Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedi Politics: Cohesion or Collapse?

Charedi Politics: Cohesion or Collapse?

Meir Hirschman
Meir Hirschman Publisher and media personality

Recent political upheavals have brought talk of crisis and collapse of Charedi society to a new crescendo. “Experts” speak of a “leadership crisis,” and commentators note “historical precedents.” But a closer look at the political history of Charedi society reveals that its present state is not significantly different than it was in the past. To the contrary, it seems to be more stable than ever.

Tammuz 5759 / July 2019
 

The recent round of 2018 municipal elections—now long-forgotten by the sensations in the national arena—was a stormy time in the Charedi street. The atmosphere was heavy with splits and alliances, wins and losses that many saw as a disruption of the old political order. In the non-establishment Charedi press, the general media, and the discourse on social networks, political commentators and scholars of Charedi society pointed at several ostensibly precedent-setting events that took place during these elections.

First, commentators noted the separate running of Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael­—the two Ashkenazi parties that traditionally run together—in several localities including Jerusalem, Safed, Elad, Haifa, Ashdod, and others. It was the first time these parties ran separately since their unification in 1992. The pattern was also unique in that the split was local and not national. Alongside the separate running in the aforementioned locations, there were no few areas where the lists ran together: Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Modiin, and others.

To these splits we can add the competing Etz list (the extremist Litvish camp) in several cities. Though not a fresh precedent, this remains a (relatively) new movement running in these elections in almost every location where it has a chance to get a member on the city council.

But the stormy political weather was not about surprising splits alone; there were some new alliances too. In several places Degel Hatorah and Shas formed an alliance, most prominently in Jerusalem and Elad. In other places Shas ran with Agudah (and in some cases took an independent path, such as its support for Rami Grinberg as mayor of Petah Tikvah).

Another much discussed phenomenon is the recent support of various groups for candidates competing against Charedi candidates, alongside official party support, including parties within the Charedi mainstream, for the chairman of the Hitorerut movement Ofer Berkovitz as Mayor of Jerusalem. A second notable instance of (relatively) extensive unofficial support for the candidate competing against the official Charedi representative was the vote for Aliza Bloch as Mayor of Beit Shemesh. Pundits stressed the extensive use of (the religious invocation) “and you shall comply with all you are instructed” on the one hand, and the significant scope of anti-establishment voting on the other.

The general conclusion that most commentators reached, based on these phenomena, is “collapse.” Splits, local alliances, and the independent voting indicated, in their eyes, signs of a brewing crisis in the political culture of the Charedi world. They painted a nostalgic picture of past Charedi politics, a time in which a clear and uniform order would emanate from the rabbinic leadership; political camps were united; and the entire public voted for the same, single party.

Yet today, following the national election of 2019 (the first set), the same commentators are rubbing their eyes once more: What happened to the collapse of Charedi politics? It seems that in the national arena Charedi politics have proven themselves to be a model of cohesion and stability. No party sailed through the elections as calmly as the Charedi parties. Not only were there no splits, there was even talk of a united Charedi front. No revolution, no collapse, and no crisis.

So, what is really happening in Charedi society? Are we in the midst of a political crisis, a crisis of leadership, at least at the party level? Or are we in the midst of an age of political stability, unity, and calm?

 

The Theory of Collapse

My colleague and friend Dr. Avishai Ben Haim, who both cherishes and is well-acquainted with Charedi society, has been claiming for several years that Charedi society is on the brink of collapse. His main indicator of impending doom is the slow decline of absolute rabbinic leadership, which began with the passing of Rav Ovadyah Yosef in the Sephardic community, and with the passing of Rabbi Elazar Shach in the Ashkenazi community, albeit by a more gradual and complex process. He claims that Charedi society today suffers from a deep leadership crisis, expressed in its splintering into many sub-groups, and in degree of individual freedom that is anomalous to Charedi experience over the years. This is of course a brief and very superficial presentation of an extended and thesis, well known through Ben Haim’s articles and television reports.

Ben Haim is not the only voice referring to the collapse of Charedi society. It is perhaps be more correct to say that this is the common (and almost exclusive) opinion voiced among scholars of Charedi society; it has some support even among Charedi society itself—though primarily from “Facebook-Haredim” rather than those in the mainstream. These voices repeatedly say at every opportunity that we are witness to the “beginning of the end” of Charedi society as we have come to know it.

But despite my great respect for Dr. Ben Haim and his insights (on this and many other matters), I do not share his conclusions, certainly not in their radical form. I don’t believe Charedi society is facing “collapse,” and I do not believe that a significant change has occurred in the character of Charedi leadership in recent years. Of the public excitement over ostensible “precedents” occurring of late, we can recommend the words of the wisest of men in Kohelet: “Do not say: Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions” (Kohelet 7:10).

