Rabbi Schach, a Man of Wars and Battles

The late leader of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach, was a man of wars and factionalism. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has different types of leaders.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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The late leader of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach, was a man of wars and factionalism. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has different types of leaders. Some are tzadikim, righteous men known for their virtuousness and modest way of life. Some are great poskim, those who make major decisions regarding Jewish law. Schach was an ideologue - a zealot who repeatedly led his followers into ideological battles.

For decades, Schach was considered the patron of the Sephardim in his party, Agudat Israel. He initiated the establishment of many Sephardi yeshivas, headed by his students. And so it was only natural for him to be a partner in the establishment of the Shas party, which represented the first split in Agudat Yisrael.

The technical reason for establishing the Shas was Agudat Yisrael's refusal to honor an agreement mandating rotation with a representative of the Sephardi, or Mizrachi, Jews on the list. The practical reason, however, was the long-standing policy of shortchanging the Sephardim in the ultra-Orthodox party. Schach also hoped that a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party would reach an electorate that could not be reached by Agudat Yisrael, which, in fact, happened.

In a surprise move made during the establishment Shas, Schach agreed to team up with former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef despite the former's strenuous objection to the chief rabbinate. The decision was also accompanied by a brilliant political maneuver: Schach's support of the party was kept secret until the last moment. Only on the eve of elections did one of his associates, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, write on a slip of paper: "I and the members of my family are voting Shas." The note was publicized in ultra-Orthodox circles and two mandates of Schach supporters deserted Agudat Yisrael for Shas.

A split in Agudat Yisrael

Agudat Yisrael became a significant player in Israeli politics once it joined the coalition following the Likud's upset victory in 1977. At the time, Schach led the party with the late head of the Gur Hasidim, Rabbi Simha Bunim Alter, father of the present dynasty leader. There were many differences of opinion between the two. One of them concerned Alter's demand that all Agudat Yisrael Knesset members, including the Lithuanian MKs controlled by Rabbi Schach, be obligated to accept a rotation. The controversy eventually led Schach to leave the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael in 1983, at which time he served as one of its two presidents.

In another battle with Alter, Schach, who was concerned over the growing control of the Agudat Yisrael newspaper Hamodia by the Gur Hasidim, established a competing paper, Yated Ne'eman. The paper served less as a source of information than as a powerful weapon in Schach's many wars.

In 1988, the split with Agudat Yisrael was completed with the establishment of the Degel Hatorah party. Agudat Yisrael had the trappings of a democratic party with a central committee and internal elections. Degel Hatorah, however, was a different type of party, whose motto was absolute obedience to the great Torah sages. The Council of Torah Sages also split into two councils. The council of Degel Hatorah almost never meets and always has served as a rubber stamp for Schach.

Both the newspaper and party splits were difficult and painful, and were accompanied by violence; they even broke up families and caused tragedies.

In 1992, an agreement reunifying the two parties into two separate factions on the lists of United Torah Judaism, was signed.

Another battle which continued during throughout Schach's period of leadership was one waged against the Chabad Hasidic movement and its leader, the Lubavitcher rebbe. Schach accused Chabad of false messianism long before such calls became widespread, and called Chabad "the well-known sect." Schach's attacks on the movement reached a peak at the beginning of the 1990s, when he declared that the Lubavitcher rebbe was "not normal."

Rabbits and pigs

Between 1988 and 1992, Schach reached the height of his political power. He was the leader of two parties, Shas and Degel Hatorah, which together had eight mandates. His protege, Aryeh Deri, served as the interior minister and did a wonderful job of transferring money to ultra-Orthodox institutions.

In 1990, two new Schach battles began. Shimon Peres, who was finance minister at the time, and Deri, the interior minister that year, led what was later called the "stinking maneuver" - the bringing down of the unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir followed by an attempt to establish a narrow government headed by Peres. Both Peres and Deri thought that because Schach was a political moderate, Degel Hatorah would support the move and help create a majority. They both totally misread Schach and were destined to pay a high political and personal price for their mistake.

For a long time, the Labor Party and Schach saw eye-to-eye with each other. Time and again in speeches throughout the 1980s, Schach repeated his support for returning territories and his opposition to the settlements. He was in favor of every concession that could prevent bloodshed. Schach claimed that ultra-Orthodox people who opposed withdrawal and supported the settlements were doing it due to Zionist influences.

