Torah scholars command respect that Israels political leaders lack

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For once all our would-be political leaders got it right last week, as they pointed to each other's overbearing egos. For as long as anyone can remember, our politics have been dominated by the machinations of rival camps and factions animated by the single issue: Who will reign?

In Labor, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were at each other's throats for more than a decade, only to be followed by the incessant maneuvering between Peres and Ehud Barak. In Likud, the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir found himself confronted by a group of supposedly more hawkish ministers within his own cabinet. Not long thereafter, two of those three ministers found themselves far to his left when that seemed more expedient. More recently, we have Benjamin Netanyahu against the world.

Whoever emerges victorious in the upcoming lists will still find himself incapable of governing. Election as prime minister ensures the victor of neither respect nor authority. Besides the demands of his coalition partners, he will have to spend much of his time massaging the fragile egos of his own ministers, each of whom defines success in terms of the size of his or her ministry's budget.

All this clash of egos is, of course, greatly entertaining for those who view politics as a spectacle. The sight of David Levy endlessly peddling himself to the highest bidder is long past satire. But the host of Knesset members from across the political spectrum flirting with the new centrist idols over realistic spots on their list is not far behind. All very amusing, no doubt, unless one contemplates the seriousness of the problems confronting us.

The contrast to the way the yeshiva world selects its leaders could not be starker. Those leaders wield authority not by virtue of any official position nor by election, but rather as a result of an organic process. The community simply knows who they are. Their power is a function of intrinsic respect for their person.

The process by which they are selected is incomprehensible to the outside world. When a quarter of a million Jews accompany the Steipoler Gaon or Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to their final resting place, the secular media is at a loss to explain the outpouring of grief for those who hold no official position. Indeed, that very lack of position underlies much of the adulation: As our sages say, those who flee from honor are pursued by it.

One academic "expert," who is frequently interviewed about the fervently religious community, predicted a few years back that the successor to Rabbi Eliezer Schach in the yeshiva world would be a certain figure. Why? Because he is a powerful public speaker.

The prediction was laughable to anyone within the Torah world. Most of its leaders have rarely been heard outside the walls of their own houses of study. If they are widely known prior to their ascent to authority, it is only through their published Torah works.

These leaders command no divisions. Their authority derives only from the community's respect for their word. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once asked how he became the leading halachic decisor of his time. He replied simply, "People asked for my opinion, and I guess they must have had confidence in the answers, because more and more asked."

When someone demanded to know by what authority Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the present leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, took it upon himself to decide some communal matter, he responded, "I have no authority. They asked my opinion, and I gave it."

By the time the mantle of leader of the generation is placed on someone, he has inevitably been a respected figure in Torah circles for decades. The simplicity of his life and single-minded dedication to Torah study demonstrate how far removed he is from the material world. In his home the lightbulbs lack shades, a few rickety chairs and a table are his principle possessions, besides the well-worn books, which are likely to be stored on shelves made of packing crates.

Steinman's host on his recent visit to America was shocked to discover that his breakfast and supper consisted exclusively of two ounces of ground bread mixed with

milk. The suspicion of personal aggrandizement simply does not attach to such people.

The awe in which the community holds its leaders reflects the sense that those leaders have given themselves over completely to the community. A then non-religious student once asked the Bostoner Rebbe, "What does it mean to be a rebbe?" He answered, "It means being available 24 hours a day." The student had many occasions thereafter to find out that it was true.

Any Jew who feels the need to talk to Steinman, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky or the Gerer rebbe can do so within days, and more likely within hours. Compare that to the likelihood of the average Israeli securing an appointment with the prime minister.

During his historic visit to America to raise funds for Torah education in Israel, Steinman received individuals until 1 a.m. every day. Those desperate to find a spouse, beset by illness, or simply eager to better understand a difficult talmudic topic — all came to talk or find comfort.

And yet by 4 a.m., this man of 84 was again sitting on a backless bench learning Talmud. Even in the midst of grueling 21-hour days, he still did not desist from his regular practice of teaching a daily class. And during his stay, he gave a number of lengthy halachic discourses, without benefit of notes, to overflowing crowds of critically-minded Torah students.

No wonder that by 5 a.m. every day, his host's house was crowded with hundreds eager for the privilege of praying together with him or that 12,000 crowded into a Brooklyn hall to individually greet him.

Israel may be a long way from being led by Torah scholars. But we can still lament the absence from the public arena of leaders who can command the same level of awe and respect.