When a Hareidi King Dies, Will the Modern Orthodox Weep?

Moses asks God to appoint a successor. At first glance, this is a surprising request.8 Every person that got this far in reading through the Pentateuch – all the way to the end of Numbers – would have automatically assumed that Moses’ right-hand man, Joshua, was destined to take over as Israelite leader. Was there a possibility that another would assume the top leadership role, or that the Israelites would not receive a successor at all? Nonetheless, leaving nothing to chance and cognizant of his own immanent demise, Moses now asks God for a successor. Apparently, Moses recognized that there is a world of difference between a post-mortem choice and a leader appointed during the reign of a leader. Indeed, there are several historical examples we can cite to support this distinction.

  1. Alexander the Great inherited a large kingdom from his father Philip II, and significantly expanded it. But after Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE with no clear successor, a revolt in Greece erupted as well as the War of the Diadochi (Successors) broke out lasting close to fifty years. These wars had a seriously negative impact upon the empire.
  2. Following the death of R. Moshe Teitlebaum (1914-2006), the Satmar Rebbi, in 2006, his 1st and 3rd sons vied for control of the dynastic family, with R. Aharon remaining in Kiryas Joel, New Jersey, and R. Zalman setting up shop in Williamsburg, NY. While six generations of Satmar Rebbis were able to keep the movement together (despite the occasional absence of an obvious male heir), today, they is a clear bifurcation that will not be remedied anytime soon, if ever. The same can be said for Rabbi Schneerson’s failing to designate a successor (putting aside the notion that there will only be seven Chabad rebbis), as well as the two separate heads and dormitories inside the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

Many of the issues experienced by these aforementioned examples are a direct consequent of a leadership vacuum. Had successors been chosen before the interregnum, much pain could have been avoided, and a smoother transition would have taken place. In the hareidi world, we might be closing in on a time with a similar leadership vacuum. Before he died, R. Elazar Shach (1899-2001) asked R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to join him in his public leadership of Lithuanian hareidim and the Degel HaTorah Knesset party. This association concretized R. Elyashiv as R. Shach’s only true successor even though he was relatively unknown before then. But R. Shach’s stature established R. Elyashiv rise as Lithuanian Jewry’s next head in 2001 when R. Shach passed away. Paralleling the way that Hassidish rebbis are appointed, R. Shach’s decision was like the word of God in this matter. But today the situation is different, and we’re coming upon a very interesting juncture in hareidi world politics.

R. Elyashiv (age 102) lives in Jerusalem. While R. Shmuel Auerbach (80) also lives there and is a close ally of the aging rabbi, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, R. Elyashiv has not selected a successor for the 700,000 strong Lithuanian Hareidim residing in Israel today. As most of the other great Lithuanian Rabbis live in Bnei Brak (R. Aharon Leib Shteinman (98), R. Nissim Karelitz (85), R. Chaim Kanievsky (83)), these rabbis can make a strong case to their followers that Lithuanian Jewry’s center should move from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak. This is not just a question of geography but of sensibilities. While it might seem trivial or miniscule to outsiders, there are tremendous differences between the two cities and their approaches to their Hareidi throngs, politics, polemics and hareidi professions. Yair Ettinger wrote a phenomenal article on this topic1 asking whether Jerusalem and Bnei Brak will separate into two hareidi sub-sects, much as has happened by both Satmar Hassidim and the Punevezh Yeshiva.

While most Orthodox people outside of hareidi circles might look askance at the notion that these Israeli hareidi oriented issues impact our own day to day issues, let me offer two examples of the overflow from their internal debates into our own world.