But in April 1990, Schach's hatred of the left and his historical accounting with the Labor Party overrode any political common ground. In the midst of the "stinking maneuver", Schach delivered his famous "rabbits and pigs" speech at a rally in Yad Eliyahu stadium. "The Alignment [a party led by the Labor faction] severed the past from the Jewish people," said Schach. "Today one can meet children who don't know what Shabbat is. There are kibbutzim that don't know what Yom Kippur is. No idea, and they raise rabbits and pigs there. And this is called the Jewish people? Is the Alignment something sacred? They have no Shabbat and no Yom Kippur. They have a new theory and a new Torah."

Victory for Netanyahu

Schach's account with the Left was not only historical. In the wake of the Left's criticism in the Sabra and Chatila affair [when Ariel Sharon, defense minister at the time, was accused of not preventing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias in the two refugee camps in Lebanon], Schach accused the side, and especially Peres, of "informing in public, at demonstrations and in speeches and the press, which constitutes incitement of all the nations, and has contributed to the hatred of the Jewish people. What a shame and a disgrace. There have always been informants, but not an entire community of them."

The first part of the "stinking maneuver" succeeded, when the Shamir government was brought down. But the astonished Peres and Deri discovered that Schach strenuously objected to a left-wing government. To frustrate the establishment of the narrow government headed by Peres, he joined his sworn rival, the Lubavitcher rebbe, and together they imposed a narrow government headed by - Shamir.

That was not the last defeat Schach handed Peres. In 1996, Peres ran for prime minister against Benjamin Netanyahu. At the beginning of that year, Schach was suffering from severe pneumonia. He slept almost all day long, and even when awake, had a hard time communicating with those around him, cutting himself off from politics. He refused to make decisions, claiming that his physical condition did not enable him to take responsibility.

But a few weeks before the May 1996 elections, Schach's condition improved tremendously. He reached the peak of his strength three days before the elections, when he decreed in no uncertain terms that everyone had to vote for Netanyahu, forcing all the other leaders of Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah to follow his example. Schach's decision significantly contributed to Netanyahu's narrow victory. After the elections, Schach once again sank into a long sleep.

A pardon for Deri

The "stinking maneuver" also caused a rift between Schach and Deri. At the end of the 1980s, it was Schach who said that Deri had done more during a short period in the Interior Ministry than had been accomplished in 40 years by the ultra-Orthodox movers and shakers who preceded him. But in the wake of the "stinking maneuver," he suggested to Deri that he go back to study in yeshiva.

The rift reached its climax in 1992. It began when Schach sponsored a Sephardi faction, headed by former Shas leader Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, as part of the United Torah Judaism list. In a speech he delivered before the elections, Schach said that the Sephardim were still not fit for leadership, arousing great anger among the Sephardi voters. After the elections, Schach instructed Shas not to join the government in which Shulamit Aloni was serving as education minister. Yosef instructed Deri to join the government, breaking open a rift between the parties. Deri was boycotted and shunned in the Ashkenazi Lithuanian circles in which he had been raised. Schach declared that Shas had removed itself from the Jewish community when it joined the wicked, and defined Deri as one who "hasn't read, hasn't studied and hasn't interpreted."

Deri himself has believed all along that the investigation and trial against him are a punishment for defying Schach. His series of attempts to placate the rabbi have been rejected. A year ago, Deri used the mass rally that took place before he began his prison sentence to publicly beg Schach's forgiveness. Only then did Schach accept his apology and forgive him.

Lubavitcher Hasidim beware

Rabbi Eliezer Menachem often made headlines with a number of public statement on a variety of subjects. Here is a short list of some of his most notable declarations.

On the kibbutzim: "Breeders of rabbits and pigs."

On Dizengoff Street: "A place where people walk around and behave like animals."

On the Labor Party: "After cutting themselves off from our Torah, they are searching for a new one."

On the Holocaust: "Definitely a punishment. The Holy One Blessed Be He kept score for hundreds of years until it added up to six million Jews."

On the next Holocaust: "It could be in a year, or ten years, or even tomorrow."

On the settlements: "A blatant attempt to provoke the international community."

On the State of Israel: "The whole country and everything in it is run by America."

On the flag: "Just a symbolic piece of cloth people wave around."

On secular leadership: "Human beings are not valued. The main thing is the seat."

On Sephardi leadership: "The Sephardim are not yet worthy of leadership."

On Shas: "A few individuals have committed a great sin and joined up with evildoers."

On the belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the messiah: "Total heresy. Those who say so will burn in hell."