As Agudath Israel of America mourned the death of its longtime leader and visionary Rabbi Moshe Sherer this week, officials of the organization put off for now any discussion of who will inherit the reins of the influential, ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.
“The one who is missing is irreplaceable,” said Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran of Rabbi Sherer, who died Sunday of leukemia at age 76. For now, Agudah’s vice president, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, is making day-to-day decisions for the movement, believed to have as many as 100,000 adherents in the United States. Protocol requires the completion of the 30-day halachic mourning period before any steps can be taken to find a successor, he said.
“Obviously we have to proceed and go on and manage in the future,” Rabbi Bloom said.
Meanwhile, the movement and its supporters are grappling with the loss of a figure who managed to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideas of uncompromising loyalty to insular halachic strictures and active involvement in the shaping of American political and cultural discourse.
Rabbi Sherer was an active leader of Agudah for more than half a century, including 30 years as president. Under his guidance Agudah, while building a network of social service, educational and prayer institutions, was active in causes ranging from aiding Jews in displaced persons camps after the Holocaust to pressing for vouchers for parochial school tuition and opposing partial-birth abortion in the Congress.
“Over the years Rabbi Sherer was probably the most respected Orthodox spokesman in the halls of government,” said Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, who often represented Agudah and lobbied for its causes in the capital. “As much as 30 years ago he was able to communicate with senators and heads of executive departments … and convey to them respect for Orthodox values and positions.” Lewin said Rabbi Sherer had the “foresight to deal with or anticipate problems” before their time, such as the agunah issue, women denied religious divorces.
Rabbi Sherer died only a few hours before Agudah’s annual dinner, which featured Vice President Al Gore as a guest of honor (see related story). Local elected officials, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki, joined more than 20,000 mourners at his funeral Monday in Borough Park, and were quick to issue statements of remembrance.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called Rabbi Sherer “a treasured mentor and trusted friend,” and one of Jewry’s “wisest statesmen.”
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn/Queens) said the rabbi was “a source of knowledge in my spiritual life as well as my professional obligations.”
At the time Rabbi Sherer rose to prominence, in the 1940s and ’50s, so-called black-hat Orthodoxy was poor and invisible, at the bottom of the Jewish power-and-influence chain. Modern Orthodoxy was dominant, its power base almost exclusively the mainstream Manhattan congregations that emphasized top-hat decorum, an Americanized dignity, “Orthodoxy with a reform face,” according to one prominent rabbi.
As Agudah’s top man, Rabbi Sherer led the phenomenal revival of black-hat pride among poor Eastern European survivors with no money or natural base, inspiring the building of yeshivas, congregations and kollels, while building political influence in the U.S. as well as in Israel. Agudah walked a fine line between being non-Zionist but active in the Knesset and cabinets through the group’s affiliation with the United Torah Judaism party.
Rabbi Sherer offered sharp social criticism in the U.S., but preferred a behind-the-scenes role to the placard-waving style of other contemporary religious leaders.
He spearheaded the transfer of influence from Eastern Europe of a recognized, organized body of gedolim, the Council of Torah Sages.
Rabbi Sherer also oversaw the emergence and staggering growth of Talmud learning, with the Siyum ha’Shas — the completion of the 72-year cycle of daily study. Under his administrative tenure, the siyum moved from small rooms to simultaneous Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum gatherings, with 70,000 participants across America.Some of these achievements may have seemed far-fetched when Rabbi Sherer took the helm of a movement decimated by the Holocaust and starving for followers in America.
As a champion of the continuing relevance of right-wing Orthodoxy, the clean-shaven, Brooklyn-born rabbi quickly gathered under his umbrella chasidic and non-chasidic, native and European-born branches of the fervently Orthodox, or haredi movement, although he had a longstanding rift with members of Lubavitch.
“He gave [Orthodoxy] a kind of legitimacy in the world outside,” said sociology professor Samuel Heilman of Queens College, author of “Defenders of the Faith,” a study of contemporary Orthodoxy. “His personal image was so different — he was probably the only one in that whole office without a beard, which made it possible for him to move in places he couldn’t otherwise. People were able to see beyond the face.”
It was negative stereotyping of the ultra-Orthodox as unsophisticated and fanatical that most disturbed Rabbi Sherer.
“The non-Orthodox world does not know my world,” said Rabbi Sherer in a 1989 interview with The Jewish Week. “We’re supposed to be haredim, violent, rock throwers. It’s such a false picture.”
Although he labored to bring together the different factions of Orthodoxy, he was unflinching in his refusal to accept Judaism’s other denominations. Agudah’s own biography of the rabbi notes that he “made no secret of his disapproval of ‘Jewish religious pluralism,’ rejecting the notion that there can be multiple versions of the Jewish faith” while “never condemning Jews of lesser observance.”
In a 1994 Jewish Week column, Rabbi Sherer described his refusal to participate in an interfaith commission on Jewish identity.
“When there is such a fundamental divergence of perspective regarding the source of the problems,” Rabbi Sherer wrote, “there simply is no way that a meaningful consensus can be developed regarding the necessary solutions.”
In the same column he likened the prominent role of Reform representatives on the commission to “[turning] to the arsonists who set the fire for solutions on how to put it out.”But non-Orthodox leaders respected him despite their disagreements.
“He was certainly a man of principle,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “While I thought he was not as open to the Conservative movement as I think was appropriate, I respected his commitment and willingness to stand for what he believed in.”
With Rabbi Sherer serving as such a central pillar of the movement, some questioned whether it could withstand his demise.
“He kept all the various constituencies from imploding and exploding,” said Heilman. “He made them understand that there was more to be gained from working together than from emphasizing differences among them. It is always the peacemaker who is most missed.”
The Israeli daily Haaretz, citing unnamed haredi sources, predicted “fierce power struggles” in the wake of Rabbi Sherer’s passing. But Rabbi Shafran, the Agudah spokesman, said the movement’s staff and officials would be guided in the months ahead by Rabbi Sherer’s examples of statesmanship.
“We will be imagining what he would say in every situation that we should face,” he said.
Adam Dickter is a staff writer. Jonathan Mark is associate editor.