Council of Torah Sages urges no haredi draft

"Unity" meeting blemished by boycott of rabbi; draft reform campaign denounces haredi leadership for working against Jews.

Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of the most senior rabbis in the haredi non-hassidic world, on Monday night in Bnei Brak called on the government not to enact any mandatory draft into national service for fulltime yeshiva students.
Gathered by the newly acknowledged leader of the “Lithuanian” haredi stream, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the council declared that it “deeply regrets the wave of incitement against the ultra-Orthodox community, especially against the holy Torah students, in whose merit the world continues to exist.” The rabbis went on to call on the on the government “to not change in any way the state of affairs regarding yeshiva students, which has been in effect from ancient times here in the Land of Israel.”
The “historic” meeting, as it was labeled in the haredi press, was the first to be held since the passing last month of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the former leader of the haredi community.
The Council of Torah Sages is the spiritual executive branch of the Degel Hatorah movement, which is the non-hassidic faction of the United Torah Judaism political party.
Also in attendance at the meeting were UTJ MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev, who explained the political factors that led to the current absence of any legal framework for yeshiva students to gain deferrals from military service, which the “Tal Law” provided until it expired on August 1.
Despite the gathering of the council being billed as a show of unity among the haredi leadership, one of the most senior figures in the community, council member Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, decided not to attend due to a conflict over new appointments to the rabbinical body.
The council meeting also served as a stage to appoint nine new members. New members have not been added for many years but additions were deemed necessary given the deaths in recent years of several senior rabbis who sat on the panel.
Auerbach – who is considered a hardliner in terms of his approach to contemporary issues facing the haredi community – wanted Rabbi Dov Tzvi Karlinstein, dean of the Grodno Yeshiva in Ashdod, added to the council according to the haredi news website Behadrei Haredim.
When it became clear that Karlinstein would not be included, Auerbach decided to boycott the meeting, and according to the haredi media is considering standing down as a member of the council.
Auerbach, 86, was considered to be the closest to the late Elyashiv. His supporters saw him as Elyashiv’s natural successor who would adopt the hardline stance against the state formed by Degel Hatorah founder Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach.
However, the elder Shteinman, 98, has successfully seized the reins of leadership, having lost out to Elyashiv when Shach died in 2001.
Karlinstein, 78, was one of the closest disciples to Rabbi Shach, and counts among his followers several influential figures in the haredi world.
Among these are the former editor and former director of Degel Hatorah mouthpiece Yated Ne’eman, Rabbi Nati Grossman and Rabbi Yaakov Labin respectively.
Grossman and Labin were both ousted in an internal coup at the daily newspaper earlier this year staged by supporters of Shteinman.
Under their leadership, the paper adopted a more favorable attitude to Elyashiv and Auerbach than it did towards Shteinman, something his associates resented.
Grossman and Labin have subsequently established a new haredi daily, HaPeles, in competition with Yated Ne’eman.
Shteinman has been perceived to be more moderate in regard to haredi enlistment and integration into the workforce than Auerbach, and tacitly supported the establishment of the Netzach Yehuda IDF battalion for haredi soldiers in 1999.
However, he has publicly opposed any mass draft of yeshiva students, a position he repeated at Monday night’s meeting.
“If a young student can’t study Torah then when will he be able to study, at age 80?” Shteinman said. “One needs to acquire Torah in one’s youth and this is what the yeshivot are for, and if, God forbid, they close the yeshivot great mercy will be needed from God.
“Therefore we have gathered to request mercy for the [political] rulers who will harm the Torah and those who study it, and that we will merit to continue with Torah study until the coming of the Messiah.”
Following the meeting, the Forum for Equality in the Burden of Military Service, which has been campaigning for haredim to be drafted into the army, issued a statement accusing the rabbis of ignoring the wishes of their own community, “working against the Jewish people” and seeking to preserve their leadership status.
“We strongly condemn the belligerent statements of the haredi leadership that refuses to acknowledge the processes which have begun within haredi society, in an attempt to preserve their standing and to prevent the changes necessary for Israeli society,” the statement read.
The Hiddush religious freedom lobbying organization also announced that it had officially submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding an injunction to halt the monthly funds transferred by the government to yeshivot on behalf of their students.
These funds were formalized through the Tal Law, amounting to NIS 30 million every month and more than NIS 400 million per year, according to Hiddush.
Following the expiration of the law, Hiddush says that continued transfer of the funds is no longer legal.