Radical Haredi leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach dies suddenly

Extremist Jerusalem Faction group headed by Auerbach now appears bereft of any leader and appears set to lose influence.

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction (photo credit: YONINAH/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of the so-called Jerusalem Faction, an extremist Haredi political group, died early on Shabbat morning from a heart attack, aged 86.
A medical team, after 30 minutes of resuscitation efforts, had managed to restore the rabbi’s pulse. Emergency services took Auerbach to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, but he suffered another heart attack and died 40 minutes later, between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning.
Auerbach’s funeral procession will leave on Sunday morning at 11 a.m. from his Jerusalem neighborhood of Sha’arei Hesed and he will be buried in the capital’s Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.
Auerbach, a noted Torah scholar and son of the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, was a staunch conservative within the Haredi, non-hassidic (Lithuanian) community.
Already in the mid-to-late 1990s, Auerbach was agitating against the mainstream Haredi leadership. He even issued support for an alternative party to the established Degel Hatorah party – which represents the Lithuanian community – when then-leader Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach was in severe physical decline.
Nevertheless, Auerbach was a member of the Council of Torah Sages of the Degel Hatorah political movement for more than a decade starting in 2002, but he and a coterie of advisers rebelled against the mainstream rabbinical leadership in 2012 after the death of then-leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, seeking to take the mantle of leadership for Auerbach.
Auerbach ultimately lost that battle to the more senior Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, but then together with his close aides fought an insurgency against the mainstream Lithuanian community.
The rabbi and one of his two closest assistants, Nati Grossman, set about establishing institutions for the new political movement, which became known as the Jerusalem Faction; it is thought to constitute 10% to 15% of the Lithuanian community.
Grossman set up the Hapeles newspaper as a mouthpiece for the movement which quickly began to attack the mainstream leadership. A political party, Bnei Torah, was also established, capturing a small number of seats on municipal councils in the local elections of 2013 in Jerusalem, Modi’in Illit and Bnei Brak.
The split in the community has become ever more acrimonious and trenchant, and has developed ever deeper roots, as educational institutions of the two factions are increasingly segregated from each other and marriage between members of the opposing groups becoming rarer.
It is this historic political split from the mainstream Haredi Lithuanian community which Auerbach will be most remembered for, as he splintered the hitherto politically unified community which had been run along the lines of consensus within the rabbinical leadership.
Although Shteinman was widely perceived to be the “leader of the generation” of the Haredi community, Auerbach’s rebellion was nevertheless a serious dent in the notion of one, undisputed spiritual leader of the sector.
And with Shteinman’s death last year, the notion of one leader with primacy over the community has been thrown into even more doubt, as there are now two rabbis who are leading the mainstream Ashkenazi Haredi community.
THE FLAGSHIP ISSUE taken up by Auerbach and his Jerusalem Faction was that of unceasing, unremitting, vitriolic opposition to Haredi enlistment in the IDF.
Starting approximately from the formation of a new government in 2013 including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the Jerusalem Faction adopted a scorched-earth policy of fierce riots and incitement against efforts to draft Haredi men into military service.
Auerbach insisted that the only purpose of drafting Haredi men was to make them nonreligious, and therefore refused to countenance any notion that they could be allowed to join the IDF under any circumstances.
The rabbi and his advisers would frequently send out large numbers of yeshiva students studying in institutions associated with the Jerusalem Faction onto the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and to intersections of major highways, to block traffic in protest of proposed policies regarding enlistment and against the arrest of yeshiva students who failed to report for IDF duty when called.
In recent months, these demonstrations have increased in frequency due to the Jerusalem Faction’s policy of instructing its yeshiva students not to cooperate with the IDF in any way.
This rendered them deserters who are liable to arrest by the Military Police – unlike the majority of Haredi yeshiva students who do cooperate and receive their military service exemption.
As more and more yeshiva students associated with the faction have turned 18 over the last six years, more and more have been arrested for failing to cooperate with the IDF. This has led to more violent protests by the radical group which themselves lead to more arrests, feeding a cycle of extremist civil disobedience.
With Auerbach’s death, however, it appears that the Jerusalem Faction will be considerably weakened and lose much of its influence, since he was the lone rabbinical leader and source of legitimacy for the group.
The Jerusalem Faction was only able to attract members of the Haredi community to its ideology by dint of the fact that Auerbach was considered to be a true and great Torah scholar.
But there are no other senior, prominent rabbis on Auerbach’s level who are associated with the faction, which will diminish its moral authority – especially bearing in mind the criticism that has been voiced by the senior mainstream Haredi rabbinic leadership of the radical group in recent months and years.
Given that political legitimacy in the Haredi world stems only from the weight of the rabbinical leaders behind a given movement, it therefore seems likely that the Jerusalem Faction’s influence within the Haredi community, its ability to bring out large numbers of protesters to the street, and its ability to impact the agenda and tenor of the Haredi public will be significantly damaged.