Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Growth and Divisiveness in the Charedi World

R' Chaim Kanievsky (VIN)
Once upon a time - I would have never thought it possible. There was a time where I actually thought that the religious Jewish world was united on virtually every issue. I believed that the Torah was seen by all observant Jews in the same way. But I have long ago been disabused of that notion (I was young and naïve.)

Different ideologies have developed over time based on how religious leaders view that same Torah. Which means different reactions to situations arising that challenge those Torah values. Ideologies are therefore a sure way of creating further divisions in Israel. (Not the country – the people.) Israel’s creation as a state in the modern era is a case in point. Whether to support or even recognize the state is one big challenge. 

Even for those that recognize the state at some level, how to deal with religious issues arising in that state is another challenge where differing ideologies make a difference. One of the hottest issues being debated in Israel today is legislation dealing with the drafting Yeshiva students into the Israeli army, the IDF.

First a little bit of history about the religious parties in Israel. (My apologies in advance for the inaccuracies about details or timing – but I think the basic history is more or less accurate).

There was actually a time around the founding of the state where Charedim and Religious Zionists actually wanted to combine as one religious party. There was even a document signed by prominent Rabbonim of both sides endorsing a the new Zionist State. It included signatures of highly respected Charedi figures such as R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.  

That lasted about 5 minutes on the history clock - since the most respected Gadol of the time, the Chazon Ish rejected the idea of joining the Zionist government in any way.  What happened then was that two parties were born. One was the National Religious Party (NRP) of religious Zionists (known as Mizrachi in the US). They heartily endorsed the State of Israel and its government. The other one was the Charedi Agudah party - whose mission was solely to protect the rights of religious Jews without endorsing the government in any way. The NRP was by far the larger of the two  parties  for quite sometime. It now no longer exists although there are parties that are seen as their ideological heirs on both the right and the left. 

Early on Agudah had a break away party called Poalei Agudat Yisroel. They were Charedi but much more inclined to work the land as did the NRP. (It was kind of a cross between the Agudah and the Mizrachi). They no longer exist either.

Then there was a further split in the Charedi parties. The Chasidic factions disagreed with some of the decisions of the Lithuanian leadership. Two parties were created: Degel HaTorah - based on the Lithanian Yeshiva Hashkafos and Agudat Yisroel based on the Chasidic Hashkafos. 

There was a reconciliation of sorts not long after the split - since there was so much overlap in the agendas of both. They operate under the banner of one political party called United Torah Judaism (UTJ).  But the two factions seek counsel from different rabbinic leaders on government policy issues that impact the Charedi world.

Somewhere along the way Sephardic leaders decided they were under-represented in UTJ and decided to form their own party – Shas. The nature of the Sephardi community is that there are no denominations or divisions between observant and non observant Jews. Shas therefore had the support of virtually the entire Sephardi community. Making them the largest religious party in Israel. Its spiritual head was one of the last generation’s Gedolei HaDor, R’ Ovadia Yosef. He was the one that guided all of their policy decisions and was never disputed by any Sephardi individual whether observant or not. 

Back to UTJ. A new split was underway based on the issue new laws with resoct to drafting Yeshiva students. It was a virtual war between  the peaceful and pragmatic Gadol, R’Aharon Leib Steinman; and the uncompromising R’ Shmuel Auerbach. 

The former believing that as long as Charedi students were allowed to continue studying in Yeshivios, they should follow the new law and register for the draft. 

The latter did not let pragmatism and peace get in the way of his ideology of rejecting the draft in its entirety - refusing to register Yeshiva students for the draft even under penalty of prison time! That generated another break away party called Peleg. This has caused major discord in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world.  Sometimes resulting in violent confrontation in the street between adherents of both factions

Now that both of these religious figures have passed on, the debate has not gone away or even softened. It is still being carried on as new proposals of a draft law are on the table. Proposals that are more challenging to the Charedi world than with previous versions of the draft law. R’ Chaim Kanievsky (who is seen as the by the mainstream Yeshiva world as the current Charedi leader after R’ Steinman’s passing) has weighed in. As have other rabbinic leaders in of the Yeshiva world. From the Jerusalem Post (and VIN): 
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, told senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Sunday that the recently proposed bill for haredi enlistment is acceptable and can be advanced through the Knesset.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that the rabbi described the bill as “the lesser of two evils,” that Degel Hatorah MKs – forming half of the UTJ Knesset faction – should not go to war over the legislation, and that it could be supported in general.
Gafni met with several other leading haredi rabbis on Sunday morning to discuss the issue, including Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch, Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrahi and Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky.
The decision is highly significant since the bill includes financial sanctions from the state’s budget against haredi yeshivas if enlistment targets are not met, meaning that Kanievsky and the other rabbis have ostensibly given consent to the notion that there can be negative consequences if haredi men do not enlist to the IDF.
Kanievsky’s approval comes following opposition expressed to the bill on Thursday by the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic half of UTJ.
The grand rabbis of the hassidic groups which make up Agudat Yisrael said that their MKs should quit the coalition if the bill is passed by the Knesset, although they seemingly left room for changes to be made to the legislation. 
The Post article says that they are trying to iron out differences. But I have read recently (no longer recall the source) that those differences are irreconcilable. It appears that UTJ will once again split into 2 distinct parties as before. One for Lithuanian Yeshiva type Charedim  and one for Chasidic Charedim.

All of this makes me wonder whether the growth of the Charedi world is being countered by the ideological differences that is causing them to break apart. How many times can a community divide itself before it becomes insignificant? Even as its constituent communities continue to multiply faster than any other Jewish demographic in Israel - will that growth outweigh the divisiveness? Or will the divisiveness outweigh the demographic growth? Time will tell.