As a roused rabble rises, a reticent rabbi gets an unsought-for farewell
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Hebrew media review

As a roused rabble rises, a reticent rabbi gets an unsought-for farewell

Rav Steinman's final request for a humble sendoff is ignored, a reminder that the wishes of the public (especially the ultra-Orthodox) cannot be discounted

People attend the funeral of top spiritual authority for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world, Rabbi Aaron Yehuda Leib Shteinman, in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on December 12, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)
People attend the funeral of top spiritual authority for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world, Rabbi Aaron Yehuda Leib Shteinman, in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on December 12, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

The final will and testament of Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, the head of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jewry who died Tuesday, contained several passages in which he exhorted his followers not to bother with massive displays of mourning, but rather just give him a simple burial; that they dispense with the hagiographies that inevitably follow, and instead devote time to praising God.

The “light years” by which his requests were missed, in Israel Hayom’s words, can be seen in all their glory across the Israeli press spectrum Wednesday morning, as papers from secular lefty broadsheet Haaretz to the ultra-Orthodox press give extensive coverage to both the man and his massive funeral, which drew some 200,000 people Tuesday.

While many of the ultra-Orthodox papers’ front pages contain nothing but pictures of Steinman, a few words and an abundance of death notices, the secular press normally covered by this roundup (Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom) doesn’t go quite as far, though Israel Hayom does devote its first seven pages to nothing but the “giant of his generation,” as the paper terms him.

“Today we feel like orphans,” reads the tabloid’s main headline on him, recounting all the eulogies and hundreds of thousands of people who came out for his funeral in Bnei Brak.

Rabbi and ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman, left, May 2, 2016. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

Yedioth Ahronoth’s headline reads “200,000 tears,”which is a silly way of trying to report the number of people at the funeral, as if each shed just one tear or something.

Yet the papers juxtapose their displays of amplified mourning with columns and stories accentuating the sheer modesty of the rabbi, paralleling the man who headed a branch of Judaism many see as extreme with a pragmatism quickly going out of style — and columnists throw no small amount of shade on the black hats while eulogizing Steinman.

“364 days a year we are explained what’s wrong with the ultra-Orthodox. Yesterday, for one day, Israeli society stopped to look at what was okay with it. Even those far from the world of Rav Steinman could connect to the values he showed during his life: modesty, simplicity, study, perseverance, sensitivity. One hundreds and four straight years of building himself up without stopping for even a second to see if he got any likes,” writes Sivan Rahav Meir in Yedioth.

Haaretz’s Yoram Ettinger notes that Steinman managed to be both rigid and embracing, which is part of what made him a special leader.

“The fact is that during his tenure as leader of the Lithuanian Haredim, tens of thousands of his followers in Israel studied, joined the army, were exposed to the internet and used smartphones, in many cases to look for a livelihood – without paying an overly heavy price in the community, let alone being ousted,” he writes. “While Shteinman formulated a rigid ideology that the community could not live up to, in practice he left substantial breathing space for ‘transgressors.’ That was a result of the size of the community and the limited ability it had to impose iron rule, but it’s not clear if he would have imposed sanctions, even if he could have done so.”

In Israel Hayom, Yehuda Shlezinger writes that the Haredi leadership could learn a lesson or two from the late rabbi.

“Despite leading the Lithuanian Haredi community during especially stormy years, with harsh decrees from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, heavy internal pressures on issues of state and religion (Shabbat and the Western Wall) and an extremist faction that challenged Steinman’s leadership, Haredim managed to make unprecedented economic and political gains while their leaders stayed silent. He believed in the power of dialogue and lobbying and not in the style of mass protests and zealotry,” he writes.

With nearly comedic timing, Steinman’s death came just as Shas leader Aryeh Deri was making political gains thanks to the other way of doing things — loud protests and intimidation, which managed to get the minimarket law closing shops on Shabbat past its first Knesset reading.

Yedioth Ahronoth coverage includes both pictures of MKs getting a few restful winks in during the restive late night debate and shop owners unhappy that they will now be forced to observe the Jewish day of rest.

“The religious won’t rule over us. Deri went back to the Knesset and now he is telling us what is and isn’t allowed,” one store owner in Beersheba rages like a modern-day Maccabee (or actually Hellenizer). “I am willing to go to court and pay fine after fine. I won’t break and won’t give up and will continue to work on Shabbat because I love what I do. My work is my whole life and it’s always been like that. If Bibi agrees to this law, he will fall.”

Haaretz’s lead editorial is also unhappy about the law, calling it “unacceptable.”

“The government’s capitulation to this demand out of alien considerations, while ignoring the welfare of a majority of the public, grants a minority excessive power to impose its ways on the majority, and is therefore doubly unacceptable. Such an edict does not belong in Israel’s law books,” it reads.

Public pressure may not work to cancel the minimarket law, but it could work to push Israel into another war, according to a front-page analysis in Haaretz warning of the possible upshot of the trickle of rocket fire over the last few days and Israel and Hamas’s efforts to keep things under control.

“The Israeli government’s problem is that it does not fully control the situation. Continued rocket fire and ‘red alert’ rocket sirens will exact a psychological price from the Israeli residents in the region near the Gaza border, who have enjoyed a relatively long period of quiet and a major influx of new residents, as a result of a building boom and government tax breaks for the region following Operation Protective Edge,” Amos Harel writes. “Iron Dome anti-missile batteries intercepted two of the rockets fired over the past few days – and missed one rocket, which fell in a populated area in Sderot but did not cause any injuries. The Israeli army made a change recently in how it calculates the area where the rockets are projected to fall, thereby only requiring that alarms sound in a very small and more focused area, and limiting the disruption to local routines in border communities near Gaza. Nevertheless, rocket fire everyday, or every other day, would disturb the feeling of security that had been restored with difficulty and would create pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to act more resolutely. The distance could be short from that to another round of violence.”

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