  1. Virtually all poskim (halakhic deciders) ruled that it is permissible to make sheitels (female wigs) from tonsured Indian hair (that was cut off outside of a Hindu Temple) when the matter was first ruled upon.2 When the matter was revisited fifteen years later, with R. Elyashiv leading the way, many poskim forbid the usage of such hair, as the hair was now deemed to be tiqrovet avodah zara (something associated with or used for idolatry).3 This change in law led to mass burnings of sheitels in both Israel and America.4
  2. Several years ago, I attended a one-week intensive course in Kashrut supervised and administered by the Star-K in Baltimore under R. Heinemann. That year, a massive brouhaha took place between virtually all poskim and Rabbi Heinemann. He ruled that it is permissible to press the temperature keys on a Sabbath mode oven, on Yom Tov, in order to lower or raise the temperature.5 For some reason, ten years after this Sabbath mode type of oven hit the markets, virtually all top poskim ruled that it is forbidden to press these buttons on Yom Tov. R. Heinemann stood his ground and refused to change his position, despite the fiery competition. Indeed, he told our group in Baltimore that on his recent trip to Israel, he even made an appointment to meet with R. Elyashiv to discuss the issue. But, right before he was to enter, R. Elyashiv’s lackies made R. Heinemann promise that he would not discuss anything to do with the Sabbath mode oven issues with R. Elyashiv. Reluctantly, R. Heinemann agreed. I remember visiting Baltimore in the aftermath of this controversy, only to witness the anxiety and confusion experienced by the whole Jewish community. Should they follow R. Heinemann, their local posek, or are they duty bound to follow the Gadol ha-Dor: R. Elyashiv? No one knew the answer.

These two examples highlight the importance and impact that the hareidi community (and specifically their leadership) in Israel can have on their American counterparts. Who is picked or not picked to lead can and will impact us.

So, how should we feel about these appointments? When Moses asks for a successor, he refers to God as Elokei Ruhot (God of spirits). Rashi explains that Moses wanted a successor that had the ability to relate to each person as an individual, much in the same way that God is able to do so.

But, why did Moshe wait until the end of Numbers to request a successor? Rashi explains that after he had adjudicated the case involving Tzelaphchad’s daughters’ inheritance, he then thought about his own legacy, and that which his children would inherit. He deemed it appropriate that his son(s) should inherit his leadership role. These two points – that he asked God for a successor that would treat everyone like an individual and, also, that he asked for his son to take over the helm of the Israelites, is most likely a contradiction. Only a father could think that his son, out of all the other Israelite possibilities, could best fit this picture, if that what Moses was thinking. But this is not surprising. Even Moses lacked objectivity in picking a successor.

A prime example of a successful succession that was in danger of failing can be found in the first chapter of I Kings (1:5-53). Adoniyahu – the brother of Avshalom – attempted to establish himself as King David’s successor even before David died. He found a priestly endorsement (Abiatar) and was supported by General Joab. He brought offerings, made a kingly meal, as well as established chariots and riders for himself. Obviously, this deeply troubled Solomon’s mother Batsheva, as well as the Prophet Nathan. When they confronted King David about Adoniyahu, David reasserted his oath to Batsheva that Solomon would succeed him as king. Adoniyahu was surprised that Solomon was appointed king when he already boasted of holding the position. Nonetheless, Adoniyahu knew that once David officially chose a successor, along with the prophet Natan’s stamp of approval, he would not be able to contradict it. Indeed, both Joshua and Solomon enjoyed a prophetic stamp of approval upon their appointments.

But, in a world without prophetic appointments, we should advocate a meritocracy. We ought never appoint a successor without the approval of the masses which that leader plans to assert power over, or some formal appointment process. Only through a decentralized Jewish establishment that focuses on individual autonomy can the will of the people be adequately represented. When one looks at the Talmud’s idea of Sanhedrins (courts), it is clear that each court was intended to have a certain measure of autonomy. Accordingly, the best thing for world Jewry would be for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to become two weakened hubs of halakha for hareidim. Hence, we should all thank R. Elyashiv for not appointing a successor. While some people would be inclined to say that we ought to simply ignore those rulings and influence that emanate from the Israeli hareidi community, we must remember, it is impossible to ignore other sects of Jews as we live in an ever increasing global network.

