The other day I travelled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I sp’end most of the day at Tel Aviv University meeting with colleagues, researching, and getting organized for the fall semester that I will spend as part of this intellectual community (although I will not be teaching). Despite the punishing heat, it was delightful. Then in the late afternoon I set out to the beach, where I met my family. We swam in the Mediterranean (that, yes, was far hotter and saltier than the Atlantic up where I live), changed, and ate a light dinner on the beach as the sun set. It was a terrific day, and as night fell we boarded the bus to return to Jerusalem.
At the same time, unbeknownst to us, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva movement, Rav Elyashiv, died in Jerusalem at the age of 102. As we sat at the beach in Tel Aviv, the funeral procession was planned. By the time our bus left the depot in Tel Aviv, scores of Rav Elyashiv’s followers had assembled and began to carry his body from his home in Meah Shearim to Givat Shaul, where he was buried next to his wife. By the time the bus arrived at the outskirts of Jerusalem, the roads were clogged with people – the estimate the next day was 250,000. The bus could not get through to the station. The driver got lost, and the bus never made it to the station. Finally, the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road next to yet another closed section of town, and discharged us all. It was midnight, and we all trudged through the crowds attempting to find an open road to get a taxi home. It took a while.
From what I understand, there are many things not to like about Rav Elyashiv that go far beyond the inconvenience his funeral caused us. He was the standard-bearer of isolationism, opposing most all kinds of participation of his community in general society. This too might not have been so bad had he not also been the unofficial spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah political movement in Israel. What makes this even more ironic and distasteful is that he turned on the religious Zionists who taught and nurtured him, coming to reject ideologically the State of Israel itself. For an interesting profile, see this essay by Matti Friedman.
That said, though, unlike so many political and religious leaders, Elyashiv was no pious fraud. He walked the walk, studying most of his waking hours and living modestly and without scandal. He was revered as an embodiment of Torah who also had a keen skill for reconciling theoretical law to pragmatic needs. Accordingly, his opinion and legal rulings were sought on many topics.
As we weaved through the enormous crowd the other night, it was clear that people attended for a variety of reasons. Many were gawkers and others came out of social expectations or desires. Many, though, also came sincerely, to pay their last respects to a man they never personally knew, who for them embodied the life that they sought to lead. 250,000 people turning out on an afternoon’s notice to mourn a 102 year old man who occupied no official position, but sat most days studying Talmud? There must be something that we can learn from that.