. Assuming that everybody else was immunized, the chances of the children of this particular family getting whooping cough were pretty much non-existent.

So he contacted Rabbi Elyashiv and asked him this particular question. Rabbi Elyashiv issued a ruling that the family must, according to Halacha, immunize their children. “The reason is, of course, that each family must do their fair share?” Rabbi Tatz asked. “No,” Rabbi Elyashiv responded, “it is because in a society where the undertaking of this risk is common, not immunizing their children is an act of negligence.”

Rabbi Elyashiv’s life as a foremost scholar in Torah will forever be a loss to the Jewish community. For all the controversy that surrounded his name, Rabbi Elyashiv was a Halachic man at his core. Baruch Dayan Haemet.

About the Author
Meir is a Political Science graduate of Lander College for Men (A Touro College branch in Queens NY) and a recent Oleh