Hundreds of thousands mourn Jewish spiritual leader in Israel

Bnei Brak (Israel) (AFP) –


Hundreds of thousands attended funeral ceremonies in Israel Tuesday for a spiritual leader of ultra-Orthodox Jews after his death aged 104, with a sea of black-hatted mourners thronging his neighbourhood.

Rabbi Aaron Yehuda Leib Shteinman was considered the leading spiritual authority for ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and his death led to an outpouring of grief among his followers.

Around his modest home in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak, dense crowds of men in traditional black suits and wide-brimmed hats packed the streets, while women gathered separately nearby in accordance with strict interpretation of Jewish law.

Police estimated the crowd to number in the hundreds of thousands.

Hundreds of policemen pushed aside mourners to create a path for an ambulance carrying Shteinman's body as psalms from the funeral ceremony blared through massive speakers.

One man said he made sure to bring his young son to the funeral.

"This is our final show of respect to the generation's greatest rabbi," said the mourner who identified himself only as Haim.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that "the Jewish people have lost a spiritual and moral lighthouse... who taught generations of students who will carry the flame of the Torah with pride."

President Reuven Rivlin also mourned the rabbi's death, saying he had "guided countless Jews in his lifetime".

- Religious piety -

Shteinman had been hospitalised at the Mayanei Hayeshua medical centre in Bnei Brak three weeks ago with breathing problems.

He forbade memorial ceremonies in his honour, ordering that he be buried in a regular plot with the stone stating his name only.

He said mourners could instead learn in his memory and donate money to charity.

Known for his simple lifestyle and religious piety, Shteinman nonetheless wielded major influence over the lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews and their political parties in Israel.

The ultra-Orthodox follow a strict interpretation of religious law, and account for some 10 percent of Israel's eight million people. Their political parties have often played a kingmaker role in the country's politics.

Shteinman was Ashkenazi -- Jews of European origin -- and led what is known as the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

But his influence extended across other branches of the ultra-Orthodox, including among Sephardi Jews, or those of Middle Eastern origin, both in Israel and across the world.

He travelled regularly, appearing at conferences in New York, Mexico, Berlin, Odessa, Manchester and Paris in recent years despite his age.

Long a prominent figure among the Ashkenazi, Shteinman became the top rabbi for the ultra-Orthodox with the death in 2013 of Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph.

Born in 1913 in Belarus, he studied there and in Switzerland before emigrating to British-mandate Palestine in 1945.

- Political arbitrator -

He taught at the leading talmudic schools in Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city in the suburbs of Tel Aviv where he also lived.

His influence grew in the 1980s when he became part of a rabbinical committee running Degel Hatorah, a component of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) alliance whose six lawmakers are members of Netanyahu's coalition.

"We were orphaned this morning," said the UTJ's Moshe Gafni, who considered Shteinman to be an arbitrator on political as well as spiritual matters.

"Rabbi Shteinman's death is a loss to an entire generation, of millions of Jews in Israel and the world," Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau said.

"He was the generation's leader who protected the generation with his prayers."

Shteinman was seen as pragmatic on a certain number of issues while still firmly staying in line with ultra-Orthodox tradition.

Ultra-Orthodox studying in religious seminaries are exempt from serving in Israel's military unlike their secular Jewish counterparts.

The most extreme refuse any contact with the government, but Shteinman was open to allowing ultra-Orthodox not engaged in religious study to serve, as one example.

The ultra-Orthodox are against serving for a variety of reasons.

Some do not recognise Israel, believing that a Jewish state is not allowed before the coming of the Messiah.

Others argue that religious study is just as important to Israel as military service, or that ultra-Orthodox soldiers would be confronted with strong language and other irreligious behaviour.

Shteinman's successor is thought to be Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, 94.