Gueta and the haredim

The death four years ago of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the unparalleled rabbinic authority of Sephardic Jewry, ushered in a new and uncertain era for Shas.

Yigal Gueta (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yigal Gueta
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Revelations that Yigal Gueta, a Shas MK, attended the same-sex wedding of his nephew two years ago have sparked a major controversy in the strictly religious party that represents much of Sephardi Jewry.
Most rabbis close to Shas have condemned Gueta, while some have come to his defense. Shas chairman Arye Deri, who ostensibly accepted Gueta’s willingness to resign, would probably like to see his most loyal ally in Shas stay put, but seems powerless to do anything. Attempts are in the works to reach a compromise that would allow Gueta to continue if he apologizes.
All of this might seem somewhat inconsequential to the bigger picture of Israeli politics. This is not, however, entirely true. The way the controversy in Shas surrounding Gueta is being handled is an indication that the party is suffering a crisis of leadership.
We are entering a new era in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi communities in which rabbinic leadership is increasingly splintered and decentralized and therefore unable to wield political power effectively.
This is a welcomed development since it empowers the fast-growing haredi population with more personal and political autonomy.
The death four years ago of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the unparalleled rabbinic authority of Sephardic Jewry, ushered in a new and uncertain era for Shas. Rabbinic leadership, which had been wielded exclusively by Yosef, was dispersed among the members of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages and other respected Sephardi rabbis. No longer did Shas’s spiritual leadership speak in a single voice.
In the case of Gueta, rabbinic leadership is split. The head of Shas’s council, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, along with the dean of Jerusalem’s prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Tzadka, and Rabbi Ben Tzion Motzpi have all called for Gueta’s resignation for “desecration of God’s blessed name.”
But Rabbi Shimon Baadani, who is also a member of the Shas council, supported Gueta. Baadani argued that Gueta was right to attend the wedding so as to maintain ties with his sister and her family and influence them to become more religious. Rabbi David Yosef, the son of Shas’s founder, also called on Shas’s council to be more lenient.
All of this is indicative of the waning influence of rabbinic authority. We are entering an era of a plurality of rabbinic opinions with no single rabbi able to impose his will.
A similar process has been playing out in the Ashkenazi haredi community, especially after the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv five years ago. Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach is challenging the mainstream leadership of Degel Hatorah (the “Lithuanian” part of United Torah Judaism). Meanwhile, hassidic leaders such as Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, head of Ger, the largest and most influential hassidic movement in Israel, are acting independently, and in opposition, to other haredi groups in municipal elections. This week’s High Court of Justice ruling against mass exemption from the IDF draft for haredi men has helped reunify the Ashkenazi haredi community. But the long-term trends seem to point to an increasingly fractured leadership.
Clearly, the crisis facing Shas is more acute. Recent polls show Shas receiving barely enough votes to pass the 3.5% threshold for representation in the Knesset.
We believe that decentralization of rabbinic authority and the empowerment of individuals in the haredi community is a positive trend that will continue. Its effects on Israeli politics are far-reaching. Haredim are the fasting growing population in Israel. We foresee a day when their voice will be heard not through small political parties under rabbinic supervision with narrow agendas, but rather as new leaders of Israeli society who will integrate into the larger parties with broad political platforms that deal with all aspects of political life.
The fate of Gueta has no major ramifications for Israeli politics, but the crisis of rabbinic leadership in Shas and to a lesser extent in United Torah Judaism points to a positive trend away from parochialism and toward integration.