A truly great rabbi

Joseph Aaron

I am not a big fan of rabbis.

As we all know, the lowest form of human life are lawyers. People so full of themselves, and so full of other stuff, that they believe it is their sacred right to charge you for every single second they spend, every single thing they do, whether it’s mail a letter or make a photocopy. People who have rigged the game so only they understand the system and so force you to employ them and their every single second billing. People who twist words, play games, drown you in legal papers, all in an effort to mess you up.

I know a lawyer or two who is honorable, but for the most part they are mostly as I’ve described above. And rabbis, though different, are almost as bad.

With rabbis, what you find mostly is cowardice, a lack of courage, a lack of true leadership, a commitment to their own denominational tribe as opposed to the Jewish people as a whole, not standing up for what matters, not  doing what Judaism needs to strengthen and thrive.

And so when you do have a good rabbi, it is something to be cherished. Which is why I am so upset that we have just lost a great rabbi, a very rare kind of rabbi.

He’s a rabbi that almost none of you have heard of, but he was a rabbi that showed there are still a very few around who show us what a real rabbi is supposed to be. His name was Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, and he died this week at the age of 104. The Jewish world is a far poorer place as a result.

Too many of those who claim to be our most righteous rabbis are, in fact, our most hateful. Somewhere, somehow they got the notion that the way to prove they are staunch defenders of G-d and Torah and Jewish tradition and Jewish values is not to reach out hands but to point fingers, not to embrace and love all Jews but to criticize and push away all Jews that don’t see or practice Judaism exactly as they do.

Almost every day you have a rabbi who outwardly looks very religious but who is inwardly full of judgementalism toward Jews, deciding who has been naughty and who has been nice, who is a real Jew as they define it and who is not.

And so you have rabbis spewing the most hateful of comments about Jews, talking about how horrible they are, calling them the vilest of names, doing all they can to stop those Jews who have the audacity to, for example, ask for their own area in which to pray as they wish at the Western Wall. No, can’t have that, can’t have Jews praying at the Western Wall unless they are Jews exactly as we demand, not unless they pray exactly as we insist.

There was no more religious rabbi in the world that Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, no more learned rabbi in the world. And yet he was only and always a mensch, never said a hateful word about other Jews, never acted as if he were better than any other Jew, was supremely sensitive to the feelings of every Jew.

Rabbi Shteinman was the leader of the non-Chasidic yeshiva haredi Orthodox community, considered to be the “gadol hador,” or great sage of his generation. And yet it is a sad but true fact that the vast majority of his followers, while saying they venerated him, do not at all act like him, do not at all follow his example as to how a religious Jew is to act.

Too many of his followers attack other Jews, mostly verbally but sometimes physically, feel themselves better than other Jews, don’t care about the feelings of other Jews.

Indeed, let me tell you my favorite story about Rabbi Shteinman. A couple of years ago, the big machers in one Israeli city decided they wanted to create a new school in their community for the “better girls,” meaning for those who were academically advanced. Not understanding, for starters, that doing good on tests does not make you a better person.

Anyway, much to the shock of these machers, who were powerful and wealthy and thought they were doing G-d’s will by wanting to segregate the religious girls in the community who got good grades, Rabbi Shteinman said no, absolutely not, they did not have his permission to start a new school for the “better girls.” His reason was simple and profound. How, he asked, would it make the girls who did not get into the new school feel? It would make them feel as if something was wrong with them, that they were not good enough, he answered. And that is not what Judaism is all about, he wisely ruled. Much better to let them learn with, and from, each other, he said.

That was Rabbi Shteinman. There are so many stories like that about him. The story about the guy who had been fixed up with a girl on an arranged marriage but who, after a few dates, decided that even though the girl indicated she wanted to marry him, he was not interested. Rabbi Shteinman counseled him on how to handle it so that the girl would feel he was not right for her, rather than feel she had been rejected by him.

And in an age when a couple former chief rabbis of Israel are in jail for taking millions in bribes and paybacks, when too many rabbis in Israel enrich themselves, legally and illegally, see being rabbis as a path to owning Rolex watches and fancy apartments, Rabbi Shteinman could not have lived a more simple life. Though he was the ‘gadol hador,’ he lived in a tiny, barely furnished, decrepit apartment for the last 70 years. His office doubled as his bedroom.

