Most American Jews make no distinction between one black-hatted charedi — those sectarian Jews mischaracterized in the press as “ultra-Orthodox” — and the next. To many, if not most, American Jews, charedim are obscurantist literalists, whose Judaism is an accretion of unthinking, primitive practices. In fact, the charedi world in Israel (and in America, for that matter) is hardly monolithic, and is far more variegated than an undifferentiated sea of black. There is the core of “Litvish” yeshivot, successors to the Eastern European tradition of rationalist Talmud and Rabbinic text study. (Contemporary parlance: “yeshivish.”) There are numerous flavors of chasidim. There is Satmar and groups allied with Satmar. They look chasidic, but they are not. And there is, of course, Chabad-Lubavitch, who are not chasidim. They are Chabad.
How important are the differences, especially in light of the new narrow, right-wing Israeli coalition? The charedi world is riven with conflict, particularly in Israel, which came out in the recent national elections. One Jerusalem charedi rabbi, one of the few with advanced secular educational credentials, summed it up: “Before I vote, I’m going to the mikvah [ritual bath]. After I vote, I’m going to the mikvah.”
A roadmap to the conflicts:
First, the Ashkenazi charedim. It’s important to know that the two partners in the Ashkenazi-charedi party Yahadut HaTorah HaM’uchedet (United Torah Judaism) — Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael — can’t stand each other. For a century, Agudat Yisrael was the representative of the non-chasidic yeshivot (the so-called Lithuanian yeshivot) and most charedi communities. In the 1980s the party lost its power base in the yeshivot to Degel Hatorah, and became the party representing — and controlled by — chasidic groups in Israel, especially the Gerer community. And, lest we forget, Agudat Yisrael was further weakened when in the 1980s the leader of Degel Hatorah assisted the Sephardi charedim, heretofore represented by Agudah, in organizing their own party, Shas. All this in addition to the numerous differences over policy that divide Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael.
More serious is the hair pulling within Degel HaTorah, the party of the Ashkenazi mitnagdim, the non-chasidic charedi community, centered on the famed Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak.
The two leading figures in the non-chasidic charedi community are Rabbi Aaron Leib Steinman, the successor to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and considered to be a relative moderate, and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach of Jerusalem, son of the famed rabbinic leader Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and who is considered a religious extremist. Rabbi Auerbach is opposed to Rabbi Steinman’s leadership of the charedi community, and started his own newspaper, HePeles (The Line-Level) to compete with Degel’s Yated Ne’eman.
The battle fought by the Steinman and Auerbach camps over draft evasion and other matters came to a head in the days before the recent election, when Rabbi Auerbach directed his supporters to boycott the elections. Some 30,000 charedim heeded Auerbach’s words, costing United Torah Judaism one seat in the new Knesset, and ratcheting up the heat in an already polarized sectarian religious community.
A struggle for truth or justice? Actually, it’s all about power.
Then there is the Ponevezh yeshiva of Bnai Brak, iconic in the charedi world. The strife at Ponevezh, again over leadership, spilled over into violence as factions loyal to the yeshiva president, Rabbi Eliezer Kahaneman, and to Rabbi Shmuel Markovitz, one of the deans, battled it out last December over who was to lead evening services. (Rabbi Kahaneman was struck with a chair.) Highly suggestive are the names given to the factions: “HaM’chablim” — “The Terrorists” — to the Markovitz faction; and “HaSon’im” — “The Haters” — to the Kahaneman group.
What’s at stake? “It’s all about the money,” noted a Jerusalem charedi leader, adding, “Whoever runs the yeshiva has access to the funding from donors and from the government — which is substantial — and by extension to power.”
The Sephardi arena as well is hardly immune to internecine strife. Much ink has been spilled over the depredations of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, now out of jail and restored to political activity, and more recently his split with Sephardi leader Eli Yishai, who formed his own party, Yahad. Deri and Yishai each claimed the crown of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi and the creator of Shas, and rabbinic leader of the Sephardic community. Yahad, far more right wing than Shas, failed to reach the minimum 3.25 percent electoral threshold for sending a candidate to the Knesset.
There are many enlightened chasidim in Mea Shearim and Bnai Brak who are pressing for charedim to join the workforce rather than just remain yeshiva students; there are even some who are not hard-liners on army service. (“Don’t call it ‘giyus’” — the draft — suggests Rabbi Nissan Kaplan, a respected teacher of rabbinic texts at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. “Call it ‘sherut’ — ‘service’ — and the problem will be solved.”) Additionally, there are new opportunities for higher education for charedi women.
But at bottom there is no critical mass in the charedi communities pressing for change. Further, as Hillel Halkin, one of the more canny observers of Israeli life, notes, “The average [secular] Jew in Israel does not suffer from charedi interference in his or her life.” So, who cares?
For me, the charedi community, were it to bring to bear its tremendous knowledge, elite educational institutions and communal resources, could be the source of a “New Halutziut” — a newly energized ethos in Israel. But as it stands, the charedim of 2015, unlike those of 1955 and even 1965, have little interest in Israeli society, indeed view much of society as The Enemy — and more’s the pity.
Jerome Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and is a fellow at the Center for Jewish History at the CUNY Graduate Center.