Following the Herd

Like a deluge, the modern world is flooding the Haredi street and the rabbis are trying to stop the water with their hands.

The new communications minister, Ariel Atias, last week provided an astonishing figure in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Bakehila. The Haredi public, which totals an estimated 600,000 people, has purchased to date only 30,000 "kosher" mobile phones, which exclude content services. This despite the clear and vociferous directives by Torah sages to use only such cell phones.

This is not the Torah sages' only failure recently. Even more embarrassing was their attempt to ban Internet use. There can hardly be another public so active in the area of online forums as the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). There you do not need to identify yourself, and under the protection of anonymity may write whatever you think and feel. Haredi businesses have long since learned that whoever is not on the Internet is essentially non-existent.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis do not internalize the rule that you don't impose a decree the public cannot fulfill. Like a deluge, the modern world is flooding the Haredi street, and the rabbis, instead of instructing their people to wear life jackets, are trying to stop the water with their hands. The result: The Haredi public continues to respect the Torah sages; it just doesn't heed them so much.

There are many possible explanations for the decline in the power and influence of the Torah sages over the past few years. One of the most important is the split of the Council of Torah Sages into three councils - of Agudat Yisrael, Degel Hatorah and Shas.

But the main reason is that the rabbis have made themselves irrelevant. They are battling the modern world instead of trying to serve as regulators. And mainly, they completely fail in dealing with the truly important crisis facing the Haredi society of learners - the economic crisis.

The most prominent scholar on Haredi society, Prof. Menachem Friedman, has been warning for 30 years that this crisis is waiting to happen, but none of the rabbis have tried to preempt the foreknown economic tsunami. Friedman warned, for example, that a time would come when the secular public would no longer be prepared to bankroll the yeshiva students. And yet, when the child allowances were slashed, the rabbis and their public were caught completely off-guard. In the general public, that would be termed a fiasco. The Haredim quietly grumble.

It's not that stuff isn't happening in Haredi society. The Israel Defense Forces' Haredi Nahal battalion was created. Vocational training courses are opening. Dozens of men and women received law degrees last week. But everything is happening too slowly, in a faint trickle. The reason for this is that all of the processes are occuring without the overt support of the rabbis. Their uncourageous consent is expressed merely through turning a blind eye.

The conservative rabbis are trying to hang on by their fingernails to a society in which two out of three men study. They fail to grasp that this is untenable from an economic standpoint. Other rabbis know what has to be done, but they haven't the guts, nor broad enough shoulders.

They haven't the guts to announce that only those who excel ought to study their entire lives, while the rest should study for several years at a kollel - a yeshiva for married men - and then go out to work. They haven't the guts to initiate academic tracks at yeshivas, like in the United States, and to permit the establishment of Haredi high-school yeshivas. Fear of the zealots is stronger than concern for the public.

Within this so very mediocre leadership, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the Number 2 man in Degel Hatorah, stands out positively. Steinman favors jobs for those who do not wish to continue studying, and also backed the Tal Law. But he too lacks the courage, and perhaps the ability, to take it all the way and express his positions publicly. He is especially admired among Haredim in the Diaspora, but cannot seem to become a prophet in his own city.

And to finish up, a moment of Haredi logic: If this generation was deserving, a leader would surely arise who knows how to contend with the current challenges. Since the generation was not found worthy, the Haredi public has become a herd whose shepherds follow it.