The never-ending cycle of Torah study in Bnei Brak was at a standstill this week as the entire city mourned the loss of Maran HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, 104, who died on Tuesday. Universally regarded as a gadol ha’dor, or “a greatest of the generation,” his voice was sought by Jews worldwide on Torah and practical matters, which he provided from his humble dwelling at 5 Chazon Ish Street.
Rav Shteinman was as modest as his home. Throughout his life, he avoided publicity, requesting in his will a speedy l’vayah with a minimal amount of hespeidim and publicity. Such understated glory contrasts with the centenarian’s impact on Orthodox life in Israel and beyond, as he organized the yeshivah-learning community into a potent social and political force.
As small as his home was, it hosted countless individuals seeking his blessing and advice, ranging from yeshivah students to politicians and diplomats. “Rabbi Shteinman carried the entire weight of the existence of the Jewish people on his shoulders,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “He was a Torah giant and guide who directed and guided the lives of thousands and tens of thousands. Despite his steadfast views, he knew how to pass on his message pleasantly, softly, and out of great love for every Jew.”
Rav Shteinman was born in 1914 in what is now Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. Regarded as a promising talent in Torah knowledge, he studied under the guidance of HaRav Moshe Sokolovsky and HaRav Aharon Kotler. Living in Brisk, he had some of the leading lights in the Litvish approach as neighbors and mentors, including HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik.
In 1937, after receiving a draft notice from the Polish army, he fled together with Rav Soloveitchik’s grandson Moshe to Switzerland. The escape from Brisk likely saved his life from the impending Holocaust. Within two years, the city was occupied by the Soviets, and subsequently by the Nazis. In Switzerland, he was briefly interned in a labor camp, but then secured work as a magid shiur in the Swiss municipality of Montreaux. It was in this neutral refuge that he met his rebbetzin, Tamar Kornfeld, and together they made aliyah in 1945.
He developed a close relationship with the Chazon Ish, who had reestablished the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. In those early years, Rav Shteinman headed its yeshivah ketanah. At the time, the Chazon Ish confronted Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on matters such as national service and public funding for yeshivos. At the time of the Chazon Ish’s p’tirah in 1953, the number of draft-exempt kollel students was only 1,240; but under Rav Shteinman’s guidance, adult learning institutions grew, as did the number of married kollel students, swelling to hundreds of thousands at this time.
Along with his role as an educator and learner, he published the widely read Ayeles HaShachar al HaTorah, on the Torah and Shas. Decades of Rav Shteinman’s parshah commentaries, halachic insights, and practical advice have been compiled into books, most notably A Gadol in Our Time by Libby Lazewnik, Leading with Love by Israel Bookshop Publishers, and A Warm Heart by Rabbi Avraham Ohayun.
The growth of the yeshivish community in Israel inspired Rav Menachem Eliezer Man Schach to form the Degel HaTorah Party in the 1980s, which ran candidates for the Knesset, where they sought to preserve the religious-secular status quo in Israeli society, often serving as a vital partner in governing coalitions. Following Rav Schach’s death, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was regarded as the leading sage among Orthodox Jews in Israel. Nevertheless, Rav Shteinman was always close to these g’dolim, and often consulted on matters of public policy.
In recent years, the issue of mandatory military service has become a leading source of conflict within Israeli society, as secular politicians seek to compel kollel students into the army, arguing that the number of exempt individuals is too high.
Rav Shteinman was unyielding in defending the exemptions of any man who wished to learn in a kollel, but at the same time supported the compromise of having them registered before the draft boards as officially exempt. More extreme elements within the chareidi sector, such as the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta and followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach, staged riots, assaulting chareidi soldiers and burning them in effigy. This was not the approach of Rav Shteinman, who responded in a firm but diplomatic manner not only to the draft controversy, but also poverty in the chareidi sector and job training. When the Nachal Haredi battalion was created to combine Torah study and military service, he quietly offered his support, earning harsh vitriol from zealots in the community. It was a tacit recognition that not all chareidim are destined for a life of kollel learning, and those who wish to pursue careers or military service should not be shunned.
As he approached the century mark, Rav Shteinman was as active as ever in his outreach. In 2010, he led a whirlwind chizuk mission that stopped in France, Germany, Ukraine, and Gibraltar. His personal visits to these communities made a great impression on local Jews, bolstering their connections to the yeshivos of Israel and the daas Torah of the roshei yeshivah.
In his absence, Rav Gershon Edelstein shlita continues to head the Ponevezh Yeshiva, while Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita lives on as the last link to the prewar European yeshivah world. “His clarity, powerful thought, and clear-headed leadership in the ways of the Torah with a deep understanding of the profundities of life and coping in our lives were unforgettable,” said Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau in a statement. “Rabbi Shteinman was a once-in-a-generation leader.”
By Sergey Kadinsky