Religious Affaris: The future of haredi rabbinic leadership

Changes in rabbinic leadership and certain societal changes in the haredi community have called into question whether its political model is sustainable.

HAREDIM GATHER en masse in Bnei Brak. Is their leadership’s political model sustainable? (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
HAREDIM GATHER en masse in Bnei Brak. Is their leadership’s political model sustainable?
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Tens of thousands of haredi men and women thronged the streets of Bnei Brak. A sea of black and white brought the entire city to a standstill, with streets jam-packed from side to side and end to end.
The event was the great election rally of 2015, and the haredi community came in its masses to witness a unique and beloved spectacle: their rabbis and leaders, the great Torah scholars of the generation to whom they look for guidance, sitting together, side by side, to hearten, uplift and inspire them.
At the center of the grandstand where the rabbis were sitting was Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, 102 years old at the time, along with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. Their arrival was greeted rapturously, as thousands jubilantly sang the traditional song for the great Torah leaders, “May God increase the days of the king’s life.”
When the crowd went silent, Shteinman and Kanievsky adjured the masses “to sanctify Gods name” by voting for United Torah Judaism, which they were told was “a holy duty,” and they were warned of the desecration of God’s name for which they would be responsible should they not vote.
This is perhaps the most powerful get-out-the-vote stratagem yet to be devised, and one that has been relied upon for decades by the haredi leadership.
But changes in the rabbinic leadership and certain societal changes in the haredi community have called into question whether this political model is sustainable.
Two years after the 2015 elections, Shteinman died, leaving an opaque situation in which there was not one but two successors, Kanievsky and Edelstein.
Kanievsky has since been acknowledged as the premier authority, although both are considered “leaders of the generation,” but there are doubts as to whether those who succeed the current leadership will receive the wide acknowledgment as consensus leader as the rabbis who have preceded them.
Together with developments in haredi society – growing numbers of men serving in the IDF, and increasing numbers of men and women obtaining higher education qualifications, entering the workforce and participating to a greater extent than ever before in Israeli society – the question is asked whether these changes could lead to significant political desertion from the established haredi political parties.
Currently, there is something of a bicameral haredi rabbinic leadership, with Edelstein, who will be 96 this year, serving as the lower house, and Kanievsky, a sprightly 91, serving as the upper house and the ultimate haredi rabbinical authority.
Edelstein is somewhat more worldly than Kanievsky, and when it comes to matters of public and political import, Edelstein is frequently consulted first by the relevant rabbis and politicians, whereupon he gives his opinion, and the matter is then moved up to Kanievsky for his final authorization.
But who, if anyone, can take up the mantle of “leader of the generation” after Kanievsky and Edelstein are no longer alive?
MENNI GEIRA SCHWARTZ, until recently editor-in-chief of the widely read haredi news website B’hadrei Haredim and a media and political consultant, says somewhat cautiously that once Kanievsky and Edelstein die, a new era may well be upon us in which there is no consensus leader among the Lithuanian haredim.
“It’s hard to see anyone on the horizon who will have the influence and acceptance of Rabbi Kanievsky,” says Geira Schwartz. “There is a good chance that we’ll be in a new era after Rabbi Kanievsky. There is no one who looks like they can being a single leader and draw everyone after him.”
Along with the possibility that the influence of the haredi rabbinic leadership will weaken after the current generation of leaders dies, is the critical issue of the small but growing class of haredi men and women who have integrated into Israeli society to a greater degree than ever before and the effect they may have on the haredi political landscape.
Significant numbers of haredi men have served in the IDF, while large numbers of haredi men and women have obtained higher education qualifications, joined the workforce and use the Internet, or a combination of those factors, but remain haredi in their religious practice and personal lives, and are proud to be so.
According to Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, as much as 10% of the haredi population can now be defined as “modern-haredi.”
Additionally, he says as much as 30% of the haredi population has “elements of modernity,” meaning at least two of the factors mentioned above.
And Malach points to the national election results from 2015, claiming that a whopping 17% of haredi voters voted for non-haredi parties.
