A bitter war of words has broken out between the rabbinic leadership of the haredi world surrounding next week’s municipal elections.
On Monday, a group of haredi rabbis and communal leaders met with the most senior haredi leader in the country, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, to discuss the upcoming municipal elections.
Shteinman is the acknowledged “generational leader” of the non-hassidic Lithuanian haredi community and is the spiritual head of the Degel Hatorah party which represents the Lithuanian sector in Knesset and in municipal politics.
When asked by the group about other parties competing for the haredi Lithuanian vote, Shteinman answered uncompromisingly that the only party that was acceptable to vote for was Degel.
“[One is] obligated to vote for Degel Hatorah which is the party that has received the approval of the rabbis and the Torah sages,” said Shteinman, as reported by haredi daily and Degel mouthpiece Yated Ne’eman on Tuesday.
“God forbid should someone vote for another party, because it is impossible to trust them because everyone knows who it is that are working for the sake of God and who it is that want to confuse people.”
Degel was until this year the only non-hassidic haredi party, but a small grouping of the Lithuanian community, known as the Jerusalem Faction, has broken away from the traditional party claiming that its leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach is the true inheritor of Degel’s path.
The faction is now running its own party, Bnei Torah, in municipal elections in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Modi’in Illit, and threatens to take away significant numbers of voters from Degel, especially in Jerusalem.
Shteinman was referencing Bnei Torah in his comments warning the haredi community not to vote for anyone other than Degel.
Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, perhaps the second most senior haredi non-hassidic rabbi, has also issued several harsh denouncements of Bnei Torah.
At a separate meeting on Monday in Kanievsky’s Bnei Brak residence, the rabbi told a large gathering of yeshiva deans that anyone who votes for Bnei Torah “is supporting criminals and, whether deliberately or by accident, is desecrating God’s name.”
The rabbi said that it was “politicos who have established a new party in order to humiliate the leadership of Rabbi Shteinman” and that they have been trying to convince yeshiva students that “they are the transmitters of tradition and that the great Torah sages are nothing.”
He went on to say that such people were “youngsters who are disgracing the Torah and despise the great sages of Israel.”
Last Thursday, Kanievsky said that anyone voting for another party would, according to Jewish law, be subject to the death penalty by stoning.
“My father taught me that someone who does not listen to the great [Torah] sages, and votes for another party is liable to the [death penalty] of stoning since he desecrates God’s name,” said Kanievsky during a gathering of senior haredi yeshiva deans in Bnei Brak.
Although tensions have been extremely high between the factions ever since the Jerusalem Faction first broke away from Degel last year, the invective unleashed by the mainstream Lithuanian rabbis in recent days marks a new nadir in this intra-communal conflict.
Auerbach has for the moment refrained from conducting a full frontal attack of his own, despite the onslaught against his own faction.
“I have heard that there are people getting excited about different things, but one must not get worked up by such matters,” he said during a gathering of his supporters in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shaarei Hesed, haredi website Kikar HaShabbat reported.
“We are going in the ways of the Torah, and in truth what is there to be afraid of? I really don’t want to accuse and speak about the harsh attacks, but if someone [a possible Bnei Torah voter] is afraid of such words, how is he not afraid of the strict words of Rabbi [Elazar Menachem] Shach and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv?” asked Auerbach, in reference to the two late leaders of Degel Hatorah.
Bnei Torah claims that they are the true continuation of the religious and political philosophy and direction of those two leaders.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Yishaiyahu Wein, a senior figure in Bnei Torah, labeled the attacks “a joke” and said that such outbursts “project the fear” of the Degel Hatorah movement in the upcoming elections.
“They’re feeling the pressure, they see that we’re going to take a lot of votes and do well so this is what’s behind the attack,” he commented, while also expressing skepticism that Kanievsky had indeed made the comments and not an advisor.
Wein also claimed that the Bnei Torah party had received a lot of support from people following the harsh comments made against them in recent days.
He added that he believed the attacks would only increase in their severity and frequency in the last days leading up to the elections this coming Sunday.