Death of radical Haredi rabbi not the end of Haredi extremist struggle

Auerbach was considered to be a great Torah scholar as well as a fierce force against Haredi service in the IDF.

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction (photo credit: YONINAH/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction
Tens of thousands of Haredi men from Jerusalem and ultra-Orthodox strongholds around the country came to the capital on Sunday for the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a hard-line conservative who rocked the country with protests against Haredi military service.
Tens of thousands attend funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, February 25, 2018 (TPS)
Auerbach died suddenly on Friday night following a heart attack. He was 86. In a somewhat unusual move, his funeral was postponed from Saturday night to Sunday, reportedly so more mourners could attend and give honor to Auerbach, who was considered a great Torah scholar.
Several of the rabbi’s close colleagues and associates gave eulogies during the funeral ceremony in the Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood of Jerusalem where Auerbach lived. Some of the speakers were fiery in their insistence that Auerbach’s uncompromising opposition to Haredi military service and accommodation with the state and modernity would be continued.
Rabbi Tzvi Friedman, a prominent rabbi in Bnei Brak and supporter of the Jerusalem Faction that Auerbach led, said that a “war of extermination” is being conducted, a reference to the erroneous claims of the Jerusalem Faction that yeshiva students are being forcibly drafted into the IDF.
“[But] none of the haters of all types should think that the campaign is lost,” Friedman continued, now that Auerbach had died.
“They can fill up all the prisons, it won’t help them at all.”
The Hapeles newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Jerusalem Faction, hastened to publish a mourning notice from 12 prominent rabbis associated with the faction who pledged to uphold Auerbach’s uncompromising positions on matters affecting the Haredi community.
Haredi men gather in Jerusalem for the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach / EHUD AMITON/TPS Haredi men gather in Jerusalem for the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach / EHUD AMITON/TPS
“With God’s help, we will merit to continue bright path, as he [Auerbach] instructed us, and in accordance with his request and his instructions to us in just the last few days,” the 12 rabbis averred.
It is thought that this group of rabbis could eventually constitute a council of Torah sages for the Jerusalem Faction and its Bnei Torah political party, as a replacement for Auerbach’s leadership.
Among those rabbis are Auerbach’s brother Rabbi Azriel Auerbach, a rabbi in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan. Azriel Auerbach is thought to be more moderate than his late sibling but he has been increasingly associated within the last two years with the Jerusalem Faction and its decision-making echelons, especially in the capital.
Other prominent figures among the 12 were the deans of the Ponevezh Yeshiva Rabbi Shmuel Markowitz; Rabbi Tzvi Friedman who gave one of the eulogies; and Rabbi Asher Hacohen Deutsch, a respected hard-line figure in Bnei Brak.
None of these figures, however, are considered to be a rabbinic heavyweight, and this lack of a “Torah giant” amongst the leadership ranks of the Jerusalem Faction is likely to be a significant problem for the legitimacy and authority of the movement.
According to Yisroel Cohen, a senior reporter for the Kikar HaShabbat Haredi news website, the Jerusalem Faction leadership was totally unprepared for Auerbach’s death and no one figure has been groomed to inherit the movement’s mantle of leadership.
The prompt and prominent announcement by the 12 rabbis was clearly an attempt to demonstrate that even though there is no one supreme decision maker for the movement, there is a clear line of succession for the decision-making process which has been vested in this nascent council of Torah sages.
“What unites these 12 rabbis is that they have taken the conservative, isolationist path of Rabbi Auerbach who took this approach to the extremes, and they have this same attitude,” Cohen told The Jerusalem Post.
Cohen said, however, that there are internal divisions within the faction regarding the correct approach to matters such as military service, among others, and that the group faces significant challenges in the coming months to preserve its unity and its influence.
He said it would be hard to imagine large numbers of the Jerusalem Faction returning to the mainstream Haredi community, given the deep divisions within the sector over the political schism, including institutions such as yeshivas and synagogues which have become split between the two camps.
The leadership could also become more geographically oriented, with Deutch holding sway in Bnei Brak and Azriel Auerbach gaining primacy in Jerusalem, said Cohen.
But regardless of who exactly emerges as the leader, or leaders of the Jerusalem Faction, or if the movement and the Bnei Torah recede from prominence and lose their political standing, it appears certain that the values and positions espoused by Auerbach will endure.
As one prominent moderate rabbi in the Haredi community told the Post, there is a natural struggle within the Haredi world between the relative moderates and the radical conservatives and isolationists.
Although the mainstream Haredi community is not led by rabbis and politicians who have any great desire to compromise with the state and its demands that the Haredi community participate in military service, enter higher education and participate in the workforce, they are less inclined to engage in all-out war with the state than Auerbach was.
Auerbach endorsed a policy, in which yeshiva students associated with his group refused to even cooperate with the IDF to obtain their military service exemption, a policy which has rendered many hundreds, and potentially thousands, of them deserters and law breakers.
This is an unprecedented violation of the rule of law which all leading Haredi rabbis of the past, and the mainstream leaders of today, have refused to adopt.
The leading rabbis of the mainstream Haredi community see conscription to the IDF as unthinkable and voluntary enlistment as highly undesirable. They view higher education as a menacing phenomenon that threatens the community with dangerous, subversive ideas, and obtaining a job instead of studying in yeshiva as an unfortunate and second-best option.
But they have so far not gone to war with the state over these issues, and neither have they gone to war with the increasing number of their flock who are performing military service, getting an education and joining the workforce.
Whether or not the Jerusalem Faction will, following Auerbach’s death, preserve the influence it has carved out for itself, including the political power it has accrued in local government, it seems certain that the struggle of the radicals against the process of integration of the Haredi community into Israeli society will continue regardless.
The conservative, hardline, isolationist elements within the Haredi community which sees these processes as un-Haredi and as having the potential to destroy the Haredi way of life will continue to struggle against them, whether it is within the framework of the Jerusalem Faction or any other vehicle that should emerge.
It should therefore be expected that, regardless of the long term viability of the Jerusalem Faction and Bnei Torah without their totemic leader, the internal struggles within Haredi society, and their impact on broader Israeli society and politics, will endure.