Rabbi Eliezer Shach, ex-Shas leader, dies

JERUSALEM — Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, a towering figure among the fervently religious and an early leader of the Shas Party, bloomed late in life.

Shach, whose age was estimated at anywhere from 103 to 108, died Friday and was buried the same day in Bnei Brak.

He wielded power from the mid-1970s, when he was already elderly, through the mid-1990s, when he gradually succumbed to physical infirmity and withdrew from active public life.

"His pronouncements and his talks when he was active would regularly capture the rapt attention of the entire Orthodox world," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America in New York.

Shach's uniqueness lay in the authority he wielded.

He was fiercely dismissive of secular Israeli culture, deriding kibbutzniks as "breeders of rabbits and pigs" and saying the Labor Party wanted some new, artificial Torah to replace the real one.

Yet many considered Shach close to the Israeli left on diplomatic issues, as he called Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip "a blatant attempt to provoke the international community."

In 1996, Shach surprised pundits when he declined to back Labor Party candidate Shimon Peres, effectively throwing decisive Orthodox support to the Likud Party challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his razor-thin victory.

Shach likewise rejected the tendency among some Chabad Chassidim to revere their rebbe as the Messiah, blasting it as "total heresy. Those who say so will burn in hell."

Many have noted Shach's vigorous refusal to compromise tradition for the sake of modernity.

Shach also was memorable for the remarkable revolutions he wrought in Orthodox life and in Israel's broader political life.

He was the longtime symbol and standard bearer of what a leading Israeli sociologist has called "the society of learners."

Under his aegis, fervent Orthodoxy in Israel developed a life pattern — unprecedented in Jewish history — whereby young men spend years, and often their entire lifetimes, studying Talmud. They learn in kollels — yeshivas for married men — which grew exponentially during Shach's leadership.

On the broader political plane, Shach is considered one of the most powerful forces in the evolution of Israeli society.

His place in Israel's political pantheon was achieved not only by his vigorous leadership of his own yeshiva world but by his leadership, during its formative period, of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas movement.

Shas, which left Shach's wings in 1992 after a dispute over joining Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government, today is the third largest political force in the country.

As a member of the Agudat Yisrael Council of Sages in the 1970s and early '80s, Shach was consistently outspoken in his support of the grievances being articulated by young Sephardi Orthodox scholars and communal leaders.

The result was the creation of Shas, which exploded onto the Israeli political scene with four Knesset seats in the 1984 general elections.

It was Shach who gave his religious imprimatur to Shas, instructing all fervently religious Sephardim to support the new party, thus ensuring its initial victories. It since has grown by leaps and bounds, and its Sephardi constituency has broadened.

Shach fell out with the Shas leadership in 1990, when Shas' political leader, Aryeh Deri, teamed with Labor's Shimon Peres to bring down the Likud-Labor unity government in what became known in Israeli history as "the stinking maneuver." The two were stunned when Shach refused to back the left-wing government they intended to set up.

Relations between Shach and Shas never entirely healed, and ended definitively with the 1992 elections, when Shach said Sephardi Jews were not yet ready for leadership roles and the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, defied Shach's wishes and brought Shas into the Rabin government.

With his death, rabbinic authority in the fervently religious world likely will return to an historic pattern in which it is spread among several rabbis simultaneously.

Though he ceased most activity in recent years, Shach had become more important to the fervently religious world as an icon than in any practical sense, according to Samuel Heilman, author of "Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry" — though that hardly diminished his stature.

"More than him personally, there is this sense that is dominant in the fervently Orthodox community that the great leaders and men are no longer with us," Heilman said. The attitude "is that the giants lived yesterday and we're pigmeat today. The older one is, when he dies there's a feeling that 'woe is us, there are no greats to take his place.' "