To conclude, I would like to tell a story that happened to me. As the chaplain for Yorkshire, one of my campuses is the University of York. So, when I heard that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks will be speaking at York St. John University, I phoned his office asking if he could spare the time to meet with the York Jewish Society before his speech that day. During that meeting, the Chief Rabbi gave each student a chance to ask a question. I also took the opportunity to make an observation. I had pointed out that several months earlier I had planned on organizing a HODS6 organ donation card drive, but had cancelled it when the Chief Rabbi publicly sided with those who oppose donating organs even after brain-stem death.7 As the Chief Rabbi is Chaplaincy’s patron, I thought it ill-advised to go against one of the Chief Rabbi’s public stances. More to vent than to question, I made the Chief Rabbi aware of what happened, at which point he waved his hands and said: “Oh, don’t listen to me!”

One of the greatest aspects of our religion today is the absence of compulsion and the freedom of individual expression; these are ideals that we must treat as sacred and endeavor to safeguard. The Chief Rabbi understands that; I hope we do as well.

7http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/11/chief-rabbi-donor-cards

8The Torah (Numbers 27:16) says: Va-yedaber Moshe el Hashem leimor.” (Moses said to God.) This is a very uncommon verse. We encounter the phrase “God said to Mose:” literally hundreds of the times throughout the Pentateuch. And, while the Torah records conversations, petitions, prayers, etc. between Moses and God, never are they introduced with the word ‘leimor‘ like it is here. There is no accurate translation for the word ‘leimor‘ in English, even though most English translations of the Pentateuch supply one. Really ‘leimor‘ introduces quotation marks, connoting that the subsequent words are verbatim what the speaker said. Rashi, noting the   peculiarity of the Torah citing Moses’ exact words,  questions the employment of the word ‘leimor,‘ and hence translates ‘leimor‘ as introducing a question (something it never does elsewhere). In other words, according to Rashi, the verse should be translated as Moses said to God asking.” For some reason, the Torah deemed it necessary to cite verbatim exactly what Moses asked God for.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “When a Hareidi King Dies, Will the Modern Orthodox Weep?

  1. Anonymous

    Great article, but you made ONE error. Rabbi Schneerson did not appoint a successor because he knew he’d never REALLY leave us.. Please check out his new blog “I am here. I am here”.
    Oops, sorry– that was the Mayor of Whoville.

  2. Rand

    I can’t really suss out a coherent theme in this article, but if there is one it certainly isn’t “will should the Modern Orthodox weep?”

    The article begins by noting the havoc that can occur when a leader dies without a successor. Fair point, I would expect him to conclude that one should appoint a successor.

    But no. Moses was biased, Moses and David and (I guess) Shach had prophecy and since we don’t democracy is better. Not sure how any of that follows but, okay.

    So what about Modern Orthodoxy? We have two anecdotes about large groups of Hareidim putting pressure on other Hareidim – but that’s large groups of Hareidim (not just Elyashiv or Shach) and the people being pressured are also Hareidim (Moshe Heinemann is not Modern Orthodox).

    And finally we have this: “While some people would be inclined to say that we ought to simply ignore those rulings and influence that emanate from the Israeli hareidi community, we must remember, it is impossible to ignore other sects of Jews as we live in an ever increasing global network.” Yes, the ‘global network’ is why I feel compelled to pay head to every word from the mouth of HaGaon Rav Tirzah Firestone!

    And then we have the bizarre conclusion that Judaism has no authority figures, and everyone should express his his individuality (drawn from the Lord Sack’s “Oh, don’t listen to me!”). Well, maybe Reconstructionist Judaism, but I don’t think Rav Linzer would allow that even onto his end of the boat.

    The author touches upon a few serious questions:

    Should Elyashiv have appointed a successor?

    Given that he didn’t, should the Hareidim appoint a new pope-like figure in his place?

    What is the extent of Modern Orthodoxy’s fealty to Hareidi authorities?

    How can Modern Orthodoxy overcome its inferiority complex to Hareidi Judaism?

    And does Elyashiv’s death impact that inferiority complex and/or fealty?

    The 5th (the least relevant in my opinion) seems to be the question that the article tries to tackle but I don’t see a strong argument anywhere in there.

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