Using the haredi stronghold cities of Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit, as well as Beitar Illit and Elad, all of which have fairly homogeneous haredi populations, Malach also shows that the percentage of votes for non-haredi parties has steadily increased over the last 20 years.
One note of caution in these figures is that they include votes for Yahad, a party set up by former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who is haredi, and whose spiritual patron, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, is also haredi. Yahad ran on a joint list with the far-right national-religious Otzma Yehudit Party, but received some support in the haredi strongholds.
Malach says that the recent municipal elections results also demonstrated a degree of independence by haredi voters in cities such as Beit Shemesh, where it is believed a considerable number of haredi men and women either voted for non-haredi candidate and victor Aliza Bloch, or did not vote at all, in defiance of instructions in the name of Kanievsky to vote for the haredi candidate, Moshe Abutbul.
He also points to the election of a haredi Likud candidate to the Bnei Brak municipal council as another indicator that the haredi electorate may be beginning to branch out.
“The majority still obey the rabbis, but we’re seeing more and more people who don’t follow their instructions,” says Malach, tying this phenomenon to the decline in the universally accepted status of the “leader of the generation.”
“So if the [rabbinic] hegemony is weakening, then the more modern-haredim have the ability to decide for themselves, since there is no one leader who everyone accepts.”
Michal Zernowitski is a haredi woman who runs an NGO for the advancement of haredi women, heads the haredi division of the Labor Party, and is running in the upcoming Labor primaries for the upcoming elections.
Zernowitski is one of a not insignificant number of haredi men and women who no longer accept the dictates of the haredi rabbinic leadership on political matters.
She also points out that many haredi men and women have already adopted such a stance in other areas of life.
Not one of the leading haredi rabbis endorses higher education studies, yet thousands of haredi men and women are studying toward degrees and diplomas every year, says Zernowitski.
Indeed, in the 2016/17 academic year, approximately 9,400 haredi students studied in academic institutions, according to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a 150% increase from 2010.
Rabbis also did not approve, and in fact actively opposed, the use of smartphones, but such devices are now ubiquitous in the haredi community, notes Zernowitski.
Indeed, a recent report on the Kikar Hashabbat haredi news website estimated that there are as many as 130,000 smartphones in use in the haredi community, the overwhelming majority of which are not “kosher” smartphones with filtering software.
“So the idea that haredim do what rabbis tell them to do is not 100% accurate,” argues Zernowitski, stating that a similar process of “disobedience” is ebbing into the political arena.
YAAKOV VIDER, head of the Likud Haredi Division, is another haredi individual who believes that the time of sectoral haredi politics is on the wane.
He points out that members of haredi communities around the world, in the US, UK, France, Belgium and beyond, do not vote for haredi parties in their elections, and even run as electoral candidates in non-haredi parties, and yet manage to preserve their haredi identities.
According to Vider’s data, some 25,000 haredi men and women voted for the Likud in the 2015 elections, worth almost one Knesset seat, a “historic” result which he says demonstrates the direction the haredi community is heading in.
“Haredim who work, who go to the army, who get higher education, feel that [Degel Hatorah chairman MK Moshe] Gafni and [Shas chairman Arye] Deri are not representing them,” says Vider.
“What is Gafni doing for haredi students? What has he done for helping haredim get employment?” he asks.
Vider also underlines the explosive and highly sensitive issue of the so-called politicos of the haredi community, the advisers to the leading rabbis who are often accused of controlling the flow of information the rabbis receive, using them to advance narrow political interests, and as the supreme tool for political patronage.
“The haredi public is more and more unwilling to let other people decide things for them. They don’t like that they’re not consulted and that it is the haredi politicos that make the decisions.”
Vider argues that the behavior of these advisers and wheeler-dealers is firstly harming the status of the rabbis themselves, but is also undermining the belief in the haredi community that the rabbis are infallible on matters of politics, and therefore is weakening the electoral pull of the haredi parties.