 

Charedi Politics in Israel: A History of Splits and Alliances

A centralized, uniform, and homogenous Charedi leadership—the “rule of the Marans” (“Maran” being the honorary title given to the “supreme rabbinic leaders” of Charedi society) as Ben Haim likes to put it—exists only as a nostalgic mirage, based on a very brief period in the history of Charedi politics. In practice, the historical majority of Charedi politics in the Land of Israel, at both the national and local level, has been characterized by a dynamic more reminiscent of the latest municipal elections. The splits, sub-splits, and local alliances are no exception in Charedi politics; they are indeed the rule.

Charedi politics was always a complex story. Very complex. Aside the ever-present wing of Charedi Jewry boycotting the very participation in elections, there were always different approaches and internal disputes within the camp. The most impressive show of unity displayed by religious Jewry in Israel was at the first Knesset, then called the “Constituent Assembly.” At that unique moment of truth, religious and Charedi parties and movements merged into a single list, called the United Religious Front. Even then, it a matter of unification but anything but unity. The Poalei Agudat Yisrael (PAGI) party, an anti-Zionist party led by Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov, clearly distinguished itself as a separate division from Agudas Yisrael within the Front.

Another split in the ranks of Agudah came when a bitter dispute arose between it and the PAI movement (Po’alei Agudat Yisrael) of rabbi Kalman Kahana and Binyamin Mintz, with their pioneering and pro-Zionist tendencies. Over the years there have been ups and downs (mostly the latter) in relations between PAI and Agudah. The internal conflicts within Agudah as to how to deal with PAI often rose to shrill tones; they were also the background for Rav Shach’s resignation from the Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah (committee of Torah leadership) in 1973 (the first of three resignations).

This conflict had consequences at the municipal level too. In 1978, Rav Shach and Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler), the two prominent leaders of Lithuanian Charedi Jewry, stridently opposed the candidacy of PAI representative Rabbi Shmuel Weinberg for Mayor of Bnei Brak. Rabbi Weinberg was ultimately elected, in large part thanks to support from Rabbi Chayim Greinman and other rabbinic leaders. The picture, as we can already tell, is hardly one of unison and harmony.

1976 was the year of internal elections for Agudah, which pitted several factions fighting for prominence, each of them backed by different Gedolim. The Chassidic public split into several factions, as did the Lithuanian public. The main factions within the Lithuanian community were the (by now long-forgotten) “Tziyut Vehagshama” or TZAI, which was considered a Bnei Brak-based movement backed by Rav Shach and the Steipler, and the Jerusalemite Shlomei Emunim that received the support of the great Talmudic deans in Jerusalem, including Hebron and Mir.

When Agudah decided in 1977 to join the national coalition after many years in opposition, the decision aroused significant protest. The outcry came in the main from the direction of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the eldest son of the Brisker Rav. This open dispute led to an ugly break between the Brisker dynasty and Rav Shach, who was one of the Brisker Rav’s close students and maintained warm and friendly relations with the family over the years.

Even with regard to Lithuanian-Chassiddic relations there is nothing new in current tensions. After the passing of Rabbi Yisrael Alter (the Beis Yisrael) and the rise of his brother, the Lev Simcha as head of the Ger Chassidus, several disputes emerged between Chassidim and Lithuanians. These rose to shrill tones and included threats of resignation and secession. After two crises that almost ended in a total split, Rav Shach resigned once again from the Moetzet. As a result, Rav Shach supported the Shas movement in 1984, and was deeply involved in its establishment. Agudah’s political strength halved to just two Knesset seats.

All this would presage the 1989 establishment of the Degel Hatorah party, when Rav Shach and most of the Lithuanian rabbinic leadership finally resigned from the Moetzet. Recent splits in Charedi politics are but minor tremors for those who recall the magnitude of this Chaerdi-political earthquake. The establishment of Degel Hatorah was an official declaration of a deep split within the Charedi camp. It was accompanied by an enormous amount of political tension, simmering ideological ferment, and fierce social rivalries. Among its peaks was the fierce struggle of Rav Shach against Chabad, which he boycotted with fervent zealotry.

The split of those days was far sharper than the recent internal Charedi struggles, both in form and in content. It went beyond the polls, enveloping almost every level of public and even family life. Until the split, the separation between Lithuanians and Chassidim was not as dichotomous as we are used to today. The walls between the two were lower and looser, and movement between communities was more open.

