‘His entire life was holiness’: Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, leader of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewry, dies

The funeral of the 100-year-old rabbi in Bnei Brak, respected by people from all walks of life, is expected to draw tens of thousands of mourners.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, leader of ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian Jewry in Israel, passed away Tuesday morning at the age age 100.

The venerable rabbi had been hospitalized since Friday, when he fell ill during the Shavuot holiday.

A rabbinic leader for many years and head of the famed Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak for the last two decades, Rabbi Edelstein took charge of the political decisions made by the Council of Torah Sages after his esteemed colleague, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, died just over a year ago.

The Council guides the Degel HaTorah faction of the United Torah Judaism party in the Knesset

Although Rabbi Edelstein ruled that the Belzer Rebbe should withdraw from a plan whereby the Hasidic network of schools would incorporate basic secular studies in exchange for more government funding, he was more accepting of non-religious people than many other ultra-Orthodox leaders.

In his rulings, he related their non-observance to ignorance of Torah rather than any inherent evil.  Statements included, for example, “If they give their souls to save others out of love for others, they have a place in the afterlife,” just like those who have given up their lives to sanctify God’s name. Some saw this as cracking the door open for haredi enlistment in the IDF.

Read  After left-wing provocations, hundreds join solidarity demonstration in Ultra-Orthodox city

Israeli political and religious leaders mourned his death.

“Today the world of Torah along with the entire Jewish People has lost a wise and renowned leader…whose entire life was holiness,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “I mourn his passing and send my most heartfelt condolences to the members of his family.”

Netanyahu added that he had met the rabbi several months ago, “and the light that shone in his eyes was full of understanding.”

He also noted that the rabbi had begun his Torah path under very trying conditions. “Rabbi Edelstein always remembered the days of his youth in Soviet Russia in which he was obliged to study Torah in secret,” which led to his “never tak[ing] anything for granted. On the contrary, the responsibility for shaping the spiritual image of masses of Jews guided him day and night.”

Edelstein immigrated to Israel with his family in 1934. He and his brother studied Torah intensively with their father before becoming members in 1943 of the first class of the Ponevezh Yeshiva that he would one day lead.

Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, David Lau, said that Edelstein “strongly and decidedly led the Jewish People even at his ripe age,” and that the rabbi had given him “guidance and wise advice in all religious matters until very recently.”

Read  Beit Shemesh mayor rescued by police as protesters trash her car

On behalf of the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, Gush Etzion Mayor and Yesha Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman mourned the loss of “a righteous giant” who was “a Torah genius, minister, and true leader of Israel.”

“The world of Torah is the important foundation for our lives, and for our existence in this country,” he said. “We will continue to learn, build, and teach with all our might, even at this difficult moment. May his memory be a blessing.”

Noted Orthodox women’s educator and public speaker Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi wrote of the particular cost of losing a leader who exemplified warmth to everyone, no matter their background.

“It’s never a good time for such a righteous man to be taken, but if there was ever a time when we needed a figure like Rabbi Edelstein, if there were ever a time when we could not afford such a loss, then that time is now,” she wrote.

“During a time of terrible divisions, when many view people who are merely different to them as evil, Rabbi Edelstein shone with his love of fellow man, his attention to every student, every issue presented to him and everyone he saw.”

The rabbi’s funeral Tuesday afternoon in his hometown of Bnei Brak is expected to draw tens of thousands of mourners; police have shut down the major roads within the city and routes leading to it to accommodate the crowds. Many more buses and trains have been added to their Bnei Brak routes to encourage people to use public transportation, as private vehicles will not be allowed to enter or exit the city.