Followers of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein honor late Haredi leader’s pragmatic devoutness

Seculars celebrate the moderate politics of the leader of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel, while his students recall his compassionate approach to education

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, seen in his home in the ultra orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on May 20, 2021. (Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, seen in his home in the ultra orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on May 20, 2021. (Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)

During speeches, Yaakov Vider, a politician in the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak, likes to share a quote that many of his listeners find objectionable.

“Patriotism is love of the people. Seculars in the army sacrifice their lives for other people. If a secular Jew is willing to sacrifice their life more than a Haredi Jew, then they are martyrs. Then, the secular one is the greater person,” goes the quote, which is controversial because many Haredim eschew army service in order to devote their time to worshiping God by studying scripture.

When his listeners raise their eyebrows, Vider pulls out his ace: The quote, he tells them, is by Bnei Brak’s very own Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the preeminent leader of Haredi Ashkenazi Jewry, who died on Tuesday at the age of 100.

“Part of what makes the quote so powerful is that it comes not from a person who lived 50 years ago, but from someone everybody knows,” Vider, a Likud member who favors modernizing Haredi societiy, told The Times of Israel at Edelstein’s funeral.

The quote, from a Torah lesson Edelstein delivered in 2011, six years before he became the leader of the so-called Lithuanian stream of Haredi Ashkenazi Judaism, is emblematic of Edelstein’s conciliatory stance. Edelstein is credited with facilitating coexistence between his insular minority and the less-devout Jewish majority in Israel at a time of growing tensions over religion’s role in society.

But to Edelstein’s strictly pious followers, his legacy is mainly in his devotion to Haredi education and ethics in personal relationships, several of those followers said.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of them gathered from across the country to accompany Edelstein’s body in a procession from Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, a flagship of Haredi intellectualism and Torah learning that he had headed since 2000, to the local cemetery where he was to be buried.

Thousands gather around the body of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, on May 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Ahead of the procession, several prominent rabbis eulogized Edelstein at the yeshivah.

“We dropped everything and the whole yeshivah headed to the train station as soon as we heard that the rabbi had died,” said Shuki Fouchs, a student at the Rina Shel Torah yeshiva in Karmiel in the north. Multiple traffic arteries, including parts of Route 4 and streets in Bnei Brak, were closed due to the funeral.

“His message was one of kindness, of humanity, of devotion to studying, of spiritualism in the purest sense: focusing on essence instead of money and status,” Fouchs said.

Strictly devout yet moderate in his attitude to secular society, Edelstein pleaded with families not to cut ties with members who became secular. He softened the language of edicts to refer to seculars as ignorant or erroneous rather than wicked, and he tempered divisive trends, including the recent Haredi boycott of the Angel bakery chain over its board chairman Omer Bar-Lev’s participation in a protest against the government, in which Haredi Jews are senior partners.

This earned Edelstein the respect of many secular leaders, including President Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the left-leaning Labor party. Herzog in a statement Tuesday called Edelstein “a spiritual leader of enormous stature whose Torah and pious greatness influenced our generation and will influence generations to come.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his statement wrote of Edelstein that “the importance of passing on Israel’s heritage to Israel’s children emerged from the depths of his soul.”

Edelstein, a top religious leader of United Torah Judaism party, a partner in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, emerged as a bridge connecting the Haredi and secular world in 2017, when he (along with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who has since also died) succeeded the late Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman as top Litvak, or Lithuanian Jewish, spiritual leader. Prior to that, Edelstein focused on running the Ponevezh Yeshivah.

Edelstein gradually moved into a position of political leadership despite a personal preference for education, Vider said. His impact was greatest in schools, where he led “a pedagogical revolution similar to the changes in secular education,” said Vider. Edelstein “cracked down, did not tolerate abuse of power by teachers. He pleaded for a kinder education, in which teachers would not try to twist students to fit their ideals, but adapt their teachings to better fit students’ character.”

Mourners gather during the funeral of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein near the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Another aspect of Edelstein that set him apart from other Haredi leaders was “how he ran away from leadership, which was forced upon him, while other Haredi politicians sought it,” said Avraham Azran, another yeshiva student from Karmiel. “It gave him a different status. It gave him extra authority and it adds to the sadness we feel about his departure.”

This departure came at a critical point in time for the Haredi-secular relationship, amid growing resentment of Haredi Israelis by critics who oppose the government’s policies and its concessions to Haredim on army service, positions of influence and budgetary priorities.

“During a time of terrible divisions, when many view people who are merely different to them as evil, Rabbi Edelstein shone with his love of fellow man, his attention to every student, every issue presented to him and everyone he saw,” wrote Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, an influential female Orthodox public speaker and lawyer.

Edelstein’s willingness to compromise should not be overstated, said Gilad Malach, the head of the Haredi program at the Israel Democracy Institute, which favors greater participation by Haredim in Israeli society and the job market.

“Last year, Edelstein vetoed an initiative to include secular subjects – math, English and exact sciences – in the curricula of Haredi schools,” he noted.

“He was no revolutionary and his moderate policies occupy a very limited spectrum of observance. Ultimately, Edelstein was committed to Haredi education, which does not prepare Haredim to become full members of Israel’s modern society,” Malach said.

United Torah Judaism party MK Moshe Gafni attends the funeral of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2023 (courtesy)

Edelstein, who had seven children with his late wife, Henia, settled as a child with his parents in Ramat Hasharon when they moved from their native Russia in 1934. Edelstein’s father, Yehuda, was born to a long line of rabbis, and became the city’s first chief rabbi.

The Lithuanian stream’s new leadership, whose makeup is not yet known, will likely continue Edelstein’s pragmatic line, Malach said.

“The pragmatic approach is the mainstream in the Lithuanian public,” Malach said. The radicals from that public already peeled off about decade ago, establishing what is now known as the Jerusalem Faction, he said. “So there’s little internal pressure pushing against the moderate line.”

Despite pressures by other faith leaders to defy the government’s bans on public prayers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Edelstein instructed his followers to adhere to the authorities’ emergency regulations.

But the split has also drawn lines in the sand – opposition to army service and secular studies at Haredi schools – that will likely continue to be observed by future leaders.

“With Rabbi Edelstein’s passing, a generation is coming to an end,” said Vider. “But we are not at a crossroads. The successor’s identity is not known but their public’s commitment to being a productive, positive force in this society will, God willing, prevail.”

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