In practice, the split seems to have presaged the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one—an irreversible transition. It created bitter disputes within families, between fathers and sons, daughters and grooms, between fathers and in-laws, neighbors and friends, teachers in teachers’ lounge and study partnerships in Kollel. Recent tensions in Charedi society surrounding the Peleg Hayerushalmi faction (the extremist Lithuanian faction) reflect the deep split of those days (though the current split is internal to Lithuanian society, so that its local expressions are sometimes more painful). In those days it seemed the rift was going to deepen still, and the crack at the heart of Charedi society was set to become a rupture that would never heal.

In practice, within just three years, in the 1992 elections, Agudah and Degel Hatorah ran a joint list based on the famous 60/40 formula (which has only recently come to an end, in light of the recent municipal elections). It is remarkable that we were recently witness to the changing of the guard among part of the Rabbinate of Bnei Brak, with the passing of Rabbi Landau ob”m. In the days of Rav Shach, a similar event raised one of the most caustic disputes to divide the Charedi public, while today it passed without acrimony.

Does this mean that after the renewed union of 1992 the land became peaceful and silent? Not exactly. In 1996, Rabbi Yosef Azran, who had resigned from Shas, formed a party called “Telem Emunah.” In this he was joined by Rabbi Yehezkel Ashaik, driver and close confidant of Rav Shach. This party received the backing of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and garnered over 12,000 votes.

We can go on and on with historical anecdotes and documentation, but it seems this brief survey will suffice to show that as much as we attribute meaning to recent events, we are by no means dealing with an irregular or exceptional phenomenon. The splits, alliances, and fierce statements heard here and there are by no means “historic precedents;” neither are they tell-tale signs of some impending earthquake.

 

Nothing New on the “Eastern” Front

The nostalgic tendency makes many of us paint the past in much more pleasant and even stronger colors than there were in reality. In fact, even at their peak, Rav Shach and Rav Ovadyah had to deal constantly with parties and people who challenged their leadership in word and deed.

One could argue that the difference between those days and our own time is the bottom line. In that period, the voice of the Gadol Hador set the ultimate tone, and those who opposed him were defined as “poresh min hatzibur” [seceding from the community]. By contrast, some parts of today’s camp live as though the era of leadership speaking with one voice is over, and there is no leadership capable of taking the reins and outlining a clear approach that the entire public will follow. But it seems to me that even this is an inaccurate portrayal of the situation. Even in the days of Rav Shach, there were disputes big and small that hardly ended with excommunication and rejection. The more fundamental the disputes, whether politically or ideologically, the more the public indeed tended toward wholesale rejection or excommunication. But on many matters Rav Shach’s opponents remained within the Charedi concensus, albeit at its margins (for instance the Maarava Yeshiva that introduced secular studies to a yeshiva framework). Despite changes, and although we are witness today to a dual or multiple leadership structure somewhat weaker than the peak moment of Rav Shach and Rav Ovadya, there remains an almost complete closing of ranks on the most important issues.

Why then does it seem to many that we are on the brink of a revolution? Why is it that when we listen to the radio or read the newspaper, our ears echo with the sound of the horn presaging the coming end of the Charedi world? This sentiment is worthy of a deeper look.

It seems to me that the phenomenon derives in part from the character of today’s press. The remarkable availability and immediacy of information means that every small event is reported in a sensational way. The words “scoop,” “dramatic expression” and the like are tossed into the air without a second thought. Everything is filmed, everything is recorded, and every journalist wants to be the one to attract what little attention the public is willing to still devote to news in our age of information flooding. Not that information was not around in the past; the walls of the mikvahs can serve as proof. But immediate media creates a bubble detached from the external, slow, “real” world. Thus, every small event is blown out of proportion and becomes a “historic precedent.”

In addition, the entering of many young people into the media world contributes significantly to the sense of newness. Young people, for whom this is their first election, become scholarly commentators overnight, and every mole seems to them to be a mountain (although not a few veteran and experienced journalists are taken in by the conception of the new and the groundbreaking, as noted above). Alongside this, it turns out that various emotional tendencies known from different areas of life—such as the tendency to arrive at conclusions based on every anecdotal episode—create a sense that the present event is irregular and unusual, far beyond what it is in practice. Our memory, in this context, is far too short.

The truth is that disputes have existed as long as humanity has, and there is nothing (or at least precious little) new under the sun. Rav Shach frequently quoted the midrash dealing with Kayin and Hevel in his talks at yeshivah:

Said (Kayin and Hevel): Let us divide the world, one took the lands and the other took the portable goods. One said: The land which you stand on belongs to me; while the other said: The clothes you wear belong to me! One said: Take you clothes off; while the other said: float in the air. Kayin thus arose and killed his brother Hevel (Bereshis Rabbah 22).

