Rav Shmuel Auerbach – beyond the headlines

While the controversy he led is yet to be resolved, his greatness is uncontested.

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction (photo credit: YONINAH/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of the Jerusalem Faction
Last Shabbat morning, I walked the five minutes that it takes from my home in the Jerusalem’s Nahlaot to the Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood.
It was the Shabbat before Purim when women (like myself) who would normally not attend services, all come for the mandatory Parashat Zachor reading.
The usually festive pre-Purim mood was marred by the news: Rav Shmuel Auerbach, whose home was in the neighborhood together with his yeshiva, had passed away suddenly.
Sha’arei Hessed is a Haredi neighborhood and always has been. But it has evolved from hard-core Jerusalemite families to a more Anglo atmosphere.
Rav Shmuel, despite his wellearned reputation as a zealot, even by mainstream Haredi standards, was the Torah scholar the residents turned to for advice. The internal battle that he waged within the Haredi (specifically the Lithuanian) world did not affect his outstanding Torah scholarship and dedication, or his relative worldliness relative to his peers, and certainly not his warmth and caring toward those who came to seek comfort or advice.
As the trustee of funds distributed to those in need, he dealt with people directly without much fanfare and with a very minimal “court” surrounding him.
When Shabbat went out and the news reached the tens of thousands of students of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, their grief was palpable. Personal loss was exacerbated by the fact that the issue (IDF draft for yeshiva students) their leader had taken on was, and still is, at a critical turn in the political arena. Alone, he had taken an unpopular stand both within and without the Haredi community.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of Torah scholars, rabbis and students, proved that despite fierce disagreements, a Torah giant of Rav Shmuel’s caliber is greatly respected.
With the exception of the members of the Degel Hatorah party, who remained silent, all – ultra-Orthodox, National Religious, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Jerusalemites and Bnei Brak residents – came to accompany the rabbi on his last journey.
The Haredi press emphasized mainly the decades of Torah study, his pleasant temperament and his deep ties with his Torah peers. Most of them preferred to avoid controversy, and ignored the fierce internal battle he had waged, and his subsequent ostracization.
Rav Auerbach, like all of the Haredi leadership, was vehemently opposed to enlisting the ultra-Orthodox to the army, but he did not object to the army or the state, he did not hate soldiers or non-Haredim. One could see him until his last days, walking alone in the city streets, responding to every passersby and talking with those who approached him. His opinion that his young people did not belong in the secular army was an ideological one.
His dissent from the rabbis in Bnei Brak and of Degel Hatorah was not that they would send their grandson to the army, even if he was expelled from yeshiva. But rather the concern was for those who would be forced to fill the required quotas. Rav Auerbach demanded one law for all, a responsibility that his Haredi opponents preferred to avoid, focusing on the yeshiva elites.
“Is it possible that precisely the youth that is failing, who is debating his path and is at the crossroads of the most difficult decisions in his life, we will give up? What sense does it make that the problems we created, in our system, should be sent for the army to solve for us?” The inequality of the draft quotas weighed on his heart.
Rav Shmuel was compared many times to his ideological and strategic opponent, Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman of blessed memory. The latter was noted for his pragmatism and even cynicism. Rav Shmuel was an idealist: having no children, his family and entire world were his yeshiva students.
He was unwilling to make the slightest of concessions even when they were clearly the more logical choice.
While the controversy he led is yet to be resolved, his greatness is uncontested.
May his memory be a blessing.
Eli Bitan is a Haredi journalist and radio host.
Pnina Pfeuffer is a Haredi activist and board member of the Yerushalmim municipal party.