December 8, 2023
in Haredi

Ahead of Israeli election, a split in United Torah Judaism could endanger the entire bloc of parties loyal to Netanyahu. But beyond the electoral implications, a larger ideological rift is shaking the Haredi world.

As with just about everything in Israeli politics, the prospect of a split in United Torah Judaism – the ultra-Orthodox political alliance between the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the “Lithuanian” Degel Hatorah – is being seen solely through the prism of how it affects Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government after the November 1 election.

But the rift within the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, leadership is about far more than whether the two Ashkenazi parties will run together or whether either has enough voters to cross the 3.25-percent electoral threshold alone.

There’s nothing new of course about bickering between Hasidim and mitnagdim, the Haredi wing that rejected the spirituality that engulfed Jewish eastern Europe in the 18th century. This has been going on for at least two and a half centuries.

For most of Israeli history, the two wings have been cooperating, first together in Agudat Yisrael and then in United Torah Judaism, but the relationship between the two parties has often been stormy. In the 1980s, Agudat Yisrael split and the Lithuanians founded Degel Hatorah, which ran separately in 1988.

And though since 1992 they’ve run jointly as United Torah Judaism, they remain two separate parties, each with its own “council of Torah greats,” which gives the orders to the politicians and aligned newspapers. They’ve never fully reconciled their differences, and early in most election campaigns the question of whether they’ll run together arises. In recent years they’ve split for some local elections while remaining together on the national level.

One reason for the turbulence this time is that as in the ’80s, the dispute is about an ideological clash between a prominent Hasidic group and the Lithuanians.

The party’s leaders on their way to the President’s Residence to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

Back then it was over Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the Lithuanian spiritual leader’s opposition to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which he regarded as a dangerous messianist sect. Shach demanded that Hamodia, Agudat Yisrael’s daily newspaper, not report on events held by Chabad. While Chabad wasn’t officially affiliated with the party, the other Hasidic rebbes were reluctant to go along. As the Ger rebbe at the time, Simcha Alter, put it, “We won’t allow a boycott of a holy community.”

This time the Hasidic sect in question is Belz, the second-largest in Israel and a member of Agudat Yisrael, which has provoked the Lithuanians’ ire by getting the Education Ministry to increase funding to Belz private schools if they improve the teaching of general (secular) studies. It’s a matter of principle, and the Lithuanian rabbis, who see themselves as the guardians of Haredi ideology, are adamant that no compromise can be made. The Belzer rov, Yissachar Rokeach, has been attacked (without his name being mentioned) in the party’s newspaper Yated Neeman for “collaborating” and allegedly jeopardizing “the values of Haredi education amid a complete surrender to the government’s dictates.”

Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with United Torah Judaism chief Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in 2015.

Belz’s agreement with the government breaks a number of cardinal rules for the Lithuanians. It entertains the notion that “pure education” can be changed by an external authority and that the syllabus of that “original” and “authentic” Jewish education needs subjects that don’t involve religious texts. The Belz agreement also entertains the heresy that the ultra-Orthodox community can’t sustain itself if its men dedicate their entire lives to Torah study.

But this “Lithuanian” vision, presented as the original Judaism, is a modern concept that was created in the last few generations when the Haredi communities that were rebuilding after the devastation of the Holocaust had the good fortune to find themselves in a society where a small community of scholars, or as Israeli sociologist Menachem Friedman called it, “the learners’ society,” could live off welfare benefits and philanthropy.

And while many see this as the prevailing ideology of the modern Haredi community, the truth is, not all senior rabbis agree with it – though in public they have to pretend they do because they can’t seem less dedicated to Torah study than their Lithuanian rivals. But as most members of the main Hasidic groups will tell you, their rabbis believe that aside from small exceptions of particularly gifted students, most married men should work for a living.

The Hasidic rebbes feel responsible for every aspect of their followers’ lives, including that of their families and children, unlike the Lithuanian rabbis, who are mainly deans of yeshivas and therefore responsible just for men’s study. The rebbes are aware that they can’t sustain their own lavish courts, the Hasidic institutions and their followers’ welfare if many of them don’t work for a living and contribute both to their families and their community.

The difficulties of sustaining the Haredi way of life are of course shared by all parts of ultra-Orthodoxy, but the rebbes are aware of their followers’ financial situation. Plus, Hasidism has never elevated Torah study as an exclusive way of life as the Lithuanian rabbis have. The Belzer rebbe is prioritizing both the funding of his schools and the preparation of their students for a life of work.

A young man walks by the gimel representing United Torah Judaism before the March 2021 election.

This isn’t the first time Rokeach, the Belzer rov, has defied a group of rabbis. In the late ’70s he broke with the hard-line anti-Zionist Eda Haredit – which refused to run in elections and accept government funds – and joined Agudat Yisrael. When that party split in 1988 he joined the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah instead of staying with his Hasidic colleagues. In 2000 he returned to Agudat Yisrael. Rokeach has always done what he thinks is best for him and his community’s future. He’s unlikely to back down over his deal with the Education Ministry.

At 74 (he has led Belz for 56 years), Rokeach is still an active and wily politician. On the other side, the senior Lithuanian leader is 99-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who became spiritual leader only six months ago, upon the death of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. Edelstein, the dean of Ponevezh Yeshiva in Haredi Tel Aviv suburb Bnei Brak, won’t back down over a matter of education and ideology either.

Can they all put this dispute aside for the sake of running together in the election? Perhaps, but not all of them want to. Belz wants to make a point that it won’t be dictated to. The Lithuanians are itching to run independently of United Torah Judaism and prove that they’re numerically larger than the Hasidim and can cross the electoral threshold alone.

Both sides resent the way Netanyahu is trying to interfere in their internal issues and force them to run together, out of fear of losing votes for his right-wing/ultra-Orthodox camp. Despite their long-standing alliance with him, they too are preparing for the day after Netanyahu.

The Haredi community, its disputes and schisms, were around long before Israeli politics – and even before Netanyahu. And they’ll outlast him.

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