A One-Man Supreme Court
Why a quarter of a million people turned out to mourn Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who died on July 18, 2012, at the age of 102, never graduated from any yeshiva, never had any degrees, or a lot of money. The one formal position he did hold, working as a rabbi and later serving as a judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, he walked away from over a matter of principle: He thought that the chief rabbi at that time was issuing a wrong decision on a matter of Jewish law, and so he resigned.
And yet, Elyashiv was generally regarded as the final arbiter of his generation, a one-man Supreme Court in all matters of halakhah and communal policy for a large segment of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox communities in both America and Israel. And like the Supreme Court, his jurisdiction ran to all cases arising under this Set of Laws, in law, and equity, and because Jewish law is so encompassing, beyond into the areas of proper and ethical behavior as well. What made Elyashiv’s analysis so brilliant, and what made his decisions so compelling to read even if you do not agree with his worldview, was profound simplicity. His judicial style was to break big questions into little ones and then to seek the most compelling answer to the littlest question and to build from there, until the right answer to the biggest question appeared obvious—as if all Elyashiv had done was to show you what you already must have known. In an age of flashy comparisons and analogies within Jewish law, Elyashiv’s decisions were presented in a way that often seemed to just be the straightest line between two points; they were clear, with no extraneous material, and left you with hardly any questions to ask or points to argue with.
While it is true that we have elements and examples of many different kinds of leadership in Jewish history and culture, from the traditional inherited authority of the Kings of Israel down to the current Hasidic dynasties, and from the charismatic leadership styles of Abraham down to (in the last generation, for instance) the dynamism of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, one of the interesting facts that distinguishes Judaism as a religion is our preference for, and reliance on, the third type of leader, the rational-legal authority; the jurisprude. From Moses, the Lawgiver, and down; from Rabbi Judah HaNasi, redactor of the Mishna, to Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo (the author of the Shulchan Aruch), these individuals have been among our nation’s greatest heroes. And while this kind of leadership is not uncommon in a legal or political setting (see for instance Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and his impact on American society), it is somewhat unique in religious life. Whether or not you agree with any one or all of Elyashiv’s numerous halakhic rulings, his life is a testament to a real and important kind of Jewish leadership.
Elyashiv was a quiet man, one who spent his life thinking through complex problems and offering solutions to a public that eagerly awaited them—not because of his noble lineage, and not because he was a particularly dynamic and engaging speaker, but simply because his answers were so often correct and helpful to his community. Consider for example the issue of gender separation on Haredi buses; some favored forcing such separation, and some opposed such separation. Elyashiv’s view was almost unique: Jewish law mandated such separation, he said, but no one was to be coerced into separating if they chose not to do so on their own.
There is no test to take to become such a manager and no appointment process to become such a judge; his was purely a position of unappointed trust, given by a community, and built up over decades of listening carefully to questions and giving answers that were reliably correct. His rulings were never enforced by any executive branch, and he was never provided with a car and driver or a bodyguard to protect him. He publicly decried violence or coercive measures, even when it came to protecting the religious values he held so dear; to force someone to listen to him was the antithesis of his leadership style. He thought that his job was to show people the right way to live by dint of logical persuasion and factual correctness. And, not incidentally, he worked very, very hard. From his youth until just a few months before his death at 102, Elyashiv spent almost all his waking hours engaged in the serious study of Jewish law: Unlike other great rabbinic personalities of his generation, there are no pictures of him on vacation, because he seemed not to have taken any. He appeared to be a living embodiment of the argument that sweat and toil do pay off—no politics, and little charisma, is needed.
From a historical perspective, it is worth noting several things about his life and legacy. Elyashiv sat on nearly every case in the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel in its early years of existence, and it was his jurisprudential approach that helped establish that court and its methodologies. Elyashiv in fact had two, full-length 40-year careers: His stint for the Chief Rabbinate wasn’t a quick or youthful fling; he was a judge until the age of 65 before he shifted gears and became a global religious leader. The closest analogy one can find in U.S. history is President and Chief Justice Taft, who managed to pull the switch in reverse. To do both, and do both in peerless fashion, is the stuff of legend.
As a judge, Elyashiv believed in hearing cases and resolving matters rather than using cases to score points. Indeed, one of the first cases that catapulted him to fame is still widely read and discussed today. Published in 1957 (3 PDR 3, 5717), it dealt with a Yemenite girl who arrived in Israel after having been betrothed by her mother in Yemen to a man who subsequently converted to Islam. In Israel, her status was officially that of an aguna, a wife trapped in marriage, which meant that she could not marry again. Rabbi Elyashiv, in what was widely hailed as a penetrating and profound opinion, found a technical way out of the marriage, ruling that because the girl’s father had not been present and she was too young to agree herself to the marriage—she was perhaps 11, though no one knew her precise age—the marriage was annulled. This case, still widely cited, established the practice of the rabbinical courts that de facto marriages would not be considered valid in the rabbinical courts of Israel.
Elyashiv was judicially conservative. Changes in the status quo needed to be explained more readily than preservation of the historical rules. Thus, he resisted liberalizing conversion standards to address the reality of Russian immigration to Israel and rejected directly the argument that the establishment of the state of Israel itself changed at all the fidelity to Jewish law that a convert needed to undertake.
As a leader and policymaker he was not closed off to a changing world; he understood that technological change was inevitable, and even very late in his life he sought to be up to date on changes driven by modernization. His regular writing on different aspects of technology and Jewish law reflected a realization that technological change was part and parcel of the present and needed to be analyzed.
Particularly as he grew older, he became a sharp critic of a liberal reexamination of Jewish family law and sought to enhance the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts—in their political battles with the secular courts of Israel—by reviving the doctrines of coerced divorce. Although we ourselves find ourselves very clearly on the other side of this technical matter of Jewish law, this too was part of Elyashiv’s jurisprudence; he passionately believed that the rabbinical courts were central to the religious life of the community and encouraged fierce resistance to political meddling in religious law.
Indeed, Elyashiv remained for his entire life an active and influential member in Israeli politics, with nuanced and complex positions on land for peace, and many other matters. In the end, his life is a testament to the idea that Jewish leadership need not be about self-enrichment or getting votes, and can instead reward those capable of applying ancient truths to new realities. May his memory be for a blessing.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The Material World, Dan Fishback’s new musical, uses the Jewish left to ask: Are consumers the new workers?