For part of the country, the loss of a mythic leader; for the rest, a traffic jam

Disconnect in Israeli society on display as hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox attend Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s funeral, and mainstream coverage focuses on the crowd size

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky on the road leading to the city of Bnei Brak's cemetery on March 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky on the road leading to the city of Bnei Brak's cemetery on March 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In what became his most famous speech, former president Reuven Rivlin lamented that the State of Israel had devolved into four distinct “tribes” — secular, national-religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab — experiencing entirely separate existences right next to one another.

Those tribal divisions were on clear display on Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of predominantly ultra-Orthodox people gathered in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak to mourn Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who died two days prior at the age of 94.

Major highways were closed; schools in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area were moved from in-person to online; pregnant women were encouraged to adjust their birthing plans; and military drafts were postponed as the Israel Defense Forces’ main recruitment base is located close to the cemetery where Kanievsky was to be buried.

For the hundreds of thousands who turned out — and for hundreds of thousands more who stayed at home — Kanievsky’s death was the death of a giant.

For the past five years, Kanievsky has been widely regarded as “the greatest of the generation,” having replaced Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, who previously held that honor. His encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and its commentaries earned him the moniker the “Prince of Torah.”

Born in what is now Belarus, Kanievsky was part of the Lithuanian branch of the Haredi world, a stream historically focused more on rigid text study than on the spirituality of the Hasidic movement.

But Kanievsky’s influence extended far beyond his Lithuanian community, with not only Israel’s Haredi population but its entire Orthodox population seeing in him a true scholar of unparalleled religious knowledge.

In his eulogy, his presumed successor, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, lamented that with Kanievsky’s death, “We are in a poor generation, an orphaned generation.”

He added: “It is not that we have lost one [great man] but that now there is not even one great man in all of the land of Israel and in all of the world.”

Kanievsky’s son recalled his father as being devoted to his mother, refusing to eat without her by his side. “If mother didn’t sit next to him at the table, he would not have agreed to eat,” he said.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in the city of Bnei Brak, on July 15, 2021. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

Though Kanievsky was eulogized by politicians from across the partisan spectrum, his resonance with the Orthodox and Haredi communities in Israel and abroad evidently did not extend to the country’s secular population.

For many secular Israelis, Kanievsky was perhaps best known in recent years for his highly contentious initial rulings during the coronavirus pandemic, in which he called for Haredi schools to remain open and running when the rest of the country was ordered to shut down. He was also known as a vicious opponent of the internet and smartphones, calling on people to burn their iPhones in 2012.

No wonder then that Kanievsky’s status as a peerless student of the Talmud — learning the contents of the entire text each year — was not the primary focus of mainstream Israeli media’s coverage of his funeral on Sunday.

Indeed, news outlets concentrated far less on the dozens of books he wrote and far more on the traffic caused by his funeral, on the size of the crowds, and on the prospect of another stampede like the one last year at the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron that saw 45 people crushed to death. (No such stampede occurred on Sunday, though a few dozen people were treated by medics after they fainted or otherwise sustained minor injuries.)

Though some secular pundits griped about the road closures and shuttering of schools and businesses and questioned why the funeral was held on Sunday and not on Friday afternoon or Saturday night — in accordance with Jewish traditions favoring as speedy as possible burials — most mainstream outlets took a view of benign curiosity, focusing on the spectacle of the vast gathering.

According to initial police estimates, roughly three-quarters of a million people attended the funeral, a sizable percentage of the country’s population.

Yet due to the growing separation between Israel’s Haredi population and the rest of the country, while Kanievsky’s funeral may have been the largest event in Israel’s history, it was not a national event. Instead, it was a “tribal” one, with great meaning and significance for one section of the population, and no more than a logistical headache or at most a curio for the rest.

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