Rabbi Gershon Edelstein's death on Tuesday shook the haredi, as many considered him to be the last of a generation of spiritual leaders known as "Maran" – a title reserved for rabbis whose authority was accepted by the entire Lithuanian haredi establishment.
How will this affect haredi politics going forward?
This question should be broken down into two components. First, how it will affect the internal Lithuanian-haredi politics, and second, how it will affect the partnership between the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael, within the framework of United Torah Judaism.
Regarding the first component, Edelstein's death is unlikely to change Degel Hatorah's policy in the short term. A central question is whether or not a new consensus political leader will emerge. A number of names have been mentioned as possible leaders, including Rabbi Efraim Dov Lando and Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch of the Slabodka Yeshiva, Rabbi David Cohen of the Hebron Yeshiva, and Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi of the Ateret Yisrael Yeshiva, who, at age 94, is the oldest of the group.
The future of Degel HaTorah
Degel HaTorah's political operatives led by chairman MK Moshe Gafni, and its daily newspaper, Yated Ne'eman, could play a key role in deciding this. But a single leader does not necessarily need to emerge in order for the party to continue its current policies, which have remained relatively consistent since Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman took over the leadership of Degel Hatorah in 2001.
In broad strokes, the Lithuanian haredi establishment opposes any form of secular studies, IDF draft or other forms of integration into Israeli society. It also believes in taking a practical approach to politics as opposed to ideological rhetoric – it does not attempt to win opponents over to its side, but rather negotiate with all parties in the Knesset in order to maintain its autonomous status and receive sufficient resources for its education systems and religious academies (yeshivot).
Edelstein's death, however, may have a larger effect on the second component, regarding the partnership between Degel Hatorah and the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael.
Degel Hatorah formed as an independent political movement in 1989, but since 1992 has joined with the Hassidic politicians in order to maximize political power. However, this nearly broke apart prior to the last election, after one of the largest Hassidic groups – Belz – agreed to enter an Education Ministry program that would supply its schools with funding in exchange for introducing core secular studies with the ministry's oversight.
Rabbi Edelstein opposed the plan and threatened that if Agudat Yisrael went along with it, the two parties would run separately. Had this happened, there would have been a fair chance that one of the two parties would not have passed the electoral threshold, costing the haredi sector precious political power, and perhaps even costing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the government.
Netanyahu managed to convince the parties to run together after promising Agudat Yisrael that he would supply the necessary funding without the demand for core secular studies. But the narrowly-averted political schism highlighted ideological differences between the two parties.
Edelstein was respected as a supreme spiritual leader by the Hasidic establishment. His dominance over Degel Hatorah and pressure on Agudat Yisrael is what forced Netanyahu's hand and ensured that the parties did not lose political power. But with Edelstein gone, the Hasidic party may view itself released from Degel Hatorah's grip, and could increase its independent actions – which eventually could threaten the alliance between the two Ashkenazi haredi factions.
Upcoming municipal elections in Israel create tension
A final ingredient: Tensions between the two parts of UTJ have been increasing in recent months over the upcoming municipal elections in October.
Edelstein's presence and ultimate dominance could have eased some of the tensions had he been able to decide which candidates from each party would have run for office in the predominantly haredi townships. With Edelstein's presence gone, fighting between Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, and between sparring factions within each party, may get out of hand, and deepen animosity within UTJ.