Rabbi with wide influence in Israel's politics dies

Centenarian Schach was ultra-Orthodox leader

November 03, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach, a Lithuanian-born spiritual leader whose Talmudic interpretations were capable of making or breaking Israeli governments, died yesterday of heart and kidney failure.

Schach, who was at least 103, was buried in the religious enclave B'nei Brak, near Tel Aviv, before the sunset start of the Jewish Sabbath in a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of his ultra-Orthodox followers.

Schach, head of B'nei Brak's Ponevich Yeshiva, was a curious influence in Israeli politics. Ideologically anti-Zionist, he led the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of the population in overwhelmingly secular Israel.

That community benefited from government grants while sending young men to religious seminaries, called yeshivas, rather than the army, in keeping with Schach's disdain of Israel's mainstream society, which he scorned as composed of Jews who had lost their way.

In sermons through the years, recalled yesterday by the Ha'aretz newspaper, he assailed Tel Aviv's fashionable Dizengoff district as "a place where people walk around and behave as animals."

"The whole country and everything in it is run by America," he said, calling the Israeli flag "just a symbolic piece of cloth that people wave around." He dismissed the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "a blatant attempt to provoke the international community."

Israelis attributed his influence to his brilliance at interpreting religious texts in long, winding discourses and to the help he gave the ultra-Orthodox in adapting their traditions to modern society.

A rabbinical academy was supported in part by a high-tech hothouse where ultra-Orthodox Jews engaged in research and development projects.

Schach had an early notable success in 1984, when he urged his Sephardic Jewish followers to form the Shas Party for Israelis of Middle Eastern and Spanish backgrounds. Shas drew votes from secular and religious Sephardic Jews to win four seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

In 1990, because small parties usually tipped the balance, Schach was able to decide who would lead Israel by steering Shas and his Ashkenazi Degel HaTorah party to give Likud bloc leader Yitzhak Shamir enough support in the Knesset to forge a right-leaning coalition and become prime minister.

Schach was born in 1894 or 1898 to a family of Lithuanian traders and studied from age 7 in one of Lithuania's most important yeshivas. He emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1941 and later moved to B'nei Brak.

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