JERUSALEM (AP) — Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the spiritual leader of Israel's non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews of European descent and one of the country's most influential and powerful rabbis, died on Tuesday. He was 104.
Shteinman was hospitalized several weeks ago with shortness of breath and passed away early on Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands took part in a funeral procession in the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.
Police blocked major highways and roads around the cemetery and emergency medical services were on hand to deal with the flood of people clamoring to get a close look. The emergency service Magen David Adom said even before the funeral began it had treated about 70 people for injuries resulting from the dense crowd.
Shteinman was a longtime political kingmaker whose orders were strictly followed by his representatives in parliament. His influence, however, far surpassed just that and he was seen as the leading voice of the entire community on many issues of religion and state. Following the 2012 death of his predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, he was widely regarded as "Gadol Hador," or "leader of the generation."
The ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as "Haredim," or "those who fear God," are the fastest growing sector in Israel. Due to their high birth rate, they now number more than 1 million people, or about 12 percent of Israel's 8.7 million citizens, with the majority living beneath the poverty line.
Shteinman was known for his rabbinic scholarship, his relatively pragmatic rulings and extremely modest lifestyle. He was often called to judge on sensitive matters such as how much the traditionally insular community should integrate with the larger Israeli society, embrace technology, pursue higher education, work or agree to serve in the largely security military. In recent years, he had faced a challenge from a more extremist rabbi in Jerusalem who sent thousands into the street to protest the small numbers of ultra-Orthodox who have enlisted.
Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox community, said that until just recently Shteinman was of clear mind and hosting followers who sought his advice.
"He was a person who knew very carefully how to balance the needs of the community with the needs of the individual," he said. "His legacy is greatness of scholarship ... but at the same time a very nuanced leadership."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin praised Shteinman as a leader who "carried on his shoulders the existential weight of the Jewish people."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him a "giant of Jewish learning."
"The Jewish people have lost a lighthouse of spirit, heritage and ethics," Netanyahu said. "(Shteinman) established an important link in the chain of thousands of years of Torah, and his memory will rest forever in the annals of our nation."