Prayer for Rabbi Eliyashiv's health - Emil Salman
A prayer for Rabbi Eliyashiv's health at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach's letter on the front page of Yated Ne'eman, the daily newspaper of the "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, today is significant for a number of reasons.

It is the first official response by a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi to the High Court ruling on Tuesday that the Tal Law, which allows the exemption of yeshiva students from military service, is unconstitutional. Straight from the opening sentence, Rabbi Auerbach sets the terms of the coming conflict when he refers to the court's decision as a gzeira, the term normally used for the worst anti-Jewish laws and edicts in history. Without mentioning the judges, he describes their ruling as "the terrible gzeira that strikes a blow at the heart of Judaism… a gzeira that uproots religion."

And if any-one thought that there may still be room for negotiation and compromise in drafting a new law, as Shas leader Eli Yishai seems to be considering, he goes further and exhorts his readers: "We are commanded to defend our souls without any concession God forbid, and to sanctify the name of heaven."

"The Lord will save and protect us from all those who are plotting against us, the evil of the nations of the world, God forbid to exterminate us."

In Hebrew these terms are clear, no law, not imprisonment or even death, can be allowed to interfere with the students' Torah study. Auerbach has long been a hardliner. He was against the Tal Law ten years ago, insisting that the ultra-Orthodox community must not allow the secular government to have any influence over the lives of yeshiva students. Now he is enraged that the law, which the ultra-Orthodox politicians easily emasculated, has been struck down.

The Lithuanian stream is not the majority of the ultra-Orthodox community, but it is the ideological standard-bearer and controls the most prestigious yeshivas. Even if other rabbis are willing to be more flexible, they will find it very hard to do so once the Lithuanian leadership has drawn the battle-lines.

But Auerbach's letter is not just about the yeshiva students. Its timing, the prominence on the first page of the Yated, and the fact that he is the only rabbi speaking on behalf of the Lithuanians, constitute the first open move in the contest to succeed Rabbi Yossef Shalom Elyashiv as the unofficial leader of the Lithuanians.

The 102 year-old Elyashiv, who is lying in a "critical but stable" condition at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, will remain the undisputed number-one until his last dying breath, but the leadership vacuum is already growing and Auerbach, a stripling at 80, was the first to take the plunge. This is hardly surprising. Auerbach, a charismatic Rosh Yeshiva, has been touting himself behind the scenes as a potential leader for twenty years. He is much more ambitious than the other potential contenders, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (84) and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz (85), while the acknowledged number-two in the Lithuanian leadership, Rabbi Aharon Shteinman, is also hospitalized and at the age of 98, will not be the ultimate leader for long, if at all.

The editors of Yated Ne'eman favor Auerbach because of his ideological rigidity. By publishing his letter, they have also showed their true colors. They are influential but not necessarily kingmakers. Auerbach's rivals who are thought to be more flexible, have their own powerful supporters, but they have never shown much of a stomach for a fight.

Auerbach is taking a major risk, however, by showing his hand at such an early stage. The more pragmatic circles, outside his home-town of Jerusalem, may not look kindly upon his presumptuous move and a full-blown succession battle would split the Lithuanians, and perhaps even provide the government with a partner for drafting a new compromise over some form of national service for the yeshiva students.