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At 104, Rabbi Steinman died too young

the funeral of Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman
Photo: Flash90

n the days since his passing, Rabbi Steinman has been called “a holy person,” “Maran” and the “leader of the generation.” Would it be taking a great liberty to add another title and describe him as “an internet star?” For 104 consecutive years, Rabbi Steinman was busy learning Torah and working to improve his character and he did not stop for even one second to check how many “likes” he had. Yet, when he passed away, he became a superstar in the Israeli media and on the web. Millions of people heard or read three short excerpts about him. What secret message did they contain, or to be more precise — what was his secret?

Let’s begin with his will. I drove to his funeral and took several passengers with me. Of course, we got stuck in the huge traffic jams on the way, and, as we stood in line, we heard the will that was read out during the funeral. Wow!! We were all dumbfounded when he heard his requests: Don’t crown me with exaggerated titles. Don’t argue because of me. Don’t waste time and money on my gravestone, and don’t write any impressive inscriptions on it. Bury me beside simple people. Arrange the burial as quickly as possible, etc. etc. His will sums up a long life lived in extreme modesty, during which he shunned any forms of honor and grandeur. During the funeral Rabbi Dov Landau said: “Some people speak French, others speak English. Rabbi Steinman spoke one language — the language of truth.”

This is probably why MKs Merav Michaeli and Itzik Shmuli posted the entire will on their pages for their followers. Even people whose lives are so completely different from that lived by Rabbi Steinman can identify with the values he espoused during his life: simplicity, study, perseverance, sensitivity, and gentleness. It was so gratifying to discover that such personalities still live among us, and what a welcome contrast to the headlines we have become accustomed to which tell us about corruption, loudness, hedonism, and shallowness.

One of the requests he wrote in his will was that no eulogies should be delivered during the funeral. His request was fulfilled, and the sheer number of attendees became the most eloquent eulogy. There is no need for eulogies when 200,000 people make the effort to pay their last respects to the dead person. That says it all.

Moving on from the will to the arrogance. A video clip entitled “Arrogance, arrogance, arrogance” went viral this week. It shows two communal activists in an audience with the rabbi in his simple, spartan apartment. They are trying to explain to him why they do not want to accept a student to a certain educational establishment because his standard of learning was not up to par. They give a whole list of reasons for not accepting the student, including the religious level of his family. On hearing this, Rabbi Steinman interrupted the speakers and expressed his anger. Shouting at them, he said: “There is always an arrogant person, all he cares about is being arrogant, nothing else. Arrogance, arrogance and more arrogance. Don’t think that such a person is God-fearing, it is 100% arrogance.”

This conversation is a key to understanding what motivated the rabbi. He constantly warned that in the name of ideology, good character traits and ethics are in danger of being trampled on. When he expressed his anger, he could see the rejected student in his mind’s eye, even if he did not know him, and he angrily dismissed the rabbis and administrators of the educational institution.

The media talked about the loss of a great leader, but his many followers said what a small leader he really was. He was available to see everyone who wanted to come to him — young children, sick people, an aging spinster and anyone with difficulties. One of those who made it a habit to visit Rabbi Steinman said: “People didn’t come to him for miracles or wondrous cures; they came purely for advice, to hear what a wise man has to say.”

This geniality was not reserved solely for those of the mainstream Lithuanian-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community who studied Torah full-time. Other people were also welcomed with a smile — Haredim who worked for a living or who served in the IDF, members of the Religious-Zionist community, and those who did not normally wear a yarmulke. This past week, even formerly Haredi Jews recalled his personality with great respect and love.

His love for fellow Jews was at the core of his beliefs and this love was not given enough coverage this week. While it is true that he propelled change processes and was the leader of a huge community, that he built and strengthened the world of yeshivot and Torah learning, nevertheless one of the obituary notices published was from the Ono Academic College stating that “he opened the gates of higher education and employment to an entire generation of Haredi men and women.”

While he usually was in the headlines in the context of public struggles such as his strong opposition to road blockages and demonstrations by Haredim protesting about enlistment to the IDF, Rabbi Steinman only spent a minuscule amount of his time on these issues. His true foes were honor, arrogance, and egoism, not secular Jews or the fanatic Jerusalem Haredi sect. On numerous occasions he spoke about working on and perfecting character traits. He believed that a person should not look at the faults of others, but rather should examine what needs improving in himself. “When we speak about secular Jews, we say that they should abandon their habits of eating non-kosher food and become religious. We think that we don’t eat impure food. That is not true, we do eat impure foods — senseless hatred, divisiveness and all the behavior in our dealings with others.”

As strange as it may sound, Rabbi Steinman died too young, before he had time to impart this legacy to Israeli society at large.

The third popular piece about Rabbi Steinman was also picked up by the Haredi media which publicized it widely. On the day after the funeral, Razi Barkai, the popular radio presenter on Galei Tzahal began his daily show with a short monologue. Barkai has often began his show with a tirade against the ultra-Orthodox community, but this week he spoke differently: “Yesterday, it took me two hours to get home from the studio, a journey that normally takes me just 20 minutes. I was furious and cursed the delays. But I saw crowds of thousands of young and old people who parked their car at the side of the road and set off toward Bnei Brak on foot, walking 10 or even 15 kilometers. It was obvious that they would not get to the funeral on time, but nevertheless they decided to walk, even though they knew that they would have to walk the same distance back to their cars. It was a surreal scene, and at the same time an awe-inspiring one. When I was a young child I would go on foot to the Ramat Gan stadium to watch the legendary football goalkeeper Yakov Hodorov in action. But I would never even consider going on foot to the funeral of a 104-year-old man. But then my curses turned into a kind of jealousy for this devotion.”

Razi was expressing the feelings of so many people who asked themselves this week: Who was this person and where had he been till now, why did we not know more about him? Why do we only hear about the extremists from Beit Shemesh or about the protesters who block roads? Are these people really representative of the Haredi community? For 364 days a year, we only hear about what is wrong with Haredi society. Suddenly, for one day, Israeli society stopped in amazement and awe to hear what is so good about it.


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