The Invisible Hand
Yair Ettinger • Ha'aretz
His face is unfamiliar to most Israelis, nor does he appear often before the ultra-Orthodox; he hardly ever participates in conferences or has his picture taken, and he has never given an interview. He hasn't written any books, even in the field of expertise that has earned him the title of "the posek [arbiter] of the generation," and his ascetic daily schedule includes rising at 3 A.M., followed by hours during which he is bent over a volume of the Babylonian Talmud, all by himself. But Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who turned 100 on the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan (this past Tuesday), is one of the strongest and most influential people both in Israel and in the entire Jewish world.
We saw proof of that two weeks ago, when two words from him, "Don't compromise," caused his two representatives in the Knesset to attack the conversion bill initiated by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), which was designed to make the process of conversion in Israel much easier. MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) succeeded within two minutes to unravel an initiative that had been a year in the making, and which involved no fewer than 26 coalition MKs from Yisrael Beitenu and Shas.
In this case, it is not a political maneuver, but an ideological battle of giants, and there is a winner. There was a reason why the Sephardic party Shas retracted its support for the conversion law, even after the initiative had been approved by the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and his right-hand man, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. Interior Minister Eli Yishai and his people are careful to call their spiritual leader by titles such as "maran" ("our master") and "maor yisrael" ("light of Israel"), but when it comes to matters of religious worldview and ideology, there is another Yosef who decides: Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
Ovadia Yosef himself has refrained from clashes on matters of halakha (religious law) with either Elyashiv or his tough and uncompromising rulings ever since the 1950s, when the two men participated in the same elite study group in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Elyashiv has no official position, but from his humble home in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, he also decides for Israeli citizens and world Jewry - who is a Jew, who will convert, who will get married and how he or she can divorce, what will happen to the economy during the shmita (agricultural sabbatical year) and what will be the fate of organ donations. He of course decides who will fill senior positions, such as the mayoralty of Jerusalem and the role of chief rabbi, while for the ultra-Orthodox he simply decides everything: from individual halakhic questions - which are presented to him when he receives the public or as an "on the spot" ruling, and which are occasionally recorded in his students' booklets - to public questions concerning elections, the coalition and demonstrations, and just about anything else.
That is why it is so strange that only few journalistic pieces have been written about Elyashiv and his halakhic rulings, and no biography was written about him until recently, when "Hashakdan" ("The Studious One") was published by an anonymous author. The biography has left the rabbi's family up in arms, apparently because it placed too much emphasis, in their opinion, on the period when he served as a dayan (judge) in the state's rabbinical court system. Whether or not that is the reason, an ad published by the family in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne'eman about two months ago, stated the following: "The book was published without permission and consent, it contains many inaccuracies and things that are not true. And such things should not be done."
A "Lithuanian" Haredi Jerusalemite like Rav Elyashiv certainly does not "celebrate" unimportant dates such as birthdays, but for the rest of us, it's worth noting the centenary of the man's birth. In such limited space there is no point in summing up his life story or even listing the main events in his Torah career, but we can note the stage at which, after being a dayan and a rabbi, who had joined the halakhic elite at a very young age, he became the leader of the Lithuanian-Haredi community. That happened only eight and a half years ago, when Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who passed the torch to Rabbi Elyashiv, his successor, passed away at age 103. During this period, in his 10th decade, Elyashiv forged a meteoric path, becoming the most influential leader of the Jewish world.
According to Dr. Benjamin Lau, rabbi of the Ramban congregation in Jerusalem, and author of a halakhic biography of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: "Rabbi Ovadia [as Yosef is popularly known] brought about a major revolution in the world of Sephardic halakha, but the victory belongs to the Lithuanians. What happened with the conversion law is a symptom, because the fact that the Ashkenazi elite recognized him as a leading Torah scholar will always be of importance to Rav Ovadia. At the moment of truth, he will always subordinate himself to Rav Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv will always remain above Rav Ovadia."