Analysis

Israel's Shabbat Wars Are a Symptom of a Much Deeper Crisis Among ultra-Orthodox Jews

Many young Haredim may not be happy about work being carried out on Saturday, but the real rage is the one building up against their leaders, rabbis seventy years older than them, who have no comprehension of the obstacles they face

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men talk in the Me'a She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel.
Bloomberg

Behind the scenes, even the most devout ultra-Orthodox politician will admit that in reality, it is impossible to enforce a Shabbat standstill on the economy. After all, Haredim make up only a minority of Israeli society. They also understand that any Haredi attempt to do so would dramatically decrease their power to influence other matters close to their hearts. That’s not news and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s announcement on Friday that he would be resigning over weekend work on the railway network is an anomaly.

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Crucial infrastructure maintenance has been taking place on Saturdays for decades, without causing tension – as long as the work was going on quietly, far from public view. When the Israel Electric Corporation transported a massive turbine on Highway 2 on Shabbat in 2001, it was a public event that the Haredim could not ignore and the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism left Ehud Barak’s coalition in protest. But week after week, the low-profile maintenance work on the railway and power lines has on the whole been ignored.

This has all changed over the last couple of years. Haredi websites and social media, not beholden to the “spiritual committees” that supervise the mainstream Haredi media and ensure the journalists serve the rabbis’ agenda, have reported every permit to work on Shabbat and captured the Haredi public’s attention. The rabbis have been forced, against their will, to stake out more radical positions.

It’s not just the power of the Haredi websites to enforce the agenda, but the transparency they have created in the murky world of Haredi politics. Decisions can no longer be made quietly behind closed doors. Every consultation between Knesset members and their rabbis is noted in the cramped courtyards and immediately broadcasted online. It’s all out in the open and the rabbis’ room for maneuvers and compromise, and with it their power, has been dramatically eroded. In public, they cannot show pragmatism, and are pushed instead into competition over who is more devoted to the sanctity of the Shabbat.

It's not only the intrusive internet that has eroded rabbinical authority. It has weakened because the upper layer of Maranim and Poskei Ha’Dor (halakhic arbiters of the generation) are never replaced, not even when they reach 100. Modern medicine has extended their life spans, but not enhanced their ability to understand contemporary politics and technology. Today’s Haredi leaders are detached from the goings-on within their own communities and in the wider society. Haredi theology is still stuck on the legend of Moses at 120 “his sight undimmed, his vigor unimpaired.” Not for them is the pragmatism of Pope Benedict XVI, who at 85 acknowledged that he could no longer lead and resigned from the papacy.

The ultra-Orthodox are stuck with an elderly, failing leadership, incapable of grasping the challenges their communities are facing, both in daily and political life. Neither are they capable of creating unity within the Haredi public. After the death of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach in 2001, at the age of 103, the cracks were beginning to show in the Lithuanian community, which has long served as the ideological vanguard of ultra-Orthodoxy. Shach’s successor, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, failed to paper over the cracks and with his death at 102, five years ago, a rift opened between the more moderate leadership based in Bnei Berak and the radical Jerusalem faction, which has been behind the recent violent demonstrations in the capital.

The third in the series of centenarians, Rabbi Aron Steinman, now 104 and between frequent bouts of hospitalization, has proven unable to restore any sense of unity. Neither does there seem to be a unifying figure among the younger generation of ninety-something Lithuanian rabbis.

The situation is even worse among the Sephardi Haredim – those with Spainish and Portuguese roots. Though the rabbis there are relatively younger and less detached than their Lithuanian colleagues, ever since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef four years ago, there has been all-out war for supremacy, drummed on by Shas’ political leader, Interior Minister Arye Dery. The struggle has already torn Shas into two competing parties in the last election and regularly spills out on to the news, with scandalous tapes of Sephardi rabbis and politicians slagging each other off. The titular president of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, Chacham Shalom Cohen, who replaced Rabbi Ovadia, was widely regarded as Dery's patsy, and neither he nor any of his rabbinical brothers have a chance of attaining anything nearing Ovadia’s dominance.

The third main component of the Haredisphere, the Hassidic courts, have a much wider variety of rabbis, but none of the AdMoRim (Hasidic spiritual leaders) have much influence beyond their own particular group of followers. The rabbi behind the current Shabbat controversy, the Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Alter, political patron of Health Minister Litzman, is the most powerful of the Hassidic rabbis, but unlike his uncle and predecessor, who was also a crafty and gregarious politician, Alter is a secretive and divisive character who refuses to meet secular politicians. He rules his unhappy Hassidim with an iron fist, issuing his edicts through a tiny circle of loyalists, of whom Litzman is but one. Alter can force Litzman to resign from the cabinet, but he probably cannot bring down the government. For that he would need to create a consensus among the disparate wings of ultra-Orthodoxy.

The failure of the rabbis to articulate a clear position on the Shabbat issue is just a symptom of the much deeper malaise. The Haredi community is comprised largely of hundreds of thousands of young men and women, trying to build their new families while being cut off from the opportunities the Israeli economy affords bright and eager people like them. Despite the rabbis’ edicts against using the internet, many of these young Haredim are fully exposed to the world outside and yearn to have some connection with it, especially through their workplaces. Secular Israelis may be angry at Haredi attempts to impose religious strictures on public life, but the real rage is the one that is building up among young Haredim at their leaders, rabbis seventy years older than them, who have no comprehension of the obstacles facing them.