By Larry Gordon
What an interesting and intriguing piece of news out of Israel. An editor of a chareidi newspaper, HaPeles, was roughed up by two assailants as he left his home in the usually quiet community of Bayit V’gan the other day in Jerusalem.
I’m not sure what is going on there, but there seems to be a turf war less of the West Side Story variety and more in the direction of trying to control the thought process of the so-called ultra-Orthodox communities in the State of Israel.
Newspapers like HaPeles (which I never heard of before last week) and the Israeli Yated Ne’eman, along with a few others, are advancing different spins on the approaches and attitudes that chareidim are best off following in Eretz Yisrael.
There is no question that if you are a leader that is recognized as being able to influence the fashion in which tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people think, then you are a force to be reckoned with.
If you are having trouble figuring out what this is about, you can rest assured that the best formula to apply to make sense of the scenario is simply to follow the money trail. If you do that, it will all quickly fall into place. In this case it is money and power—which, as you know, tend to go hand in hand.
So let’s take a few moments and try to make sense of this and other stories currently emanating from the Jewish world both here and abroad. First, I have always been intrigued by political coups or government takeovers and how the first order of business in these usually corruption-fueled endeavors is to take control of a country’s or city’s media properties.
Amongst the recent cases in point is the shutting down of Internet services in Syria a few weeks ago as a way of limiting the average Syrian citizen’s ability to communicate to the outside world the extent and the severity of the brutality being used against them by the Assad regime. Those seeking control of a population cannot do so without controlling TV, radio, and newspaper outlets.
There is really no comparison between what goes on in Damascus or Tehran with what is taking place today in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, but let’s do our best to make sense of it by trying to do what was suggested above; let’s follow the money, or, in this election season, the power trail.
The way I understand it from my sources and friends on the ground in both Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, part of what is going on here is the jockeying for position in the aftermath of the passing of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt’l, who for decades was the mostly undisputed leader of the Torah world and the person whose every decision on matters of halachah was carefully analyzed, scrutinized, and adhered to.
As with all great leaders, his passing created somewhat of a leadership void. Granted that a lot of this is difficult to fathom. We see great Torah leaders like Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, his son-law Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, and Rav Shmuel Auerbach as men who live in a kind of solitude, completely and totally immersed in studying, understanding, and applying the ways of the Torah to the everyday lives of their followers—that would be us.
I heard a story in Bnei Brak from a confidant and neighbor of Rav Kanievsky’s a few weeks ago. The story is about a conversation between Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and his daughter, Rebbitzen Batsheva Kanievsky, z’l. Apparently Rav Elyashiv was concerned that Rav Kanievsky was attending too many b’risos. In fact it is said that in the Lederman Shul in Bnei Brak where Rav Chaim davens, saying Tachanun at Shacharis is extremely rare because Rav Kanievsky attends a b’ris somewhere in the city almost every day, and his being a participant at such an occasion means that the minyan he is davening with is exempt from reciting Tachanun.
On this matter, Rav Elyashiv told his daughter that his concern was that too much time was being sacrificed by attending these functions and it was detracting from the time Rav Chaim devoted to Torah study.
According to what I was told, Rebbitzen Batsheva told her father that she understood her father’s concerns, but that when Rav Chaim goes to all these b’risos he sees Eliyahu HaNavi, who is said to be present at the b’ris milah of every Jewish child. Rav Elyashiv was said to have retorted that seeing Elijah the Prophet is a wonderful thing, “but,” he commented, “what about limud haTorah?”
I think that story speaks to a purity and a dedication unparalleled by the leaders of our generation. What an extraordinary attachment to the depth and the beauty of Torah and the levels that kind of study can take one in our never-ending quest to attach ourselves to G‑dliness through the vehicle of Torah.
The point is that stories like these communicate to us that it is not Rav Shteinman at the age of 98 years or Rav Auerbach at 85 who are vying or maneuvering to become the recognized leader of the Ashkenazic yeshiva world in Israel. I just cannot see that as a possibility once you begin to grasp the level of Torah study that these men have dedicated themselves to over their lifetimes.
So then who is behind the newspaper wars and the political maneuvering for seats in the Knesset and the ability to channel and control hundreds of millions of shekels that flow from the spigot of government into the Israel yeshiva world?
As with many other pronouncements that emanate from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in these leaders’ names, they slide down a contrived and sometimes shapeless chain of command that carries the seal of these leaders whether they are intimately involved in all the details of these pronouncements or not.
One of the major issues today that is attached to the opinions of these leaders’ names is the matter of whether or not chareidi youth should adhere to the details of the newly written laws and cooperate in the matter of being inducted in some fashion into the IDF or some alternate service in Israel.
A few days ago, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Hager, instructed his young followers not to report to IDF induction centers when summoned to submit to physical exams that will determine their suitability to serve. Rav Hager said that the young men should not report and, if asked, to tell the authorities that the Rebbe told them not to submit to these procedures. It was reported further that the Vizhnitzer Rebbe said that the authorities can arrest him and take him to jail if they want for issuing such an order.
Now that’s a rather dramatic offer, but the authorities will not in any way, shape, or form detain the Rebbe for issuing such a declaration. The Rebbe has to know that the only ones that will face legal prosecution and possible imprisonment for defying the law are the young men themselves who adhere to his declaration.
It seems to me that what a great deal of this comes down to is that there is some kind of emotional tug-of-war taking place on the matter of whether a chareidi Jew in Israel should be permitted to think and act for himself or herself or not. There is no question that thinking is a reflex reaction to a situation and a person does so quite naturally. So perhaps the question is to what extent should someone who considers himself an adherent of a wise and charismatic leader submit their will entirely to his will.
At the end of the day, the determining factor in all this might be who is going to take care of you and your family best. These are economically trying times around the world. While money used to flow open-endedly from the government to the community in Israel, those practices have now been called into question, as was inevitable. Someone woke up over there and asked where all this money was coming from, who it is being allocated to, and why.
With elections coming up in Israel on January 22, there is a great deal at stake for this and other constituencies. For perhaps the first time, former followers are desiring to become leaders themselves after asking the question “Why not me?”
As a result, Shas spiritual leader Rav Ovadya Yosef is having his previously unquestioned leadership and authority being challenged by a former Shas party member, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem. The charismatic Rav Amnon Yitzchok is also challenging Rav Yosef’s authority by forming his own political party and hoping to siphon votes off from Shas.
And a similar scenario is taking place in the chareidi political world. While Rav Shteinman is the de facto leader of the Ashkenazic yeshiva world, in the aftermath of Rav Elyashiv’s passing that position has not necessarily been wholly solidified or accepted. That’s why followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach have created their own political party, Netzach, in challenge to the traditional Degel HaTorah, which has heretofore been the party that represents chareidi interests in the government. Rav Auerbach’s followers, amongst them the newspaperman that was assaulted in Jerusalem the other day, feel that their rabbi’s time has come to lead the Torah world.
What sets this sector of the population apart is that the leadership is communicating to them not to make their own intelligent choices in this political season. Rather, they are being issued directives and quasi orders about how to vote on January 22.
Chareidim, which translates literally into “those who tremble,” seem to be doing less trembling these days and more running than ever before. That is, running to be elected and thereby in position to dispense the all-important funding that keeps them going and making them the unique segment of the Israeli population that they are. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.