The passing of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein

The haredi community is now embarking on a new path.

The late Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah party, at his home in Bnei Brak, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo: David Cohen/Flash90
The late Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah party, at his home in Bnei Brak, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo: David Cohen/Flash90
Dov Maimon. Credit: Courtesy.
Dov Maimon
Rabbi Dr. Dov Maimon is a senior fellow at the Jewish People’s Policy Institute.

The passing of Israeli Rabbi Gershon Edelstein at the age of 100 marks a significant turning point in the history of the haredi world. As the last European-born figure from the previous generation of Torah scholars, his departure signifies the end of an era.

These revered leaders, who emerged in the aftermath of the Holocaust, carried the immense responsibility of rebuilding the Torah world. They not only engaged in halachic discussions but also conveyed a profound authenticity derived from a bygone era. Their teachings were considered inspired and they were seen as representatives of the spiritual realm. People sought their guidance, blessings and promises, recognizing their authority as bearers of tradition.

As time passed, however, this generation inevitably passed away. At the same time, the haredi community in Israel has undergone significant transformation. Once a marginalized minority “under siege,” it has now become a powerful sector that wields significant political influence, shaping the policies of governments.

The community faces challenges due to its rapid demographic growth. The influence of individualistic values has eroded the uniformity that once defined the haredi world. A quarter of Jewish Israeli first-grade students now enroll in the haredi education system, but many may be tempted to deviate from the culture that required every individual who cared about the Torah to dedicate his life to reviving the yeshiva world destroyed in the Holocaust. The Torah world has been miraculously salvaged, but this success could lead individuals to seek alternative paths of personal fulfillment.

The haredi community has become fragmented, even within its Lithuanian branch. Different interpretations of core concepts such as self-fulfillment and adherence to rabbinic authority have emerged, further challenging the unity of the haredi sector. To navigate these challenges, the community must redefine its narrative of continuity to embrace diversity and decentralization.

The generational change in haredi leadership will impact Israeli society as a whole. Political leaders once knew exactly who to approach when seeking support and cooperation from the haredi community. With the passing of revered figures like Rabbi Edelstein, the address is no longer clear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to influence the haredim during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated these shifting dynamics. It raised the question of who political leaders will turn to in the future.

While these are significant challenges, the evolving landscape also presents opportunities. The fragmented nature of the haredi community allows the state to engage with different factions, employing a “divide and rule” strategy to meet its needs. Negotiations between the previous government and Belz Hasidism regarding the integration of core studies into Belz educational institutions exemplified this opportunity. Rabbi Edelstein, supported by Netanyahu, opposed the agreement, but future agreements may encounter different responses.

In the face of an uncertain future, haredi Judaism must embrace adaptation and establish a new ethos. The Chatham Sofer, a venerated figure considered the father of haredi Judaism, took his founding slogan “What has been will be” from the book of Ecclesiastes. Despite this sentiment, however, it is clear that the future will differ from the past. This devout social group, which achieved greatness under the guidance of its esteemed leaders, now finds itself embarking on a new path.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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