Israel's ultra-Orthodox fear leadership vacuum as top rabbi's health deteriorates

Concerns for the health of Lithuanian Haredi community leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv threaten to fracture the most important sector in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Haaretz, Israel/February 14, 2012

The worshippers at two synagogues, Lederman in Bnei Brak and Tiferet B'horim in Jerusalem, have looked identical during prayer services this past week. The same restrained body language could be witnessed, along with the same dark jackets and wide-brimmed hats. And in both places, imploring prayers had the same urgent goal: as pleas for the health of their leader, Yosef Shalom Ben Chaya Mousha (Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv).

These are prestigious synagogues in the ultra-Orthodox world. The Bnei Brak shul was established by Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler Rabbi, an esteemed Lithuanian sage who passed away in 1985. The Jerusalem synagogue was established in Mea She'arim by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the posek hador (authoritative interpreter of Jewish law ) of his generation. For over a week the 101-year-old Rabbi Elyashiv has been in a medically-induced coma, hovering between life and death in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem. On Monday, his condition deteriorated still further.

For six decades, the Lithuanian sector has fashioned stances on state and religion for the rest of Israel's Orthodox community, and it has monopolized interpretation of Jewish law and intimidated other Jewish streams. It has helped lift Haredi culture into a phenomenon that can boast 700,000 Israelis in its camp. Now, with the undisputed spiritual leader of the Lithuanian community in a life-threatening condition, the bad blood that flows between the rabbis of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and the intrigues and malice that are deeply embedded in the two cities' subcommunities, threatens to fracture the most important sector in the Haredi world.

The question of Elyashiv's successor is not discussed in a public, official fashion. Yet many ultra-Orthodox are preoccupied with the subject. The question is whether the next phase of rabbinical leadership will be marred by a split between the conservative extremists and those who show a modest inclination to compromise about religious issues. Will a united leadership arise, or will Jerusalem and Bnei Brak - which have been in competition for decades - turn into two separate Haredi subcultures? Since 2001, Rabbi Elyashiv - who was anointed by his predecessor, Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach - has focused primarily on religious study and worship, and displayed apathy toward prosaic, profane power issues in the Lithuanian community. Insiders within the community say he has not selected a successor. If this is true, nobody can predict with any level of certainty how the Lithuanian community's leadership vacuum will be filled.

The next leader will apparently be one of four venerable rabbis: Aharon Leib Shteinman (98), Nissim Karelitz (85), Chaim Kanievsky (83) and Shmuel Auerbach (80). Members of the Lithuanian community with connections to each of the rabbis seriously discuss the possibility of a schism. "I am pessimistic," one man said. "I don't think one cohesive leadership can emerge." Another spoke of the rise of "factions," and a third spoke ominously about a "culture war."

Last spring, Dr. Benjamin Brown from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Jewish Thought released findings from a study conducted under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute. Among other topics, his study addressed the issue of what might happen after the passing of Rabbi Elyashiv. Brown's study posed the question of whether a process of "democratization" could evolve in the Haredi world. He hypothesizes that coming years could witness a more dispersed leadership style in this ultra-Orthodox community, wherein a cadre of authoritative rabbis circle around the leader considered to be the "posek hador."

Alternatively, Brown speculates, the authority of Haredi political figures could strengthen, at the expense of the rabbis. These would be significant trends, since the Lithuanian Orthodox have always subordinated themselves to the authoritative rabbi of the generation - a figure who towers above any other rabbi and whose judgments on religious law are taken as unassailable writ by Ashkenazi and also Sephardic Haredim.

Insiders estimate that Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman is the front-runner for the post-Elyashiv era. At the time of Rabbi Shach's passing, Rabbi Shteinman's name was floated as a possible successor; in some senses, he has exercised some authority during Rabbi Elyashiv's term. He is the oldest figure in the pack, and all the secrets and dynamics of the Haredi community and its politics are well known to him. He is admired by most of Israel's yeshiva heads, and also by heads of Haredi communities overseas.

Shteinman is likely to be backed by all the rabbis in Bnei Brak, including rabbis Nissim Karelitz, Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein. Each one of this trio has influence in defined religious areas, and the three cooperate over communal matters. The Lithuanian journal Yeted Ne'eman - Rabbi Elyashiv's mouthpiece - has displayed a leaning toward Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the youngest figure in the group, having recently turned 80. A Jerusalemite, Auerbach is a protege of Rabbi Elyashiv, and is considered a zealous defender of tradition and religious law; he has led crusades against various new phenomena that he regards as breaches in the Haredi wall of faith.

