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The last of the ‘gedolim’

The haredi strategy is under attack, the signs of which are evident across the Israeli reality.

The funeral procession of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak, March 20, 2022. Credit: City of Bnei Brak.
The funeral procession of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak, March 20, 2022. Credit: City of Bnei Brak.
Yedidia Stern
Yedidia Stern is President of the Jewish People Policy Institute, and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.

The recent mass funeral for Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky definitively exemplified the haredi miracle that has unfolded since the founding of the State of Israel.

When the state was established, the haredi community numbered just a handful, mainly members of the Old Yishuv and a few immigrants, European refugees from the Holocaust. They were not a significant factor in Israeli national life, and it seemed that the lifeforce of this group had been exhausted, their future behind them. Everyone assumed that the haredi existence of the Eastern European shtetl would degenerate and decay on the golden sands of pre-state Palestine, and with the establishment of Jewish sovereignty.

The realistic expectation was that ultra-Orthodoxy would survive, if at all, only in the framework of small-scale “nature reserves”—an island here, an island there.

And yet a turnaround occurred: The haredim currently number about 1.2 million citizens, half of them minors. A third of the country’s Jewish children and one-fifth of the manpower reaching army conscription age belong to this community. The haredi sector is a major player in the Israeli reality of the 21st century. The phoenix has risen from its ashes.

The “miracle” was based on a strategy developed by the founding generation of the Israeli haredi community, with four pillars:

One pillar relates to how they conduct themselves in the world: They are required to segregate themselves from the rest of society, spatially (through haredi cities or homogeneous haredi neighborhoods), politically (voting for haredi parties only), educationally (separate educational institutions with their unique curricula) and culturally (dress code, internal language, media outlets and more).

The second pillar of the strategy concerns the meaning of existence: They are expected to make Torah study their central normative occupation. Every male is required to take his place in the beit midrash, from early childhood to old age, while the women are supposed to enable this by taking responsibility for the livelihood of the household and raising the family.

The third pillar is about demography: Haredim are expected to enlarge their families at all costs. Thus, the average family today has seven children, more than twice the average of Israeli families among the general population.

The fourth pillar relates to discipline: They took upon themselves unconditional obedience to a centralized spiritual leadership that is decisive in every matter. The leaders are the important, venerated rabbis—the gedolim (“great ones”). The gedolim constitute a leadership hierarchy that is the main source of the discipline that characterizes the community and allows for the mobilization of the entire community for various purposes.

All these things have created the haredi autonomy that casts its long shadow over the Israeli future. The closing of parts of Medinat Tel Aviv (the “State” of Tel Aviv) for the funeral of an elderly Torah scholar symbolizes the turnaround in a way that cannot be denied.

Yet nothing lasts forever. The strategy is under attack, the signs of which are evident across the Israeli reality.

Haredi insularity has been undermined by the technological revolution, which is eroding the “walls of holiness” that surround the Orthodox paradise. Now that more than half the haredim own smartphones and have full access to the information superhighway, we can say that the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” has been planted in their midst, and that they are biting into the apple en masse (often with Apple devices). Torah study is still considered the essence of existence, but half of haredi men have already joined the labor market. Only a minority live according to Torato umanuto (“Torah study is the only occupation”). Demographers also point to the beginning of a slowdown in the size of their families.

And here we come to the fourth component: leadership.

Their spiritual leaders wield powerful charisma, the intensity and source of which outside observers have trouble comprehending. The word of the Lithuanian gedolim—from the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz, d. 1953) to Rabbi Kanievsky—is law; royal decrees that must be obeyed. Such was the status of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and of the great Chassidic rebbes.

Rabbi Kanievsky’s funeral was the closing act of the historical performance of the dynasty of gedolim who led the Lithuanian haredi public (and indirectly, the entire haredi public) after the Holocaust. Since his passing in 2013, no replacement has been found for Rabbi Yosef within the Sephardi haredi sector. This will also be the case now, with the passing of Rabbi Kanievsky in the Lithuanian sector. The next leader is Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who is approaching his 99th birthday. After him, there is no agreed-upon gadol. These two groups—the Lithuanians and the Sephardim—together amount to two-thirds of the entire community. There can be no doubt that what once was—an ideological hegemony led by a single accepted leader—will no longer be.

Nor do the haredim have leadership options outside the spiritual realm—not among the community’s political cadre (whose members are perceived as “hacks”), nor among the civic or professional echelons (which are almost nonexistent) or the local leadership (whose main value lies in the practical sphere). From the general public’s perspective, the haredim appear to be a single community. From an internal perspective, however, due to the leadership vacuum, the split between the haredim will become a central feature of the community, and this will have many implications for the State of Israel.

It is to be expected that ideological extremist groups, which in the past had to face a central charismatic leader, will be strengthened. It is in the nature of the world for extremists and their actions to attract more attention than others. The young and conservative haredi public, whose existence is based on the idealization of segregation from the broader society, is relatively easy prey for extremist views. It appears that the public influence of the fanatics, previously kept in check by relatively moderate gedolim, is set to grow.

But there will also be a shift in the other direction—from classic haredi conservatism to a stream with touches of modernity, seeking integration in the general society while preserving its identity. In the past, charismatic leadership blocked such developments, but now that barrier has been lifted.

Finally, in the absence of centralized leadership, the power of the “haredi street” will intensify. This is a welcome aspect of the democratization of haredi public opinion that may result in a society that is more open and diverse in its views and behavior. But at the same time, “street rule” may also accelerate responsibility-shirking processes.

Indeed, if until now it was possible to locate a central haredi “address” with which the state could reach binding agreements in regular times and in times of crisis, in the future no source of authority representing the entire community will be found—listening and being heard, negotiating, formulating and implementing agreements.

It seems that just as the general Israeli public no longer gives allegiance to charismatic leadership, the haredi public seems destined to move in the same direction. We will have to compose the Israeli story together, without intermediaries, people to people.

Yedidia Stern is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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