When he arrived in Israel in 1945, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, he was given a plank board and a thin mattress, standard issue from the Jewish Agency. He continued to sleep on that bed the rest of his life. He sat on a bench with no back. While many offered to upgrade his accommodations, he always refused, insisting he had what he needed.

And while somehow religious Jews have decided to be religious means to be politically ultra-right wing, to oppose any peace process with the Palestinians, Rabbi Shteinman was a political moderate. Something his many followers, who claimed to listen to every word he said, and who believed his judgment was infallible, conveniently ignored. So it was with the leader of Sephardic Jewry, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was very much in favor of the peace process, and so it was with Rabbi Eliezer Schach, a previous gadol hador and leader of the yeshiva world, who was very much in favor of the peace process.

Whenever I point that out to my ultra-right wing religious friends, they say that those rabbis felt as they did because the issues were not correctly explained to them. So these rabbis, who their followers say understand everything and whose judgment cannot be questioned, somehow were bamboozled with false information about the peace process and so came to a faulty conclusion. Showing how bankrupt, hypocritical and dishonest so many of those in today’s religious community have become.

And oh, even as today’s yeshiva world is violently against yeshiva students serving in the Israeli army, literally attack religious Jews who choose to serve and come home wearing their uniforms, literally hold violent demonstrations when yeshiva students are asked to register for the draft, call Israeli soldiers Nazis, Rabbi Shteinman backed the idea of nachal charedi, a program to provide a path for yeshiva students to serve in the Israeli army. He took a lot of heat for that, but stood up to all the criticism. He also took a lot of heat for being “too lenient,” privately allowing men not studying full-time in yeshiva to seek professional training and find jobs, or to enlist in the Israeli military.

Each day, his entire food intake consisted of one cucumber, one boiled potato and a few spoons of oatmeal. That, he felt, was all he required for sustenance. Only on Shabbat did he eat different foods in honor of the holy day. And if you wonder about a diet such as his, remember please that he lived until 104.

Rabbi Shteinman loved all Jews, every day of his 104 years. There are very real conflicts between Chasidic Jews and yeshiva world Jews, Chasidic Jews emphasizing serving G-d joyously through prayer and good deeds, yeshiva world Jews focusing much more on study and seriousness. And yet Rabbi Shteinman made a point of reaching out to leading Chasidic leaders to powerfully make the point that the two camps can and should respect each other and get along.

Indeed, because he loved and cared about all Jews, Rabbi Shteinman, though frail and elderly, continued to travel the world until he was 100, visiting Jewish communities from Mexico City to Montreal to Berlin and Buenos Aires to Gibraltar, focusing mainly on smaller Jewish communities geographically removed from major Jewish centers. Even in his 90s, he would sometimes visit four cities and give 10 speeches in a single day.

One of the things I most appreciated about Rabbi Shteinman was, unlike so many so called religious Jews, he didn’t feel the need to run down America, attack its values, talk about the need to separate from its culture. When asked why America had for the most part not suffered from foreign invasions, he said that it was because of America’s “kindness and compassion.”

It is very telling that while Rabbi Shteinman wrote 15 volumes of very learned, erudite commentary on the Talmud and the Torah, one of his most read books was one titled, ‘Leading with Love: Guidance for our Generation.’

Leading with love. That was the very essence of Rabbi Shteinman. And is the very antithesis of most of today’s yeshiva leaders who lead with criticism and condemnation.

The modesty that characterized Rabbi Shteinman’s whole long life was very evident at his funeral. In his will, he said there should no eulogies, and he asked that his followers not name their children after him, as would normally be the custom.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Rabbi Shteinman “bore the entire weight of the Jewish people’s existence on his shoulders. Despite his firm positions, he knew how to convey his ideas gently, in a pleasant manner, and with a great love of the Jewish people. He was a man whose wisdom was exceeded only by his humility.”

How many rabbis today can you say that of, use those words for? Very, very, very few. And now one less.

Be the first to comment on "A truly great rabbi"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*