Described as a political kingmaker revered in the Strictly Orthodox world, Aharon Leib Shteinman, who has died in his 104th year, was the last of the great Charedi but non-Chasidic rabbinical giants who may be credited with rebuilding in Israel the yeshivish world of the pre-Holocaust Lithuanian Orthodox tradition.
With the death in 2012 of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shteinman became the sole possessor of the title Gadol Hador — an informal but incomparably prestigious accolade bestowed upon the leading rabbinical authority of his generation. He helped guide the Strictly Orthodox through the challenges of modernity in Israel and reluctantly acceded to Israel’s military conscription of adherents not in full-time yeshiva study.
But whereas Elyashiv’s fame rested on his enthusiastic willingness to apply talmudic law to problems of modern society, Shteinman was much more reticent in this regard, at least in public. What he will be remembered for is his robust and unashamed defence of the yeshiva world, especially against the expectations and demands of the modern Jewish state. He will also be remembered for his personal humility.
Famously, he lived for decades in the same modest, sparsely and indeed badly furnished apartment at Number 5 Chazon Ish Street in Bnei Brak, and slept on the same thin mattress provided for him by the Jewish Agency when he entered Israel as a refugee after the Second World War. In his will, read out at his funeral, he asked that no hesped [eulogy] be given and that no obituary be written.
Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman was born in Kamenitz, near the city of Brest-Litovsk [Brisk] in present-day Belarus. He was educated in Brisk at the Imre Moshe yeshivah of Rabbi Moshe Skolovsky, but also studied with Rabbis Yitzchok Soloveitchik and Aharon Kotler.
In 1921, Brest-Litovsk, formerly part of the Russian Empire, was incorporated into the new Polish state, and in the fullness of time Shteinman was ordered to report for duty as a conscript in the Polish army.
Instead, he and two other yeshiva students fled to Switzerland. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Eventually he made his way to Israel. There he joined other Charedi rabbis in re-establishing in the Jewish state the network of talmudical academies that the Nazis and their collaborators had destroyed. Though not controversial at the time, this project has become the divisive victim of its own success. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, took the pragmatic decision to permit 400 yeshiva students exemption from military service. There are in Israel today thousands of yeshiva students who claim such exemption. This state of affairs has bred enormous resentment, more especially as the state has sought to forcibly integrate Charedi men into the ranks of the IDF.
Shteinman remained to his dying day an opponent of secular learning and a defender of life-long, full-time Torah study. But we know that, in private, and discreetly, he admitted that the yeshiva lifestyle was not for everyone, and reportedly gave his blessing to many — perhaps thousands — of Charedi men to forsake this world, enlist in the army and/or pursue a secular education. For this, he was damned by yeshiva fanatics while at the same time being pilloried by modernisers for not publicly endorsing the value of secular studies.
In Bnei Brak, Shteinman pursued a conventional career as a Rosh Yeshiva, lecturing and writing pamphlets, many of which were translated into English and republished, under the title Leading with Love, in 2013. Other works by him were originally published anonymously. In all, he authored some 15 volumes of commentaries on the Talmud.
Despite his ascetic life-style, he was not averse to politics and found time to lead the Charedi Degel HaTorah political party, a major component of the United Torah Judaism coalition that has come to be a powerful player in the complex politics of the Israeli state. And, in 2005, he began a punishing schedule of foreign excursions, deliberately visiting Jewish communities geographically distant from the great centres of Torah learning.
While living in Switzerland, Shteinman married Tamar Kornfeld. She predeceased him in 2002. He died in Bnei Brak and is survived by their four children and numerous grandchildren.
In his will, he wrote that he would be content if just ten people came to his funeral. In fact, tens of thousands followed his coffin to the grave.
Aharon Shteinman: born November 14, 1913. Died December 12, 2017