Rabbi Karelitz: 'Giant in leadership, giant in humility'

Journalist talks about work of Rabbi Karlitz, whose door was open to every Jew, even to businessmen who consulted him as media watched.

Shimon Cohen ,

Rabbi Karelitz funeral
Rabbi Karelitz funeral
Yoni Kempinski

The world of Torah and Halacha has said farewell to Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, one of the leading Lithuanian public leaders in the last generation, who passed away at the age of 93.

Journalist Yisrael Cohen, a Kol B'Rama commentator on haredi affairs in various media venues, talks about the rabbi's image, influence, and uniqueness.

Initially, Cohen refers to the unique combination that was Rabbi Karelitz as a great leader and, on the other hand, a giant in humility: "The general public is a little less familiar with Rabbi Karelitz, but he was like Rabbi Elyashiv and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef," says Cohen and emphasizes Rabbi Karlitz's occupation with public issues.

"This was an halakhic arbiter of a different magnitude to whom was subject hundreds of rabbis who acted according to his worldview. His leadership went far beyond Bnei Brak and Jerusalem and yet his symbol was humility. Rabbi Karelitz could be seen walking along the road, not riding in luxury vehicles. He used a vehicle when needed because of his age and medical condition, but not beyond that. He operated without helpers and right-hand-men, no barriers to get through in order to see him."

This accessibility to the general public without mediators as is customary for rabbis and leaders of such magnitude, "was not an easy thing, but he proved it possible."

"Nowadays people are a little spoiled and not engaged in everything, but he was born with Lithuanian tenacity in Belarus, learned page after page, learned from his uncle the Chazon Ish," says Cohen, citing the rabbi's power to show firm leadership without fear of financial or political power-brokers on the one hand while answering everyone who turned to him on the other.

The general public became acquainted with the image of Rabbi Karlitz as he brought up the issue of conversion courts. Many considered the court he established a model, and of this model says Yisrael Cohen: "It was a private court. Everyone relied on his personality as the person who set the line and that the arbiters went his way. He established the private tribunal to resolve various disputes on divorce, business matters, inheritance, and more. Even senior businessmen in the secular world preferred to reach out to him because it was a court of law that was hidden from the media, with no criminal protocol or photographers following the hearings. That is why businessmen favored this direction."

Grief and sorrow at the passing of the rabbi were heard from various sectors, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, haredi and religious Zionist. Cohen does not take this for granted and even finds it a bit surprising, but does say that "he was a man who adhered to the Torah that guided him, and in the end it has an influence. It's beautiful to see all sectors giving final respects. After all, the Torah is one for all sectors and all communities."

On the road ahead after the passing of leadership giants such as Rabbi Karelitz, including Rabbi Steinman and Rabbi Elyashiv, Cohen mentions that Israel is still not leaderless, and refers to names such as Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Edelstein, but "it's hard to see who can take his place in halakhic rulings, familiarity with all the Torah, his dealing in public general affairs, the credibility of his tribunal. We lost another vestige of a greater generation. Perhaps a few people, sons, sons-in-law and maybe some of the students, will have to fulfill some functions of this great man who did everything alone."