“Prince of the Torah”, “master of the Torah”, “great of his generation” : Rabbi Chaïm Kanievsky died on Friday March 18 at the age of 94. Spiritual leader of the Litvak current of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, he was one of the most important figures of this community throughout the world.
Born in 1928 in Pinsk, a Polish town now in Belarus, Chaïm Kanievsky was one of the last members of the generation of chefs haredim (literally “God-fearing”), who have reconstituted this community decimated by the Holocaust. Coming from an illustrious lineage and known from an early age for his diligent study of sacred texts, he arrived in Palestine with his parents in 1934, settling in Bnei Brak. This village has now become one of the densest cities in Israel, an exclusively ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv.
Funeral under high police protection
Authorities expected a million people for his funeral procession on Sunday; In the end, there were only a few hundred thousand crowding the main streets of the city, under the watchful eye of 3,000 policemen. Civil servants were the only ones to wear masks, a reminder of another time already forgotten.
The authorities had taken the controversial decision to close access to the city and several roads around it to traffic, effectively paralyzing the Tel Aviv region, the economic center of the country. The tide of black hats and suits was reminiscent of the traumatic Mount Meron disaster, where 45 ultra-Orthodox men and children died in April 2021 in a stampede during an annual pilgrimage to the Galilee.
In the end, there were “only” a few minor injuries during the funeral, which began in front of Rabbi Kanievsky’s modest little apartment. This is where hundreds of people lined up almost every day looking for a blessing or a good word from the sage. It was the work of a few seconds of explanation in front of the old man, often through one of his children or grandchildren, then he let go of his lips “boua” the contraction of bracha vehatzlacha, “blessing and fortune”.
A changing community
Chaïm Kanievksy’s rapid rise to his appointment in 2017 as head of the Litvak current came at a pivotal time for the community. The gradual disappearance of the great rabbis of his generation and the increasingly independent role of politicians haredim created a leadership crisis.
In this context, Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson, Yanki, seized his chance. “He is intelligent and has managed to feel the spirit of the times”, sums up Yisrael Frey, an ultra-Orthodox journalist. He was able to build a consensus among the ultra-Orthodox population around his grandfather through the media, a novelty in the community. Having become his grandfather’s spokesman, Yanki Kanievksy gained a substantial political and financial aura, as well as a reputation for corruption.
Old systems no longer address the concerns of young people haredim. “The ultra-Orthodox of 2022 is not that of 1990, explains Yisrael Frey. He used to walk hunched over, now he’s proud. » the “world of Torah” became an empire. There are approximately 1.2 million haredim in Israel, 13% of the population, and the community is growing twice as fast as the rest. In Israel’s noisy democracy, his bloc vote often makes all the difference, while his grip on Jewish institutions gives him unparalleled power over the cycle of life.
The successor of the man nicknamed “Reb Chaïm” will probably be Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, director of a large yeshiva and spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah (“flag of the Torah”) party. At 98, his appointment will only temporarily hide the impossibility for the elites to fill the politico-spiritual void at the head of what is increasingly called “haredi autonomy”.