How Politics Tear the ultra-Orthodox Apart

No matter what the outcome of the municipal elections, the truth is already known to every ultra-Orthodox child: This was a wild election campaign, one that devastated nearly every myth in ultra-Orthodox politics - Agudat Yisrael, the Council of Torah Sages and the idea that "the sages of Israel" are the supreme authority whose opinion is "the opinion of Torah."

The ultra-Orthodox political crisis, which is rooted in the war between the Gur Hasidut and the other elements in Agudat Yisrael, is occurring just when ultra-Orthodox society as a whole is grappling with other troubles - the main faucet that waters the yeshiva world is closing in the wake of the financial crisis in the United States.

So at the onset of a time of wound-licking, it is worth remembering the person who more than anyone else shaped ultra-Orthodox society and politics since the founding of the state, and whose passing 55 years ago will be marked this evening at a cemetery in Bnei Brak: Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, who is known by name of his treatise on rabbinic law as the Hazon Ish and after whom streets have been named in nearly every ultra-Orthodox town.

To this day there is more than one version of the famous meeting in Bnei Brak in 1952 between David Ben-Gurion and the Hazon Ish. The most common version is that at this meeting the visitor, Ben-Gurion, was persuaded to grant the ultra-Orthodox the historic arrangement of postponing recruitment into the Israel Defense Forces as "their Torah is their trade." Ben-Gurion agreed to give this exceptional privilege to the ultra-Orthodox in view of the model the rabbi gave him of two carts (in the talmudic source: camels) standing at the entrance to a bridge, one full and the other empty, and it is clear that the empty cart, that is, the secular cart, will cede the right of way to the full one, the ultra-Orthodox cart.

Unexpected success

What is clear, though, is that the Hazon Ish is the man behind the ultra-Orthodox revolution, whose dizzying success he himself would not have predicted. Since that meeting, hundreds of thousands of unmarried and married male Torah-learners have crossed the bridge on the way to what was later called "the learners' society," in which the male ideal is the study of Torah, avoiding not only military service but also employment.

Now, many kollels (Torah-learning institutions for married men) are on the brink of closure. "I am certain that he did not think the learners' society would reach such dimensions, but he laid the foundations for this," says Professor Menachem Friedman, a researcher of ultra-Orthodox society. "The greatness of the Hazon Ish is that he presaged, and in certain senses this is tantamount to the truly miraculous, the modern world of Torah. I am almost certain that the vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox do not know what the Hazon Ish said on matters of rabbinic law, but he was the figure of a leader that a voluntary society like the ultra-Orthodox loves very much. He was well-known for his modesty. After the establishment of the state, the model figure of the pioneer faded, and the ultra-Orthodox took the pioneer image and superimposed it on the Hazon Ish."

"The ultra-Orthodox have covered a lot more distance than the Hazon Ish could have imagined," says Professor Benny Brown of the Hebrew University's department of Jewish thought, who wrote his doctorate on the rabbi. "Were he to rise from the dead and see what has developed, would he be pleased? In the first moment he might be pleasantly surprised but at second glance he would be full of criticism. The project succeeded and ultra-Orthodox Jewry has fortified itself wonderfully but on the ground he would find a society of poverty in which sometimes the quality of the learning is affected. Back in the 1990s a rumor started in Bnei Brak, ostensibly in the name of the Hazon Ish, to the effect that the whole matter of total devotion to the world of Torah is applicable only for two or three generations and then we will go back to the routine of a learning elite. This does not mean he said that, but this mainly testifies to the preparation of the ground, in his name."

Huge fracture

Friedman believes that the Hazon Ish would also not recognize the ultra-Orthodox politics that has split into three political parties and today even the mother party, Agudat Yisrael, is ripped apart by power struggles. "Today we are facing a huge fracture," he diagnoses. "The big question is whether Agudat Yisrael will continue to cohere. It's hard to predict that."

Friedman says that "in the Hazon Ish's time the dirty Israeli politics of the period following the establishment of the state was revealed, and the ultra-Orthodox could say that with us there is no such thing. We are pure, clean. We don't need elections and wheeling and dealing, we have the Council of Torah Sages.

"Today everything is topsy-turvy. Rabbi Elyashiv (the leader of the Lithuanian public today) is depicted as a half-Hazon Ish, with modesty and asceticism, but around Rabbi Elyashiv there is a tremendous, astonishing court that has many interests, including economic interests. This didn't exist with the Hazon Ish."

Kabbalist Rabbi Yaakov Addas believes that the greatness of the Hazon Ish came from other aspects of his personality. In a recent missive that he wrote in his memory, Addas says that "among the ultra-Orthodox public, his fame is as a person who devoted his entire self, until his powers gave out, to helping every person in need and especially the broken and the wretched who had precedence in entering his home, and as a wonder worker (...) What remains to us is to examine ourselves as to where we grasp onto this issue, what we are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of helping the unfortunate."