Past and Present

Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2001 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Real Jewish power: Another Vision of Leadership

By Jonathan Rosenblum -- LAST Friday, I had the unenviable task of trying to explain to foreign journalists the significance of the passing of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Schach, ZT''L. I quickly found that we shared almost no common reference points. They kept looking for analogies to well-known political leaders, all of which proved to be totally useless.

The journalists all began by asking how Rabbi Shach was chosen or elected. They could not understand that the title gadol hador, leader of the generation, is not a formal position.

During the three decades of Rabbi Shach's leadership, he enjoyed an authority possessed by few leaders of the world of the yeshivos or of Jewry in general over the last two centuries. When he decided an issue, there was no question of a second opinion. His writ was universally acknowledged.

That authority did not derive from any formal position, but rather from an organic process. It was a function of the intrinsic respect in which he was held and the deference shown by the other great Torah figures of the generation.

The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ZT"L once replied modestly when asked how he became the ultimate authority on Jewish Law that, "People asked for my opinion, and I guess they must have had confidence in the answers because more and more asked.'' So it was with Rabbi Shach. His position came about because public figures and individual Jews alike brought him every issue dealing with the unwritten fifth section of Shulchan Aruch for his guidance.

Needless to say, the journalists found unfathomable such a process by which an entire community instinctively identifies its leader. When several hundred thousand Jews converged on the town of Bnei Brak in Israel for the funeral of the Steipler Gaon, zt''l, more than fifteen years ago, the Jerusalem Post was at lost to explain the outpouring of grief for one who held no official position. So the paper made up some bogus title for him, like "vice head of the Bnei Brak religious council," as if that august title would explain the number of mourners.


The reporters' second question was: What does one do to become the gadol hador? Here too my answer left them perplexed: One does nothing, absolutely nothing. Anyone who shows the slightest desire to become a Torah leader instantly disqualifies himself for the role. As we say, "One who pursues honor, honor flees from him; and one who flees from honor, honor pursues him.''

Rabbi Shach was the antithesis of modern political leaders busy triangulating and zig-zaging according to the advice of their pollsters. It's an absolutely essential condition for Torah leadership that no suspicion of self-interest of any kind attaches to the leader.

A wealthy man once offered his son-in-law $100,000 for the latter's yeshiva if Rabbi Shach would agree to write a letter of recommendation. Rabbi Shach refused. A leader, he felt, cannot afford to be beholden to anyone.

Rabbi Shach did nothing but learn and teach Torah for more than seventy years before the mantle of leadership fell on his shoulders. Those who sought his advice and guidance knew that what they heard from Rabbi Shach was the Torah that he had learned over nearly a century and his experience at the side of the leaders of the previous generation – the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rav, and HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

The joy of learning Torah was the only joy Rabbi Shach ever sought or needed. Nothing in this world held the slightest temptation for him.

As a young rabbinical student, he had only the clothes on his back. When he married, he and his wife did not even possess a closet of any kind; two pegs on the wall sufficed for all their clothing. Their possessions consisted of two simple beds, two stools, and a small table.

Decades later, a secular journalist came to interview Rabbi Shach and was astounded that the packing crates in which his seforim, holy books, arrived still served as his only bookcases.

At that time, the secular press was filled with intense speculation about Rabbi Shach's every move and spoke about him as the maker and breaker of governments. The journalist was unable to make the connection between the mythic figure said to wield so much power and the elderly gentleman, with the warm smile, living in conditions of such simplicity.

The greatness of a Jew is measured by how many people are included within the ambit of his "I.'' G-d Himself is referred to as HaGadol (the Great) because His concern extends to every living being. Similarly, the Gadol HaDor (great man of the generation) is one whose concern encompasses ever Jew.


So it was with Rabbi Shach. In 1992, he rejected every blandishment to join the Rabin government in which radical secularist Shulamit Aloni was Education Minister. Rabbi Shach would not consign the education of millions of Jewish children to someone who had made a career out of heaping scorn on the Torah, even in return for millions of dollars for Torah institutions.

Even when he spoke in the idiom of a Biblical prophet, as at Yad Eliyahu stadium in 1990, he did so out of intense love, as did the prophets themselves. He asked: "You don't fast on Yom Kippur. You raise pigs and rabbits. Your proclaim yourself `new Jews.' What about your lives links you to all of Jewish history?'' Thank G-d, the question still hurt, could still provoke outrage. Secular Israel had not yet reached the point of a "dead flesh that does not feel the knife.''

That night, Rabbi Shach refused to support Shimon Peres' effort to break up the national unity government in favor of a narrow left-wing government. Rabbi Shach supported territorial compromise if it would save Jewish lives. Yet at the stadium he refused to abandon the masses. He knew that most on the Right were not religiously observant. But he also knew that they had not yet hung out the "out of business'' sign on their Jewish identity. They still took pride in being Jewish and had an affection for Jewish tradition. If the Torah world were to abandon them at that moment, Rabbi Shach feared, the remaining connection of millions of Jews to Torah and mitzvos might be severed.

In his late eighties, Rabbi Shach required surgery to remove a growth on his leg. The surgeon told him that general anesthesia would be required. Rabbi Shach would not agree because the anesthesia would cloud his thinking, perhaps for days, and he could not afford that. He told the surgeon that he could deal with the pain. Close students pinioned his legs to prevent any involuntary movement when the surgeon's scalpel cut into his flesh.

During the same period in his life, he was informed that a helicopter had crashed killing four soldiers. He burst into tears. He did not ask whether the soldiers were religious or not. That was irrelevant. They were Jews.

His own physical pain he could control, but the pain at the death of a Jew, he could not control.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Rabbi Shach's passing is that so many Jews around the world do not know what a loving father they have lost.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Jonathan Rosenblum Distributed by Am Eachad Resources<