Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman called for the first time for a mass prayer rally against the decisions of the Shaked Committee on haredi enlistment Wednesday afternoon.

Shteinman’s comments constitute a significant heightening of tensions between the haredi community and the government.

They could lead to mass demonstrations against the new law.

“Rabbi Shteinman spoke out today extremely sharply in light of the fact that it appears that criminal sanctions will be imposed on those who study Torah, and that it will be established in law that those who study the Torah will be criminals,” a spokesman for the rabbi said.

“Rabbi Shteinman requested that the heads of Degel HaTorah, Agudat Yisrael and Shas convene together in order to deliberate on [arrangements for] a mass rally for prayer and crying out against this great desecration of God’s Name,” the spokesman continued.

Shteinman, who leads the mainstream haredi community, has until now refused to support the protests staged by hard-line haredi elements against the government’s efforts to draft yeshiva students.

But that a yeshiva student could be imprisoned if he wishes to continue with his religious studies and not enlist is an ideological problem for the haredi leadership.

Shteinman has been engaged in a power struggle with the hard-line Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach over the haredi community.

Auerbach has opposed all compromise and cooperation with the government on the issue of enlistment. His political faction has been behind the largest demonstrations and riots opposing the new legislation.

Auerbach’s Bnei Torah party issued a statement on Wednesday reiterating its long-standing claim that the government would impose criminal sanctions and said it hoped that “all the various sectors of haredi Judaism will join [Bnei Torah] in a steadfast and uncompromising struggle against this wretched plot.”

The violent demonstrations that took place across the country earlier this month were orchestrated by Bnei Torah, a minority faction in the haredi community.

It is widely believed that it will now be impossible for Shteinman to maintain his credibility as a leader in the haredi world without endorsing mass public protest against government legislation.

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