Eliyahu Berkovits

Rabbinic elites vs. traditionalists: IDF conscription law reveals rifts in Shas

A letter was recently published, signed by leading rabbis in the Sephardi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community – two of whom are members of the Shas Council of Torah Sages – calling Moshe Arbel, a Shas-Party minister in Knesset, “one who leads the multitude to sin and is incapable of repentance”. Immediately after the letter was published, unofficial sources in the Shas movement rejected the statement and claimed that the rabbis’ signatures had been forged. The signatories, on the other hand, claimed that the signatures were authentic and that the rabbis were indeed behind the fierce attack on the rogue minister.

The frontal assault by the rabbis on Minister Arbel – or at least by functionaries who tried to sign them on such a letter – was launched in response to an open letter Arbel sent to the Director of the Netzah Yehuda NGO in which he expressed his support for the organization’s managers, adding that he will support its efforts to have young Haredi men enlist in the IDF: “your main mission at this time is to integrate Haredim in long and significant combat service. We will be here to help with anything you need for the task.” Following the rabbis’ letter – which was neither publicly confirmed nor denied by them – Arbel was interviewed and clarified that his intention was to encourage recruitment only among Haredi youth who are not full-time Torah students and not, Heaven forfend, recruitment of Yeshiva students who are dedicated their studies.

This is not the first time that eminent Sephardic rabbis have vehemently attacked a Shas Member of Knesset. In 2017, after an interview on IDF radio in which then MK Yigal Guetta discussed his participation in the wedding of his nephew who married a man, the rabbis (two of whom also signed the current letter against Minister Arbel) issued a scathing letter in which they called Guetta “this guy” who “desecrates Heaven in public” and demanded his outright dismissal. Following the protests, Guetta resigned from Knesset a few days later.

It seems that these repeated encounters between Sephardi rabbis and elected representatives of the Shas Party are not coincidental. The tensions that arose touched upon fundamental questions delineating the limits of religious tolerance and recruitment of young men into the army. They stem from an apparent chasm between the two groups that make up the Shas electorate – a moderate traditional public on the one hand, and a devoutly religious public of yeshiva students on the other hand.

The seeds of this tension were planted more than a century ago in Morocco, in a struggle imported from Europe between modernity and conservatism. As a reaction to the modernization processes advanced in Morocco by the All Israel Friends movement through Alliance network schools, an educational network in the format of Lithuanian yeshivas was established in Morocco at the beginning of the previous century. After various ‘incarnations’ and the destruction of the Torah world in the Holocaust, the trend strengthened and, according to estimates, thousands of students studied in the Lithuanian yeshivas in Morocco, Europe and the United States. A similar phenomenon occurred in Israel, where promising young Sephardic men studied in Lithuanian flagship yeshivas, and their spiritual image was shaped by their influence.

The influence of Lithuanian education on the Torah elite of Sephardic society was highly significant. In 1993, Sephardic rabbis educated in Lithuanian yeshivas founded the Marbitzei Torah (Torah teachers) movement, which opposed the independence demonstrated by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his separation from the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and declared its loyalty to the Lithuanian world and its leader at the time – Rabbi Shach. Over the years, the movement disintegrated and gradually integrated into the Shas movement, with several of its leaders becoming members of the Shas Party Council of Torah Sages.

Some of the rabbis of the Marbitzei Torah movement are the most extreme about the question of conscription in the Sephardic public. They are closer to the Lithuanian “Jerusalem Faction” movement founded by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach which vehemently opposes any compromise on the conscription issue, even reporting to the recruitment bureaus to receive a deferment.

Apparently, the outbreak we witnessed this week does not mark the end of the internal Sephardi struggle within the Shas movement, rather just the beginning. The passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in his character united rabbinic elitism and simple popularism – a combination that made him admired and loved by all layers of the Sephardic public – is keenly felt, in the current absence of such a unifying factor. Time will tell whether the rabbinical elite will gain the upper hand and the isolationist trend will be dominant; or, whether the Knesset members attentive to the moderate traditional electorate will be able to pull the party wagon towards integration into Israeli society and the IDF.

About the Author
Eliyahu Berkovits is a researcher in the ultra-Orthodox program in Israel and the Program for Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, and a doctoral student in the Department of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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