'A spiritual leader of enormous stature'

Gershon Edelstein, leading Haredi Ashkenazi rabbi, co-existence advocate, dies at 100

Rabbi was head of non-Hasidic Lithuanian Haredi community, with hundreds of thousands of followers, head of Ponevezh Yeshiva and spiritual guide of United Torah Judaism party

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevez Yeshiva seen at his home after lightning the Hanukkah candles on the fourth night of Hanukkah, in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevez Yeshiva seen at his home after lightning the Hanukkah candles on the fourth night of Hanukkah, in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, a highly influential leader of Haredi Jews, died Tuesday at the age of 100.

Edelstein, the head of the Bnei Brak-based Ponevezh Yeshiva and a top leader of the United Torah Judaism Ashkenazi Haredi party, died from complications connected to his age following several days in the hospital in Bnei Brak, a statement from the yeshiva said.

He was born in Russia, near the border with Belarus, to a rabbinical dynasty. Edelstein immigrated to Israel in 1934 and settled in Ramat Hasharon before moving later in life to Bnei Brak.

Edelstein was a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, with hundreds of thousands of followers.

He was a major advocate for compromise and coexistence at a time of growing estrangement between religious and secular Israelis.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend his funeral, which will be held later Tuesday in Bnei Brak, just outside Tel Aviv, the statement said.

As news of his death spread, tributes poured in from across the political spectrum.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (l), spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah party at a rally in Bnei Brak on October 30, 2022 ahead of the general election on November 1(Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he “grieves” over Edelstein’s passing, and sent his condolences to the family of the “great Torah scholar and leader.”

Netanyahu said that when he last met with Edelstein several months ago, he had the impression that “the light that shone from his eyes was full of Jewish wisdom, and that wisdom left an indelible mark on me.”

“The importance of passing on Israel’s heritage to Israel’s children emerged from the depths of his soul,” Netanyahu added.

The premier also remarked that Edelstein was born in Soviet Russia, where he said the rabbi was “forced to study Torah in secret.”

“In contrast, here in Israel, he had the privilege of spreading his wings openly over the Lithuanian yeshiva world. He never took it for granted,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also spoke with Haredi political leader MK Moshe Gafni, who leads the Lithuanian sub-faction of United Torah Judaism, Degel HaTorah.

A spokesperson for Gafni also added that the politician arrived at the hospital Maane HaYeshoua, where Edelstein died.

UTJ leader Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf released a message saying, “Together with all of the House of Israel, his many students, and those who cherish his memory, I bitterly mourn the passing of the great Maran HaGaon Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, of blessed and pious memory.”

Edelstein, he said, “was entirely focused on Torah and reverence for God, fought courageously for the holy people of Israel and the observance of Shabbat, was a remnant of a generation of thought that had the honor of raising up thousands of students, and received every person who turned to him for advice and wisdom with a warm welcome.”

Aryeh Deri, who leads the Mizrahi Haredi party Shas, tweeted, “Woe to the ship that lost its captain” and lamented Edelstein’s passing “with a shocked and grief-stricken heart.”

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)

President Isaac Herzog, who is on a visit to Azerbaijan, tweeted that Edelstein “was a spiritual leader of enormous stature whose Torah and pious greatness influenced our generation and will influence generations to come.”

National Unity opposition party leader Benny Gantz called Edelstein a “mentor” who “showed extraordinary leadership” during Israel’s national fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz was defense minister during much of Israel’s pandemic fight, and infection rates were especially high in ultra-Orthodox communities, many of whom flouted social distancing restrictions in order to continue with communal religious life.

“I will never forget his call to his believers: ‘Reading the Torah in public — will be a sin,'” Gantz tweeted.

“For someone who prayed in public his whole life, this statement to his many believers was an extraordinary magnanimity that saved many lives. In this way, he revealed himself not only as great in Torah, but also as a lover of people.”

Edelstein was widely praised for bucking calls to keep ultra-Orthodox study centers open during the pandemic and for urging his followers to get vaccinated.

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