All of this must be put in context, however. Because in the coming general election, and the ones after it as well, hundreds of thousands of haredi men and women will still flock to the polls and vote for UTJ and Shas.
The IDI estimates that by 2034, UTJ could get as many as 11 seats, up from its current six, although if there is an erosion of support from the haredi community, that figure could be as low as nine.
Shas, too, could have seven seats by that time, putting the total representation for the haredi parties, at the higher estimate, at some 15% of all Knesset seats, roughly equivalent to its expected share of the total population of Israel by that time – around 16%.
Even if the lower estimates for the growth of the haredi political parties are accepted, they would still garner just under 10% of the Knesset’s seats, preserving their hefty political power.
Geira Schwartz does not believe that the lack of a consensus leader will deeply affect haredi voting patterns.
THERE ARE still leaders with hefty reputations as Torah-scholar heavyweights, such as Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch, 83, originally from the US and co-dean of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak; Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, 87, the co-dean of Ponevez Yeshiva; and Rabbi David Cohen, of a younger generation, being just 68, but dean of the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva.
Hillel Hirsch in particular is seen as possible successor to the current leadership, while Cohen is considered to be a strong and dynamic figure with significant leadership potential for the future.
“The mechanism will continue to work,” says Geira Schwartz, opining that the overwhelming majority of haredi men and women will continue to vote for the haredi parties.
“The haredi system is built on values, education and institutions, and it will continue to be that way, even whether the leader is Rabbi Shach, Rabbi Shteinman, Rabbi Kanievsky or anyone else.”
He points to the results of the recent municipal elections in haredi strongholds, where non-haredi parties once again did very poorly, as evidence that there is little desertion of the haredi parties by the haredi public.
And for all the (overstated) talk of the imminent demise of Shas, the Sephardi haredi party maintained its position as the party with the largest number of municipal council members in the country, garnering some 275,000 votes according to the party, although those figures are inflated since Shas ran on joint tickets in several municipal locations.
Geira Schwartz concedes, however, that the structure of the haredi rabbinic leadership could change somewhat in the era after the current leaders.
If there will not be one authoritative figure, prominent rabbis in particular cities, especially Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, could emerge as the dominant rabbinic personalities.
Avrimi Kroizer, who served as a senior adviser on haredi affairs to Nir Barkat during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, says something similar, noting that several years ago Shteinman established the Rabbinical Committee of Rabbis of Jerusalem to take responsibility for haredi public affairs in the capital.
The committee is headed by Rabbi Baruch Soloveitchik, dean of the Torat Ze’ev Yeshiva, along with Cohen of the Hebron Yeshiva and Rabbi Yosef Efrati, a former assistant to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
These rabbis are consulted by haredi politicians and advisers on many issues relating to Jerusalem and often make decisions themselves, approaching Edelstein or Kanievsky if deemed necessary.
Kroizer says that in the era after the current leadership, rabbis such as these, whom he calls the “intermediary level,” will become stronger and exert greater influence over their congregants and students than did similar rabbis in the past, in the absence of an undisputed and standout “leader of the generation.”
Despite all this, Zernowitski, Vider and others are confident that a turning point is at hand and that centralized haredi political power is on the wane.
Although Malach concedes that haredi political power is not about to topple overnight, he conjectures that if the rabbinic leadership, in whichever form it takes, pursues the conservative line it always has, the percentage of haredi men and women who could vote for non-haredi parties could rise to as high as 40% or 50% in the coming decades.
“Of course, it won’t all happen in one day; it’s a slow erosion. But it is happening, and there’s no doubt it will increase,” concludes Vider.
Societal change is without doubt under way in the haredi community, and that will sooner or later be accompanied by inevitable political change to meet the new demands, requirements and priorities of the changing haredi demographic.
Despite this, large parts of the haredi community will remain within the existing societal framework for a long time to come, meaning their dependence and reliance on the current political framework will persist.
The power and influence of the traditional haredi parties will therefore not be disappearing any time soon from the Israeli political map.
This is the first in a series of articles.