Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Fight Over Charedi Leadership in Israel

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman
One of the saddest developments in the Charedi world in Israel is the current split in their ranks. It seems that the animosity between these 2 very Charedi factions is even greater than the animosity between Charedim and Dati Leumi  (Modern Orthodox Jews) or even Charedim and Chilonim (secular Jews).

One might think that if there was any group that could maintain a monolithic stance on religious issues it would be the Charedi world. The term Charedi means that they are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. Their every action is supposed to reflect their fear of Heaven. This means that ideally each and every Charedi individual goes Lifnim Meshuras HaDin (beyond the letter of the law) in service to God - as their leaders interpret Torah Law and Hashkafa.

But that is far from a uniting factor it seems. Chasidic courts have long had their own agenda that does not coincide with the Lithuanian agenda.  In Israel this means that instead of having a united Charedi  political party, they have 2 parties, Degel HaTorah led by the Roshei Yeshiva of Lithuanian extraction; and Agudat Israel  led by the Rebbes of Chasidic movements. Each party fields separate candidates for various positions in Israel’s secular democratic government. This split took place decades ago and has caused tremendous animosity between the 2 groups. Which were at one time united. But the division doesn’t end there.

You would also think that least as far as the Lithuanian party’s interests are concerned there would be unity there. But you would be wrong.  There was a tremendous blowout last year when 80 year old Rav Shmuel Auerbach decided to form his own party called ‘Bnei Torah’. They fielded their own candidates that competed with Degel HaTorah’s candidates.

This was a rebellion against 100 year old Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman who until then was the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian world.

One might think that this is all about politics and that in reality they are otherwise in complete harmony with each other. But that too would be wrong. That’s because this is nothing less than a dispute over who is going to lead the Charedi Yeshiva world. It is a fight about who is their Gadol HaDor. A world that consists of the greatest Yeshivos in Israel. Yeshivos whose names most of the religious world are very familiar with. Names like Ponevitch, Mir, Chevron… and many others.

How bad is it? It is a battle royal tearing at the very heart of the yeshiva world. Who is going to lead the Torah world? And what direction will that leader take?

On this issue it seems there will be no compromise. It will apparently be a fight to the finish. This has resulted in some pretty nasty behavior by individuals of one faction against the leadership of the other. Recall that last year a deranged follower of Rav Auerbach physically attacked Rav Shteinman.

The rhetoric coming out of the R’Shteinman faction against Rav Auerbach and his followers is on a level of condemnation much like their condemnation of secular leaders whom they perceive are anti Torah!

Rav Shmuel Auerbach
Students at Charedi Kollels were warned  by Rav Chaim Kanievsky that if they were found to be supporters of Rav Auerbach, they would be expelled from their Kollel without pay!

Rav Shteinman went so far as to say that the supporting Rav Auerbach was a more serious than idol worship!

This all happened last year about this time during municipal elections. But now one year later, nothing has changed. Except that feelings and loyalties seem to have become more entrenched. During my visit to Israel, a Charedi Rav who is intimately involved in Yeshiva life told me that Yeshivas in the Charedi world are split in two. The fight has been taken to the Beis HaMedrash. In Ponevitch the enmity is so bad I was told that Rav Don Segal who was the Mashgiach there left the country. He could not take the bitter fighting anymore.  Parents – when choosing a Yeshiva for their sons are now looking at how divided a Yeshiva is instead of what the level of Torah study there is.

The Charedi world in Israel is demoralized by this turn of events. Rav Shmuel for his part has not backed off. And his followers remain loyal.

With all the problems the Charedi world in Israel face, this is the one area that affects them the most. The fight detracts from their Torah study and ignores existential issues like Parnassa (livlihood) and the poverty the Charedi world faces because of the lack of it in so many of their lives. While it is true that the Parnassa issue is finally being addressed somewhat by pioneers of Charedi education like Adina Bar Shalom, it is hardly enough to solve the problem. The problem persists. Rome is burning while the Charedi world fiddles.

How will this all end? I don’t know. But if past is prologue then there will continue to be splits over the most minor of issues and the political power that the Charedi parties once enjoyed will be reduced to nothing.

There are those who might revel in this. But I am not among them. I do not relish what is happening to a group of religious Jews that are Moser Nefesh for Torah.

As a side issue, I have always thought that if all the religious parties would unite, what a powerful force they would be. In addition to the Charedi parties, there  are 2 additional religious parties that have their own agendas. The Sephardic ‘Shas’ party and Bayit HaYehudi -the politically right wing heirs of the National Religious Party (Mizrachi).

Imagine what Israel could be like if all the observant members of the Kenesset would unite to form a single party. I’m not talking about creating a theocracy. I am talking about a democracy that would not discriminate against anybody – religious or otherwise. With a little bit of compromise so much could be accomplished. Couldn’t it?