Analysis

Extremist ultra-Orthodox Sect Left Directionless by the Death of Its Leader

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the head of the so-called Jerusalem Faction, died unexpectedly on Saturday at the age of 86

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach's funeral procession in Jerusalem
Oliivier Fitoussi

The death of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach at the age of 86 on Saturday had been totally unexpected by the extremist ultra-Orthodox community known as the Jerusalem Faction that he had led. He left behind no known will, nor did he signal who he thought should inherit his role.

Among the functions Auerbach fulfilled were arbitrating disputes within the faction, and it is unclear who will assume that role in his place and who, for example, will set policy on the demonstrations that the faction organized against the drafting of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Followers of Auerbach with whom Haaretz spoke could not even suggest names for a suitable successor to the rabbi. For the time being, his followers have set up a council of Torah sages, consisting of 12 senior rabbis, but strategic decisions relating to positions on government policy are not being made for the time being.

Possibly the most suitable person to fill the void is Nati Grossman, the editor of the Jerusalem Faction-affiliated newspaper Hapeles, who until a few years ago edited the rival ultra-Orthodox paper Yated Ne’eman. Although his position as editor in chief of the paper is powerful, an ultra-Orthodox source told Haaretz that the truth is that his power comes with restrictions – especially as the Jerusalem Faction has become weary of infighting among its followers. It will be hard to reconstitute the community as a united entity without a consensus leader who can assume responsibility, a source said.

In fact, the Jerusalem Faction is at a crossroads, with many feeling they need to continue fighting for the ultra-Orthodox cause, against the draft, for instance, while others feel it’s high time to pursue more peaceful paths. The dissonance was palpable in the eulogies at Auerbach’s funeral.

Rabbi Tzvi Friedman, head of the kashrut certification authority in the faction, took a radical bent and delivered an especially extremist speech, saying among other things that the community is embroiled in “total war.” He called on all ultra-Orthodox men of draft age to dodge the draft. “Don’t be afraid of the police,” Friedman advised them.

Shmuel Deutsch, a central figure in the Jerusalem Faction, took the opposite tack, saying nothing extremist whatsoever and settling for merely praising Auerbach.

Rabbi Auerbach cannot have a successor, suggested Yehoshua Pollack, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and himself a member of the faction, who added: “That much is obvious.” Somebody will arise and take responsibility at some point, he said, although he couldn’t say who that might be.

Auerbach is the second central figure in ultra-Orthodoxy to die in recent months. Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman died in December at age 104. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, though it bears adding that Shteinman never served in any official rabbinical or judicial position. When Shteinman assumed the leadership of his community in 2012, he faced opposition from Rabbi Auerbach’s camp, leading to a major rift.

With the death of Shteinman and now Auerbach, two central symbols of the internal dispute in the non-Hasidic so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, reconciliation should be possible, said Pollack. Mainstream ultra-Orthodoxy has new leadership, Pollack said: “We will too. Both sides will just have to sit down and reach agreements. It is definitely possible.”