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From Generation to Generation, Great Rabbis Come and Go – But the System Remains the Same

Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox society is built on a strict communal regime and the political and cultural apparatus that draws power from it. It’s a strong and successful system, within and without, meaning that any hope for change is a false hope.

Without underestimating the objective greatness in Torah and religious observance of the last generation of great Lithuanian rabbis – gedolei hador – the idea of the “gadol hador” (“giant of his generation”) mainly serves the “Haredi system.” In a society built on a strict communal regime and on a political and social apparatus that draws power from it, the gadol hador is a cornerstone of the ability to maintain the system. Gedolei dor come and go, each with his unique virtues and leadership style, but the ultra-Orthodox  system, at all costs, remains standing. Therefore, unless something basic to ultra-Orthodox society changes, any hope of the gedolei dor and the Haredi public someday adopting more pluralistic and less rigid life and leadership patterns is in vain.

The Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community numbers around 450,000 – slightly more than a third of the entire Haredi population. In the seven decades since the founding of the state, it has built its life around Torah study, and spearheads what is known as the “society of learners.” In order to preserve this way of life, to maintain a strong community and prevent a leakage of members from it, a strict authoritarian regime was instituted – the aforementioned “Haredi system.” This system is led by an array of hacks and politicians whose power derives from the blind obedience and lockstep allegiance of its members. This leadership, therefore,  has a supreme interest in perpetuating the system.

In Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox society, the political and cultural apparatus to which I refer was envisioned under the leadership of Rabbi Elazar Shach (1899-2001), the first major gadol dor. By the time he died, the Lithuanian public had dramatically grown in size and political power. But in order to maintain the sector’s unity and power base, it was necessary also to preserve the institution of the gadol dor. This is how Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shteinman, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and now the elderly Rabbi Gershon Edelstein were crowned. I must emphasize that, in this discussion, my aim is not in any way to minimize these rabbis’ greatness in Torah, their religious virtues, or their meticulous observance of the mitzvot (commandments). Their honor is great and will endure.

Each gadol dor, in his turn, has brought with him a different spiritual charge and style, but the ecosystem is what frames the gadol‘s political-social-religious function. Their rule absolute, they have served as the essential symbol the unites the Lithuanian Haredi public. They all came to leadership at an advanced age, and in all of the “courts” that grew around them their religious authority was us leveraged for political power and financial gain. Thus, these gedolei dor became the glue that holds the communal regime together. The righteous foundation was used at times to justify (not always with the rabbis’ agreement) injustices and abuse of noncompliant individuals.

With the 98-year-old Rabbi Edelstein’s designation as gadol hador, the Lithuanian public is stronger than ever. Its political power is great, its economic power is rising, and the system continues to maintain its hold, to inspire fear and ensure obedience. The mass funeral held  for Rabbi Kanievsky last Sunday, which brought Israel’s Gush Dan region to a standstill, was not just meant as a final honor for the deceased gadol hador, it was also a show of power by the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, directed both inward and outward toward the greater Israeli society.

Among the ultra-Orthodox streams, the Lithuanian community is a conservative spearhead opposed to any change in its way of life. Data show that it is expanding at a larger-than-average rate (along with the Hasidic community) than overall ultra-Orthodox population. The conjunction of these two trends does not point to a coming change, with all that that implies, for the State of Israel. From this perspective as well, any hope that the age of the gedolei dor will come to an end and that the ultra-Orthodox public will change is a false hope.