Tens of Thousands Attend Funeral of Radical ultra-Orthodox Rabbi in Jerusalem

The question of a successor to Auerbach, who died in Jerusalem at the age of 86 on Saturday, may be answered with the convening of a council of Torah sages by his Jerusalem Faction

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn as they carry the body of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish denomination known as the Jerusalem Faction, during his funeral in Jerusalem February 25, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Tens of thousands of people attended the funeral in Jerusalem on Sunday of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who was head of an extremist ultra-Orthodox community known as the Jerusalem Faction. 

Auerbach suffered a heart attack at his home in Jerusalem on Saturday and was taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in the capital, where he was pronounced dead.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn during the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish denomination known as the Jerusalem Faction, in Jerusalem, February 25, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Auerbach was buried next to his wife in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery.  Police brought in reinforcements to handle the heavy traffic created by mourners coming to the city to attend the funeral.

The uncertainty over a successor to Auerbach was answered in part by the rabbi's faction's newspaper, Hapeles, on Sunday, when it reported that a council of Torah sages, comprised of 12 leading rabbis, would be convened to immediately unite ranks. Amid differences of opinion within the Jerusalem Faction, it is still not clear, however, who will head the council and whether the followers of the Jerusalem Faction will abide by any decision that it makes. Rabbi Auerbach, who was the son of leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Zalman Auerbach, was not survived by any children.

A split in the non-Hasidic (or Lithuanian) ultra-Orthodox community followed the death of its leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, in 2012. A rivalry developed between Auerbach and Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman over who would head it. Shteinman died late last year.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn as they carry the body of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, head of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish denomination known as the Jerusalem Faction, during his funeral, ebruary 25, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

In recent years, Auerbach ordered his students to demonstrate against the draft of ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army, demonstrations that Shteinman opposed. In several protests, students have blocked traffic and gotten into confrontations with the police.

The more centrist leaders of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy viewed Auerbach as a separatist rebel and ordered their more mainstream institutions not to accept his followers as students and to avoid them in nearly every respect. The policy created a schism that went as far as members of the mainstream faction even shunning marriage with members of the Jerusalem Faction.

While most Haredi yeshiva students are willing to appear at the Israel Defense Forces’ recruitment offices to ask for and receive repeated deferments for their military service, Auerbach instructed his followers not to appear at the recruitment offices – even if only to receive a deferment – and in doing so officially became deserters.  Occasionally these yeshiva students were caught, usually when stopped for traffic or other minor offenses, and when identified as deserters they were arrested and jailed. In response Auerbach sent his followers out to demonstrate against their arrest.

The Jerusalem Faction was unprepared for Auerbach’s death. Disagreements exist within the faction over Auerbach’s actions to fight the draft and government. Auerbach was surrounded by a more militant group that helped lead him to the decision to cut off almost all contacts with the government authorities – and refuse government funding.

Another group within the Jerusalem Faction thought Auerbach’s actions were too extreme, but accepted his authority and leadership. Now, after his death, the struggle between the two groups may lead to a split in the Jerusalem Faction.