November 8, 2001
Rabbi Eliezer Shach, Religious Giant, Dies
"We won't be seeing his likes again" is the kind of elegaic hyperbole one so often hears at funerals and reads in obituaries. Rarely is it a literal truth.
In the case of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who died early last Friday and was buried the same day in Bnei Brak -- his age estimated at anywhere from 103 to 108 -- the statement is indeed fact.
A "late bloomer," Shach 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.
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 Sephardic Orthodox Shas movement.
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 -- at first diffidently, later with increasing vehemence -- by young Sephardic 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.
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 Sephardic Jews were not yet ready for leadership roles and Yosef defied Shach's wishes and brought Shas into the Rabin government.
Especially since he ceased most activity in recent years, Shach had become more important to the fervently Orthodox 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.'" -- David Landau and Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency