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Monday, October 21, 2013

The irreparable split in Israel's Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community

Instead of giving a speech, Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi took the microphone at the big gathering held Saturday night in Jerusalem, and called on the crowd to stand. The head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva and a member of the Degel Hatorah party's Council of Torah Sages turned to look at Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, "the greatest religious decisor of the generation," the 99-year old Haredi rabbi from the non-Hassidic, so-called Lithuanian stream, who remained sitting in his seat on the stage, and thundered out the blessing used only upon seeing a great member of the Jewish People: "Blessed are Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted part of his wisdom to those who revere him."

The crowd, thousands of young yeshiva students and their older, married counterparts, responded Amen in unison. And then Ezrachi added: "This is all my sermon men, we don't need anything longer. Everything is included in it, but less than that is impossible. These are our lights ... every mark, comma, every one of their commands, we will fulfill exactly," shouted Ezrachi.

Shouting out as loud as he could, Rabbi Ezrachi spelled out the true banner of the conflict that is splitting apart the "Lithuanian" community, the group that has always been dominant in the Haredi world: As far as they are concerned there is only one "greatest," and the revolt declared by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his followers against Shteinman is not just a political dispute, but a true religious drama. Being the "greatest of the generation" is not just a title that can be divided between two rabbis.

Shteinman took the trouble to come to Jerusalem on Saturday night from his home in Bnei Brak, along with Rabbi Haim Kanievski - who also enjoys enormous respect in the Haredi community - in order to strengthen his Degel Hatorah party, which is bogged down in its most serious crisis since its founding 25 years ago, as MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said at the rally.

Auerbach and his supporters, a minority group that was part of the very soul of Degel Hatorah and became at odds with the party, decided to rewrite the rules of the game and set up their own party, "Bnei Torah," to run in Tuesday's local elections in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Modi'in Ilit. In these three cities the party is a real threat to Degel Hatorah, and in Jerusalem, their rather obscure candidate for mayor is likely to foil the hopes of Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu candidate Moshe Leon to receive 100 percent of the Haredi vote. The chances of such a bloc coming together for Leon by the time the polls open Tuesday now seems to be zero.

In the meantime, the "Lithuanian" street is boiling over because of the split, which for now seems to be irreparable. While Auerbach justifies his revolt for ideological reasons, Shteinman has started relating to the other side in an uncharacteristically militant fashion. His associates say the venerable rabbi sees his rival from Jerusalem as an "existential danger" to their community, and he wants to guarantee that Auerbach does not inherit the leadership of the community after his death. 

The Yated Neeman newspaper, associated with the "Lithuanian" community's mainstream and loyal to Shteinman, attacked Auerbach directly last Friday. Shteinman was quoted as saying, among other things, that the other camp is guilty of an act "more serious than idol worship," and Kanievski was quoted as saying "anyone who votes for [Auerbach's] party is aiding sinners."

The split in the Lithuanian community goes far beyond the municipal elections and inner party battles. It has similarities to the division in the Kibbutz movement in the 1950s - a traumatic sea change that signifies the peak of a protracted change that the Haredi society has undergone, one which has already split communities and divided families. As long as the conflict remained between the rabbis, yeshiva heads, party hacks and the press - most of the "Lithuanian" Haredi community sat on the fence waiting. 

The Degel Hatorah MKs, in particular UTJ's Gafni and Uri Maklev, also managed to remain neutral. But all that has ended. Almost everyone who identifies as a "Lithuanian" Haredi, and not just in Israel, is now choosing sides - as if between their mother or father. The family analogy is not incidental: At the rally Saturday night Gafni mentioned yeshiva students who are rebelling against their fathers' wishes, since their yeshiva heads belong to the other faction. In front of the thousands-strong crowd Saturday night, Kanievski also announced that he will allow women to vote differently from their husbands.

In his speech at the rally, Gafni said in despair that the split is "the work of the devil," that is intended to harm the Haredim as part of the "horrible decrees" enacted by Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Gafni looks as if he was giving up on the possibility of mending the split. But the chairman of Shas, MK Aryeh Deri - who, along with MK Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, are behind Leon's candidacy - made a final effort on Sunday to repair the damage. Deri went to Auerbach's home and begged him to have his candidate, Haim Epstein, withdraw his mayoral candidacy. 

That is the only way to save the Haredim, Deri said; it is the only way the Hassidic courts of Gur, Belz and others can be convinced to unite behind Leon; and it is the only way to beat Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, Deri told Auerbach. Deri returned empty-handed, but he and Lieberman are not expected to ease off and give up until the very last moment.

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