Dispute is second nature for humankind. Throughout Jewish history disputes have existed—those conducted for the sake of Heaven, and those that were not. The decision of public disputes via political splits does not indicate a multiplicity of disputes; the contrary is closer to the truth. In the (not so distant) past, disputes were solved with ax blows and other such forms of “decision.” The idea of elections was meant to replace the violent form of decision via majority rule. The level of political violence today approaches zero, and this is certainly not something to be taken for granted. Partisan splits are in fact a sign that the public is learning to resolve its differences through the relatively elegant process of voting at ballot boxes. Defining the multiplicity of lists in elections as an illegitimate dispute, alongside lamentations of “What happened to our unity?” tends to come from those who have most to lose in a fair election.

 

A Delicate System of Balances

Charedi politics is characterized by a delicate balance between different communities and their respective values and preferences. Whenever that balance is disturbed, whether at the local or the national level, a split emerges. But this split is merely a call for a reorganizing the balance of power, and it usually ends in a new alliance based on a different balance, as we saw recently: The results of the separate lists for the city of Jerusalem led—albeit quite late in the day—to a more equal and just division of representation in the Knesset.

Thus, we can understand why splits at the municipal level in the recent elections had virtually no negative consequences for the national elections. Moreover, I would go a step further and argue that they actually had a positive effect. Early shocks at the local level assured that the national election would proceed calmly and smoothly, with each community recognizing the limits of its power. In an early draft of this article, written immediately after the local elections of 2018, I wrote as an assessment toward the national elections that things were more stable than many liked to think. This was very much brought out by reality on the ground: Charedi parties are indeed more stable than ever.

Against this background, we ought to understand that even the split of the Etz faction from Degel Hatorah is not so unusual. It is true that a similar split in the Lithuanian community has not been seen since the heyday of Rav Shach; yet as we saw, splits and disputes in the Lithuanian space are no “historic precedent.” They were therefore before the Rav Shach era, during it, and immediately after it.

The present represents a milestone in Lithuanian history. It brought to the fore forces that were simmering under the surface for years, creating a significant rift within Lithuanian society. It’s hard to tell how things will unfold in the short term, especially in the light of the sudden death of the movement’s spiritual leader, Rav Shmuel Auerbach ob”m. But if we rely on the near and distant history of disputes within Charedi society, the dispute is likely to ultimately die down, and what will remain of it is a separate, legitimate community, working with other communities, including that of Degel Hatorah. I can’t determine how long it will take for this to happen, but I am fairly convinced that this process will ultimately transpire.

Yes, I share the assessments, as heard from various directions, by which ever greater numbers of Charedim are voting for secular parties. This is also not a new phenomenon. Even if it is becoming a touch more prominent, it remains at the margins. Deducting the traditional Chabad vote for rightwing parties, votes for non-Charedi parties in clearly Charedi areas still revolve around the 1-2% range. I allow myself to bet that the results are not set to change significantly.

To the best of my understanding, Charedim voting for non-Charedi parties do so primarily on account of feeling alienation from Charedi society, and not due to some particular issue, those these are often used to excuse the non-Charedi vote. I asked members of a particular group that criticized the conduct of Charedi politics and leadership whether there is something which would make them change their mind and vote for a Charedi party. Most answered honestly that the alienation is more fundamental and deeper than the totality of specific complaints and arguments.

Of course, even Charedim within the “mainstream” have worthy and sometimes piercing criticism of various aspects of Charedi politics. But we can say in general that when the hour of truth comes, those who feel they belong to Charedi society ultimately choose Charedi representatives. This was best expressed by Charedi political commentator Yaakov Rivlin in his regular column in the Bakehilah weekly: “This column sharply criticizes the conduct of Charedi parties on a routine basis. We do not rescind a word of it. But for God’s sake, what is the alternative? The Charedi parties, after all, are our home. Go out and fight for it this coming Tuesday to your last drop of blood.”

Those who vote for non-Charedi parties do not seem to feel that this is their home, and their vote would not change irrespective of policy shifts.

 

Is there no change at all in Charedi society?

Some may argue thus: How can we ignore the changes occurring within Charedi society? Can we compare the Charedi world of 2019 to that of 1989? Only a blind man would deny that Charedi society is very different to what it was then. My response is that I do not deny things are happening, but I dispute the radical interpretation given to the same, especially the claims concerning a leadership crisis and the social cleavages presaging a coming collapse.

