National News

Aharon Leib Shteinman, Ultra-Orthodox Leader in Israel, Dies at 104

Posted December 13, 2017 8:03 p.m. EST

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a revered figure in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world whose influence was keenly felt when he reluctantly went along with Israel’s military conscription of adherents who were not in full-time yeshiva study, died on Tuesday in a hospital in Bnei Brak, Israel. He was 104.

His death was confirmed by the hospital, Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, which is near where he lived. Bnei Brak is a heavily Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, and tens of thousands of dark-suited, black-hatted men and boys crowded its streets for the funeral on Tuesday.

In recent decades, Shteinman had been one of the two towering figures in the non-Hasidic but still ultra-Orthodox world of Lithuanian-rooted or yeshivish Jews, a segment of rigorous Judaism that numbers over 1 million around the world.

The other, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, was regarded as the pre-eminent authority on applying the Torah and Talmudic law to modern problems. He died five years ago at age 102, leaving Shteinman the sole holder of the informal title “gadol hador,” or leader of the generation.

Although Shteinman was also esteemed as a great sage, his unofficial bailiwick was promoting lifelong Torah study by adult men, upholding standards of the yeshivas and finessing political dealings with the Israeli government.

Politically, he was regarded as a moderating force, cautioning against implacable confrontations with the government over issues like a series of court decisions that required the drafting of all eligible men — observant or not — for the military.

Almost all young ultra-Orthodox men had been able to secure exemptions, but Shteinman reluctantly conceded that those Haredim who were not engaged in full-time study could no longer receive exemptions. Requiring anything less, he indicated, would be a self-defeating policy for the government.

The most recent ruling requiring all men to serve was handed down by Israel’s highest court in September.

In his role as a guardian of yeshivas, he vigorously opposed any educational structures that smacked of elitism, according to Rabbi David Hofstedter, leader of Dirshu, an ultra-Orthodox organization based in Canada that provides stipends for yeshiva study. Shteinman, using his own experience as a boy, argued that the brightest students could still study among those who were not as sharp Talmudically.

Shteinman was a leader of the Degel HaTorah political party, which along with the Agudath Israel party formed a Haredi coalition that exerted outsize influence on a series of governments, including the current one led by Benjamin Netanyahu, when they were unable to form ruling coalitions of their own.

Shteinman was known for his humility. He lived in the same small apartment for decades, not even bothering to have it painted. He slept on the same thin mattress he acquired as a new refugee from World War II, and he was said to eat and sleep very little. His will, which was read at the funeral, asked that no eulogy be given, that no obituary be written and that followers not name children after him.

Shteinman was born on Nov. 14, 1913, in Kamenitz, near the city of Brest-Litovsk — Brisk in Yiddish — in what is now Belarus. While studying in a yeshiva there, he attended lectures given by Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, a member of perhaps the most esteemed dynasty of Torah scholars, one of whose descendants, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, was a luminary of the modern Orthodox movement. He also studied with another Talmudic giant, Rabbi Aharon Kotler.

When he reached draft age, Shteinman fled with two other Brest students to Montreux, Switzerland, which had a respected yeshiva. But after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, he, like thousands of others Jews who had found refuge in Switzerland, were put to work in labor camps, though because of his slight frame he was assigned a desk job.

He was the only member of his large family to survive the war. While in Switzerland, he married another refugee, Tamar Kornfeld. She died in 2002.

His survivors include two sons, Moshe and Shraga, and a daughter, Tovah. Another daughter, Rachel Devorah, died in late November. A complete list of survivors was not available.

In Bnei Brak, Shteinman was made head of a kollel, a yeshiva for adults, named Ponevezh, and served as the chief scholar of another yeshiva. He also published a popular series of pamphlets on faith, ethics and education that were based on lectures he gave at his kollel.

Shteinman was widely respected and listened to by the leaders of Hasidic sects based in Israel, including Viznitz and Ger, said Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella group for ultra-Orthodox sects and organizations.

Shteinman also traveled to visit adherents in Lithuanian-Jewish enclaves, like those in Lakewood, New Jersey, and the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Wherever he went he urged moderation in dealing with secular governments.

“He believed in a practical approach, not tangling with government when not absolutely necessary,” Rapaport said.