In political terms, after his patron's passing, Auerbach will find himself bereft of the support of other highly esteemed rabbinical figures, and also with precious few allies among yeshiva heads. The support of the militant figures who produce Yeted Ne'eman will not suffice. Some therefore believe that he will steel himself for a bid for the Lithuanian crown following the Rabbi Shteinman era. Essentially, this school of thought suggests that a serious struggle for the Lithuanian mantle will be postponed by the brief, interim term of an elderly successor to Elyashiv.

One of Auerbach's students claims that, as things now stand, some members of the Lithuanian community's conservative camp will be unable to subordinate themselves to the hegemony of Bnei Brak rabbis, who are thought of as being relatively moderate.

One of the most recent campaigns sponsored by Rabbi Auerbach, via Yeted Ne'eman, was an all-out attack on the independent weekly, Mishpaha. This popular weekly (its Hebrew name means "family ) evinces attitudes acceptable to the rabbis, while also expressing views characteristic of middle-class Haredim - the people who left the world of full-time study and prayer and joined the workplace.

Last Passover, the weekly published a favorable profile of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz; the rabbi appeared to cooperate with the preparation of the article, though he was not quoted directly in it. A number of rabbis swiftly penned letters to the weekly, and Rabbi Karelitz joined this chorus and denied that the article was published with his blessing. Doubt was later cast upon the authenticity of these letters, and the episode raises the question of whether the rabbis are being controlled by various power brokers in the Haredi community. In the end, the controversy about the flattering article descended into farce as the journal was stolen from newsstands and mailboxes.

The evolving schism divides rabbis from Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and pragmatists and zealous conservatives in the Haredi world. The main fault lines became manifest a few years ago during an ugly dispute at the Ponevez Yeshiva, which actually split into two separate institutions in the same Bnei Brak compound. The dispute originally flared as a leadership struggle in the yeshiva. One side featured yeshiva students who were known by their critics as "the terrorists." These Haredim were loyal to the Jerusalem rabbinate, and disciples of Rabbi Elyashiv. Such students will continue to receive the support of Rabbi Auerbach and Yeted Ne'eman. On the other side hand were the "haters," who are loyal to the Bnei Brak rabbis, and who receive support from Rabbi Karelitz's circle.

Up to now, the Lithuanian wing of United Torah Judaism, Degel Hatorah - as represented by MKs Uri Maklev and Moshe Gafni, and by various municipal council officials - has sat on the fence regarding the Ponevez Yeshiva war. Rabbi Elyashiv's illness portends the rise of Bnei Brak's ascendance in the Lithuanian world, to the detriment of Jerusalem. Some believe that the differences between Bnei Brak rabbis, who appear to be more receptive to the needs of their followers, and the more dogmatic Jerusalem rabbis will definitely give rise to a culture war. Others reject this apocalyptic forecast, and insist that the differences between the four contenders are mostly nuances and matters of style. None of these four will preach to Haredi men about the need to get jobs or enlist in the IDF.

Attorney Dov Halbertal, who is close to Rabbi Elyashiv, believes the identity of the successor is not really important. "No new Haredi ideological trend will arise," he says, "unless there is some sort of revolt. Anybody who thinks the way will now be paved for the introduction of a new educational program for Haredim is mistaken. The common denominator linking all these [four] rabbis is absolute defense of the yeshiva world, in all its branches, against army service, and against changes in attitudes toward women.

"The conservatism rises up from the field," Halbertal adds, "it does not come down from the rabbis. Whoever wants to find his way into the workplace will be able to do so, but no new ideological stream - holding that Haredim have to work and enlist in the army - will arise. The only question is what will happen to those who choose, on their own initiative, to deviate from the traditional ways. In this regard, the rabbis will have to decide whether or not to embrace such [individualists]."

Dr. Brown is not prepared to hazard a guess about the identity of the next Lithuanian leader. Speaking with Haaretz, he says the rivalry will between two camps, each representing a distinctive worldview. On the one hand, he says, there is the heavily-linked Karelitz-Kanievsky team; it opposes Rabbi Auerbach. Brown, unlike other commentators, does not think Rabbi Shteinman is a viable contender. "With regard to the processes of the Haredi world, should rabbis Karelitz and Kanievsky take the leadership spot, it's clear they will display tolerance toward processes of pragmatic openness. Should Rabbi Auerbach become leader, he might discover that it's already too late, and that there's no feasible way to subordinate the entire Haredi world to Rabbi Shach's [conservative] viewpoint."

Brown is clear about the repercussions for the Lithuanian community if Auerbach tries to do so. "He is liable to find himself battling a bandwagon," Brown says, "and such a confrontation could lead to fracture."

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