Today Israel is that different country. Not the progressive, cosmopolitan land. Not the country where people post pictures of coffee shops, bars, malls, and office buildings to show that “we’re just like everywhere else.”
Today we are the strange and mysterious Land of the Jews. The place where things are NOT like anywhere else in the world.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s funeral is to be held today. At 94 years old, it is not strange that he died but for all those who considered him the “Minister of Torah,” it is still a shock. Who will continue in his stead?
The title was not an official one but rather the result of deep admiration for his knowledge and wisdom. “Minister of Torah” signifies that he is of the same importance as the Ministers of the Israeli government only in the eyes of his followers, his field of expertise, Torah, Jewish wisdom is much more important.
Today is a day of different values. Very different from those who value Israel’s winners of the Eurovision because they popularize us in Europe. Very different even from those who admire Israel’s assistance to Ukrainian refugees because it is important to be (or show?) that we are good. Today Israelis honor the values of learning, wisdom, and modesty.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky spent most of his time in a tiny apartment, studying ancient Jewish texts.
Every year he would study the Babylonian Talmud — a process that regular scholars of the holy texts complete over seven and a half years by learning one page a day.
Children, grown-ups, and politicians all crowded into his tiny apartment to ask for his advice and his blessing.
From a secular perspective this admiration of crumpled old man, pouring over the same ancient texts year after is, well… weird. The texts don’t change, what learning can be provided from reading the same thing over and over? How can text thousands of years old be used to guide modern life?
When you understand Jewish thought, perspective changes. God created the Universe with the power of the Word. Words themselves have power. Our ancient texts convey wisdom that has been our guide throughout the ages. What is more admirable than one who is deeply familiar with the wisdom hidden within the texts?
The Orthodox Jews believe that their studying is what protects the Jewish People and even more so – keeps the world from collapsing into itself. To the secular mind, these ideas seem bizarre and ridiculous. Those who have read Jordan Peterson’s work might think a little differently about the importance of Words. Those who take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary survival of the Jewish People might think twice about dismissing their idea… When our survival occurs against all odds, contrary to all logic, physical, political, and the results achieved by all other nations – who am I to say that the Orthodox are wrong in believing that their studying protects us all?
In light of these ideas, it is mind-blowing to consider the fact that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein directed for there to be no Torah studies today. All the students and scholars would focus only on mourning the passing of Rabbi Kanievsky and only that. In other words, this man’s contribution to Jewish knowledge balances (or possibly is more important) than the studying that they believe keeps the world from imploding.
That is an extraordinary thought.
Not all Israelis agree with these beliefs and ideas but, nonetheless, the State bends in adaptation to them. So many people are expected at the funeral that streets have been closed, traffic rerouted, and people instructed not to travel in the area, if at all possible. Many people who heard that the police intended to limit attendance flocked to the area last night(!!). Many public sector employees were given an ok to work from home. Secular schools in the area were also shut down or moved to distance learning to prevent unnecessary travel. The IDF canceled induction for new soldiers today to minimize the necessity for travel. Provisions were made for crowd safety, but it is likely that the crowds will be bigger than anything anyone knows how to control. Local parks were set aside so that helicopters could land and evacuate people should a disaster occur.
All this, not for a rock star, politician, or even a charismatic influencer. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was a vessel of Jewish knowledge, an example of Jewish scholarliness, of putting learning, wisdom, and faith above all worldly comforts.
I’m not religious. I’m certainly not Orthodox and yet, in many ways, I like today’s Israel better than the Israel we see on so many other days.