Without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas Could Split

What happened to the United Torah Judaism party could happen to the more powerful Shas.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Moshe Tzadka, head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, was one of the last to speak at the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Monday. He talked about the need for spiritual elevation following the death of the Shas party’s spiritual leader and called on the hundreds of thousands of mourners to cast away their “impure gadgets.”

If Tzadka had looked out at the human ocean in the heart of Jerusalem, he would have realized how popular these “impure gadgets” – smartphones – had become. Many mourners were filming him as he spoke. Others, ultra-Orthodox students, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, had their smartphones bulging from their pockets.

It has been hard for Haredi rabbis to impose their will on their followers, and now it will be even harder. Yosef’s death is the end of an era in many ways, like the end of the giants of the Haredi world. Yosef outlasted the other “greats of the generation” who molded the Haredi communities and Haredi studies.

These greats are basically the three leaders who influenced, in addition to their flock, all Israeli governments and Jewish post-Holocaust history. The other two, who were often Yosef’s adversaries, were Lithuanian-Haredi leaders Rabbi Eliezer Schach (who died in 2001) and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (who died in 2012.)

Now that Yosef is gone, too – he was also respected by some of the Ashkenazi sects – the Haredi world no longer has huge streams ruled by a rabbi with infinite halakhic authority. Yosef’s death marks the end of an era not only for Jewish law, but for the public and political sphere.

This isn’t speculation. To understand what’s threatening the future of Shas, one only has to examine what happened to the Lithuanian community. Even before Elyashiv died, that sect had split into two camps.

For the first time in the history of the Lithuanian community, a huge group, the so-called Jerusalem Lithuanian faction led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, has been rebelling against the authority of Elyashiv’s legitimate heir, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman. This faction established a newspaper, has a raft of institutions and yeshivas, and is running a political campaign in three cities with its own candidates against the former mother party, United Torah Judaism.

Yosef has no heir

This threat, a completely new party, underlines the split in the Lithuanian community; it’s symbolic that this event coincides with the death of the third revered rabbi of the recent generation. Incidentally or not, Auerbach was the first speaker at Yosef’s funeral.

At Shas the situation is much more difficult since Yosef never cultivated an heir. The Sephardi community is also different from the Ashkenazi sects. Yosef’s followers were more varied than the Ashkenazi communities. Most of these followers weren’t involved in the everyday work of Shas’ institutions.

Yosef led a huge non-Haredi following that wasn’t connected to Shas but identified with Yosef. Shas’ electoral power was based on these people, but what will happen now? Can this constituency continue to identify with Shas and vote for the party in elections?

This doesn’t mean Shas has no future. The party can survive in the same way the much smaller United Torah Judaism survived after Elyashiv’s death. Shas can lose some of its power or split into two main factions and still survive.

Still, the expected changes are deep. Last year, Benjamin Brown of Hebrew University’s Department of Jewish Thought published a paper on the possible future of democracy in the Haredi leadership. Brown believes that in the coming years, the Lithuanian community could experience a “more decentralized spiritual leadership, featuring other rabbis, apart from the ‘leader of the generation,’ or a leadership with more power in the hands of political leaders, at the expense of the spiritual leader.”

Even more than in the Lithuanian community, the signs of rebellion in the Sephardi camp were evident before the death of the revered one. In the Knesset election in January, two parties representing the Sephardi-Haredi camp challenged Shas. One was led by Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak and the other by former MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem. These parties didn’t make it into parliament, but despite attacks by Yosef, they damaged Shas at the ballot box.

In the election for chief rabbi, there was an open rebellion. Even though they ultimately lost, several Sephardi rabbis fielded candidates opposed to Shas and Yosef’s candidates.

As Yosef’s health deteriorated, Shas chief Aryeh Deri made changes to Shas’ Council of Torah Sages so that the three remaining rabbis after Yosef’s death would be joined by two more. Another idea was to enlarge the spiritual leadership council to up to 15 or even 20 rabbis. One of the two rabbis expected to join is Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, a former chief Sephardi rabbi. The second is Reuven Elbaz, one of Shas’ more revered holy men.

These moves may not suffice because the implications of Yosef’s death may be wider than expected. Is the Sephardi-Haredi community headed toward openness or will it distance itself from society? Will it be more religiously strict or liberal? Even among the Haredim the people now have more power, and one wonders how they’ll react as they long for the great rabbis now gone.

The Haredi communities are now larger and apparently more powerful, but in recent years even the great leaders failed to impose halakhic restrictions in their struggle against computers, the Internet, the press, academic studies and of course smartphones. Now many issues will be reopened and many ideas revised.

Aryeh Deri, left, holds Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's hand at a conference in Jerusalem, March 16, 1999.Credit: Reuters

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