Changes are the lot of every society, no matter how conservative or devout. Sometimes these are minor, sometimes major. When we try to follow the changes and come to some conclusion on the matter, we must be very careful to differentiate between a natural developmental change, even when relatively deep, and true tectonic shifts, with the potential to bring about a partial or even total collapse. More often than not, it is difficult to distinguish between symptoms of natural development, which could actually end up strengthening and fortifying, and signs of impending doom. Reality is forever dynamic and cannot remain fixed, especially when the storm rages outside. The difference between measured and gradual changes on one hand, and revolutions on the other, is not always so clear.

Examples abound of common and natural changes. We can point to one, which appears minor and marginal, but expresses a significant process: the types of Gemara volumes that students use.

In my youth, the Shas published by Talman was the last word. The young among readers may perhaps not know what I’m talking about. Those slightly older will surely recall the the enormous gap between that edition and the range of available Gemara editions available today. And we should not take this lightly. Yeshiva deans with a conservative bent, such as Rav Shach, were not fans of the more illuminating texts, seeing them as an unwelcome bypassing of the needed study effort to truly acquire Torah. Moreover, in the Rav Shach era a Hebrew translation of Artscroll’s annotated Shas (the “Schottenstein Talmud”) would have been simply out of the question. Even when this was permitted by rabbinic leaders, this was done with an apologetic tone, justifying the translation in terms of “a time has come to do for God; they violated your Torah.” This was done so that students should not make use of the “make life easier” editions that rabbis were uncomfortable with. Even a comparison of the study books available today at centers of yeshiva learning, and those in use some decades ago, also points at significant changes.

When it comes to more fundamental changes, we need to carefully separate a natural process of development, strengthening, and upgrading of the existing structure, from those whose aim or cause is to undermine and potentially lead to outright collapse. The distinction is not an easy one, and it is based not only on objective data but also on intuition. My personal impression, based on interest, acquaintance, and observation, and naturally affected by personal tendencies, leads me to a more conservative analysis of processes in society. However, I try and analyze reality as it is, regardless of my normative judgement thereof and my position on how it should ideally look.

For instance, I see the adoption of educational approaches taken from general society by the Charedi educational system as a move whose aim is strengthening and upgrading. Another example is the adoption of various Chassidic manners by most Lithuanian yeshivas, such as convening in song and appealing to the emotional center of students. Such steps mean to address the various challenges of our times, and their aim is to strengthen the core Lithuanian yeshiva ethos rather than weakening or blurring it. It is but natural that the shared life of all Charedi communities leads to mutual influence in various areas. Even trips to pray at the graves of tzaddikim are no longer exclusive to Chassidic communities. One can criticize such changes and oppose them; one way or another, they hardly presage “collapse.”

Looking back, many measured changes come together to form a critical mass, so that at the end of the process it seems that something new has arrived, and the present situation is entirely different to what it was several decades ago. But to the degree that changes take place in a measured and supervised evolutionary process, the chain remains strongly linked to the past. Charedi society has not experienced a revolution—a fundamental change in values calling for a sharp turning point in society. It is likewise hard to identify early signs of coming upheaval.

I am not arguing that there is no room for concern (or hope, depending on the perspective), and that the robustness of Charedi society is everlasting. Social processes are too complex to foresee results in advance. The enormous increase in size of Charedi society, mainly a result of natural increase and partially due to people of different backgrounds joining the society, certainly has great effect. The numerical increase has, among other things, created far broader physical and cultural margins. In addition, the joining of “social immigrants” born to diverse backgrounds has the potential to both moderate and radicalize Charedi society, especially in a community whose ethos of defense against external winds is so central to its existence.

Experience teaches that those who join Charedi society, whether as baalei teshuva or as Charedi individuals born outside of Israel—or the second generation thereof—form the core of groups challenging “mainstream” Charedi thinking. Some are even openly working towards change or the formation of alternative communities alongside the central Charedi group. There is no doubt that this phenomenon, alongside what appears to be increased “defection” (a small portion of which hails from the core of Charedi society), heralds a significant challenge. But we should not forget that Charedi society has dealt with complex challenges from inception. Just think of how in the not so distant past, girls were not willing to even hear of a potential match with a Ben Torah, even if he intended to make a worldly living immediately after marriage. When we think of the long and significant path that Charedi has taken since those days, present challenges seem much more manageable.

Changes, social and political, will come. Indeed, come they must, and they are in fact taking place before our eyes. But when it comes to the core of Charedi-ism and its foundational assumptions, I will allow myself to bet that the robustness and adaptability of Charedi society in the face of complex situations will hold out. This will happen thanks to fierce ideological motivation, lingering in deed even if the spirit is weaker than it once was, and thanks to continued belief in the Torah and its central importance, which at the end of the day stands behind everything Charedi.

We are very far, so I believe, from the grim visions of collapse.

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