Analysis: The power and peril of rabbinic political leadership

Demise of consensus on rabbinic leadership in haredi world hints at political division for the sector in the future.

Ovadia Yosef
For both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi haredi communities the 2015 election campaign was bitter, divisive and fraught with poisonous rhetoric about religious and political legitimacy.
But perhaps more than ever, the central pillar upon which haredi politics is built, adherence to the instructions of the community’s rabbis, was brought to the fore, and the power, but concomitant weakness, of this system was highlighted.
The Shas movement has for many years been constructed on the cult of personality surrounding its late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His charisma and dynamism brought Sephardi haredim together under one political banner, and drew non-haredi Sephardim to the party as well.
When Yosef was alive, few challenged him and those who did suffered heavy defeats while Shas maintained its power.
This time around, Yosef was no longer present physically, and although Shas used his image and words from beyond the grave as its most powerful electoral tool, a new political movement was able to take form and mount a serious challenge to Shas’s domination of the Sephardi haredi political arena.
Daat Torah, the notion that an observant, Orthodox Jew should consult his rabbi on matters like elections which are not of a religious nature, served Shas well while Yosef was alive, but Yosef’s death in October 2013 led to the death of consensus.
Yosef was unparalleled in his Torah scholarship and force of personality, and so the notion of Daat Torah was a winning proposition for Shas every time. But with Yosef’s departure there is no star rabbinic personality whom everyone agrees is the “Gadol Hador,” the Torah giant of the generation.
This allowed MK Eli Yishai to claim that he did not have to listen or adhere to the words of the new Shas spiritual leader, who is relatively unknown and not much loved, but could instead listen to the words of his own spiritual leader, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, who gave Yishai the religious sanction to form his own party in competition with Shas.
Yishai and his mongrel Yahad party failed just barely to make it into the Knesset, but garnered an impressive 118,000 votes, which would have given them at least three seats in any past Israeli election, where the threshold was lower.
Meanwhile Shas sank to a seven- seat nadir not seen since the 13th Knesset in 1992 when it received six mandates.
When the various political forces and undercurrents in the haredi world do not coalesce around one particular rabbi and his Daat Torah – his opinion on matters based on his Torah knowledge – political division is a sure outcome.
And a similar schism has occurred in the Ashkenazi non-hassidic haredi community, the roots of which are also found in the Daat Torah system.
In 1988, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his time and a dynamic political personality, set up the Degel Hatorah party as a breakaway from the hassidic-dominated Agudat Yisrael movement.
Within the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” haredi sector, Shach became the “Gadol Hador” and it was his “Daat Torah” that determined political reality and political legitimacy.
Shach was the undisputed religious leader of the generation, while his successor after him, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, was held in the same regard, so that political unity was preserved and Degel’s monopoly on power and policy within the community was maintained.
Elyashiv died, however, in 2012, and, as with Yosef, consensus as to who was the new generational leader died with him as well.
Elyashiv left behind two claimants to his rabbinical throne, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. The assorted politicians, politicos and loyalists surrounding both rabbis waged a fierce battle following Elyashiv’s death to crown their respective rabbis, and it was Shteinman who was ultimately victorious.
Auerbach’s supporters did not concede defeat, however, and they and the rabbi have led an insurgency, ostensibly based on Auerbach’s more extreme approach to the issue of haredi enlistment, but to a large degree motivated by the decision of Shteinman and his backers to freeze Auerbach’s faction out of political power.
The Daat Torah of Shteinman, and the attendant threats of the religious responsibility that would be borne by anyone not voting for Degel, once again proved its efficacy and brought 206,000 haredi men and women to vote for United Torah Judaism, the joint Knesset faction combining Degel and Agudat Yisrael.
But the party nevertheless lost a seat because Auerbach’s faction boycotted the election due to its feud with Degel, and deprived UTJ of as much as 30,000 votes.
Once again, the demise of a single, acknowledged rabbinical leader has showed the potential weaknesses and pitfalls of the Daat Torah system and the potential for political divide inherent in it.
The persuasive force and power of the concept of Daat Torah is not dying out any time soon, as even Tuesday it motivated close to half a million people to vote for the political parties their rabbis instructed them to vote for.
But the lack of consensus over the rabbinic leadership in the haredi world may in the short term get worse, while the divides between the different communities deepen. The absence of a single successor to the great rabbis of the past may make those political divisions harder to bridge in the future.