When he immigrated to Israel shortly after World War II ended — after fleeing the clutches of the Polish army, residing in Switzerland as the Holocaust swept across Europe, and later traveling through Spain — Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman received a stark, no-frills mattress from the Jewish Agency, par for the course for Jewish immigrants in the not-yet-established Jewish state.
In his modest, two-bedroom apartment in the central Israel city of Bnei Brak, the man who would become the venerated leader and governing legal authority of Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel after the 2012 death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, slept on that bed for over 60 years, replacing it only in 2012 for medical reasons, according to a profile in the Israel Hayom daily from that year.
Steinman died on Tuesday at the age of 104, according to the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center. Tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral in Bnei Brak on Tuesday afternoon. The rabbi’s health had deteriorated late last month, after his eldest daughter, Rachel Devorah Berlin, 72, died of a heart attack in her home.
Privately, Steinman has for years been rumored to permit some ultra-Orthodox, who are not learning Talmud full-time, to seek professional training, employment, or enlist in the IDF, amid allegations by his more hardline critics in the ultra-Orthodox community that he adopted a “too conciliatory” approach to the Israeli government and secular society, and tacitly supported the establishment of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehudah battalion.
Steinman has long rejected the claims, speaking out forcefully against army service and academic study, encouraging full-time Torah study for Haredi men, discouraging Haredim from seeking employment, and vigorously resisting modernity.
“The world was created because of the Torah, and without it we have no purpose,” said Steinman in Odessa in 2010, according to the Mishpacha Magazine, when the elderly rabbi embarked on a global tour of Jewish communities. “When the Torah was given, say the sages, the mountains danced! Have you ever seen mountains dance?”
A longtime educator, head of the high school branch of the esteemed Ponevezh Yeshiva, founder of the Orhot Torah yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and author of over 30 books on Jewish law, Steinman was known affectionately by his ultra-Orthodox followers as “the rosh yeshiva,” the head of the yeshiva. Carving out a niche in educational counseling, Steinman was for years sought out for guidance by thousands of Haredi parents of students expelled from or struggling in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva system.
“You who do holy work, who deal with holy souls, must know that every young man can be great in Torah,” he told yeshiva educators in 2014, according to the ultra-Orthodox Kol Berama radio station. During that meeting, he told the teachers not to punish their students harshly, as it may diminish their observance, and “certainly not [act] out of anger or annoyance.”
Photos and videos of Shteinman show him nearly perpetually flanked by students and visitors to his home, huddled around the slight, soft-spoken rabbi.
Brest to Bnei Brak
The spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah faction in the United Torah Judaism party was born in the Brest region in what was formerly Poland, (currently Belarus) and was educated within the Lithuanian “Brisker” tradition of Talmudic study.
Steinman fled Poland before the outbreak of World War II to evade the Polish military draft, settling down in Switzerland, where he would remain throughout the war, including a period of internment at a labor camp near Basel. In Switzerland, Steinman married Tamar Kornfeld, also from Poland, and the two immigrated to Israel when the war ended. His family was murdered in the Holocaust. Steinman’s wife Tamar died in 2002; the two are survived by three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Upon arriving in Israel, Steinman began teaching at various yeshivas, first in the city of Kfar Saba and and later in Bnei Brak. He authored several dozen books on Jewish law, including a 15-volume text on the Talmud and five-volume text on the bible, both of which are titled “Ayelet HaShachar.”
The ‘Haredi Wikileaks’
Following the death of Elyashiv in 2012, a succession fight broke out between the followers of Steinman and those of Jerusalem-based Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who has advocated a more forceful response by the ultra-Orthodox to attempts by the Israeli government and the Yesh Atid party in 2013 to draft legislation to recruit the Haredim into the Israeli army, from which they have traditionally enjoyed blanket exemptions.
While the legislation has since passed, was subsequently rolled back when the Haredi parties rejoined the coalition in 2015, and the Haredi-led postponements rejected by the High Court of Justice over the summer, Steinman — according to his effective mouthpiece, the Yated Ne’eman newspaper — was opposed to protests against the original tougher draft law, with the exception of one mass march in Jerusalem. He also urged yeshiva students to go to the IDF induction centers upon receiving draft notices. (Auerbach, by contrast, instructed his followers not to respond to the draft notices and his followers, the so-called Jerusalem Faction, have held mass protests in response to recent arrests).
While Steinman has long denied accusations by his rivals, including the Neturei Karta sect, that he supported the creation of the Haredi battalion in the IDF for those not studying Talmud full-time, in 2014, the Israeli media reported that the Haredi religious leader had met with Israeli politicians from the Shaked Committee formulating the legislation for the mandatory draft in his home. At the time, Steinman had spoken out against the “government of evildoers.”
What was dubbed by the Israeli media as the “Haredi Wikileaks” drew a furious response in some quarters of the Haredi community, and was denied by some Steinman associates, but nonetheless underlined his careful balance act between political pragmatism and upholding the community’s official and resolute opposition to military service.
As the religious adviser for the Degel HaTorah faction of UTJ, led by MK Moshe Gafni, Steinman in 2012 ordered the Haredi lawmakers to vote against the so-called Regulation Bill, which would legalize construction built on privately owned Palestinian land, arguing that under Jewish law one cannot force another to sell his property. Other religious authorities at the time, including the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former spiritual leader of the Shas party, said the legislation did not violate Jewish law. (The Regulation Bill has since been revived in the Knesset and passed into law last winter, with the support of the United Torah Judaism party; it was not immediately clear whether Steinman revised his position on the matter).
Steinman has also been rumored to permit academic study in individual cases, but as recently as December 2016 scoffed at the notion of “Haredi academia,” likening it to a “pig wearing a shtreimel” [Hasidic fur hat], according to the ultra-Orthodox Kikar HaShabat website.
— מאיר גל (@meir_gal) December 12, 2017
After the death of his wife, Steinman — then in his nineties — traveled to various Jewish communities around the world, including in the United States, Ukraine, Germany, and Gibraltar.
“Do you ever wonder why America, alone among the great powers of history, has never suffered a significant foreign invasion? It’s because America is a malchus shel chesed [a kingdom of charity], a nation whose essence is chesed [charity],” he told the Mishpacha magazine during his travels in a rare interview. “If they wish to be further protected from the birth pangs of the Messiah [a reference to a period of violence preceding the coming of the messiah], it is incumbent upon the Jews of America to be in the forefront of chesed. They must make sure to continue supporting Torah and charitable activities. This is their only shield.”
Steinman, who lived over 100 years, also mused about the value of longevity, according to the Hidabroot website.
“On the one hand, there is a value to longevity — you can do more mitzvot [good deeds],” he is quoted as saying. “On the other hand, you will need to account [in a heavenly tribunal] for every single second… I always think to myself — what is preferable? A man who lives to an old age and needs to account for every second, or a man who doesn’t and by extension, has less of an account to give?”