On March 19, hundreds of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak to pay their respects to Chaim Kanievsky, the leading rabbi of Israel’s non-ḥasidic or “Lithuanian” Ḥaredim. Born in Pinsk in 1928, Rabbi Kanievsky is one of the very last great sages to have hailed from Eastern Europe, and was the son, nephew, and son-in-law of highly distinguished talmudic scholars. He held no formal position, dedicating himself night and day to study, writing, and answering halakhic queries, and he avoided taking on a leadership role until one was thrust upon him; thereafter ḥaredi politicians turned to him as their chief religious authority. In recent years, he received attention outside of his community for his initially dismissive attitude toward the coronavirus pandemic, and then his rapid about-face as he advised his followers to observe public-health measures scrupulously, to avoid communal prayer, and to take the vaccines.
Shlomo Zuckier analyzes Kanievsky’s legacy, beginning with his talmudic work, which aimed above all to
make sense of the language of the text, with the goal of ultimately arriving at halakhic conclusions. . . . Interestingly, Reb Chaim, [as he was known to his followers], was also very much open to using manuscripts and other modern methods in study. The best example of this might be his writing a commentary on M’khilta d’Rashbi [an ancient commentary on Exodus], which was fully reconstructed in the 19th and 20th centuries on the basis of sporadic manuscripts and citations.
Reb Chaim had two sides—a Torah side and a political side. What is fascinating is how little connection there was between the two; . . . in many ways the two are in great tension with one another. Precisely because of Reb Chaim’s . . . constant study, he was not acquainted with worldly matters. Some of his rabbinic peers described him as ignorant of the names of streets in his own neighborhood (where he lived nearly his entire life), and all the more so of recent trends in Israeli culture and politics.
It is worth noting that Reb Chaim’s self-understanding, the way he viewed his own contribution, was as a teacher of Torah rather than as a communal leader.