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Eliyahu Berkovits
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Succession: How the Haredim lost the plot

Rabbi Edelstein's death marks the end of the era of uncontested leadership by a single 'Rabbinical Giant'
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevez Yeshiva seen at his home in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevez Yeshiva seen at his home in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The announcement appeared one month ago, shortly before ten o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, May 30: the Lithuanian Gadol Hador – the rabbinical giant of the generation.” Rabbi Gershon Edelstein had passed away. Within an hour, the messages and screenshots in the ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp groups made it clear that the wars of succession were now being waged in an arena totally new for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community – Wikipedia. 

With hardly a pause for breath, the Hebrew Wikipedia pages of his potential successors were revised and edited by their followers to serve the new circumstances. The entry about one rabbi now read: “Since the passing of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, [Rabbi X] has been serving as the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community.” The followers of a more modest rabbi wrote that, “Since Rabbi Edelstein’s death he is the leading candidate to lead the Lithuanian Haredi community.” As for a third, his loyalists insisted that “he has been appointed the leader of the Lithuanian community and the president of the Degel Hatorah party’s Council of Torah Scholars.

The immediate revision of the Wikipedia entries for the aspiring heirs and the speculative WhatsApp messages reflect just how deeply the internet has penetrated the ultra-Orthodox community. But that’s not the only thing we are dealing with here. Aside from the embarrassing public squabbles over the succession even before the funeral arrangements had been finalized, the rewriting competition is a powerful indication of the leadership crisis plaguing the Lithuanian Haredi stream. 

The long decline

Haredi leadership has been in decline ever since the death of Rabbi Shach in 2001. After he assumed the leadership of the Lithuanian stream in the early 1970s, he cemented its power and dominance by setting up a new political party, Degel Hatorah, and its Yated Ne’eman daily. He was also an active player in the establishment of the Shas party in 1983–1984; in its early years, he was even considered to be one of its two spiritual leaders, alongside Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In his later years, when his health was failing, he was unable to continue to lead his community. His heir, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, took on the role de facto in the mid-1990s. His authority derived from his stature as the leading halakhic adjudicator of the generation and he was accepted as an expert on any and all matters in which he stated his opinion, though, he gave the impression that he was not really interested in the burden of leadership.

When Rabbi Elyashiv passed away in 2012, the baton was handed on to Rabbi Steinman. At first it seemed that the system had achieved stability under his responsible leadership. However, some segments of the community viewed him as too willing to compromise on some matters. His assent, albeit tacit, to the establishment of the Haredi unit in the IDF was seen as scandalous by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who split off from Degel Hatorah, and set up the “Jerusalem Faction.” This was effectively the first time that the exclusive authority of the Gadol Hador came under formal attack. Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, who enjoyed a special status due to his legendary proficiency in the entire field of halakhic literature, lambasted Rabbi Auerbach with a severity that had never before been heard in the Haredi world, assailing him for departing from the sacrosanct principle of subordination to the sole authority of the leading rabbi of the community.

Rabbi Steinman died in 2017, after only five years as the leader. For the first time, the Lithuanians divided the inheritance between two successors – Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Edelstein. If we disregard some tense moments among operatives in their courts, the dual leadership functioned relatively smoothly, with Rabbi Kanievsky tending to be the dominant figure. Aside from a quarrel during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he ruled that elementary schools for boys must remain open, come what may, whereas Rabbi Edelstein believed it appropriate to comply with the Health Ministry’s instructions and shut them down, the system worked. 

With the deaths of Rabbi Kanievsky last year and now of Rabbi Edelstein, the Haredi community faces a new and unprecedented situation. First, the fact that for the first time ever, the identity of the new leader is not obvious; this means that even if someone is crowned, his position will be weaker than his predecessors’. Rather than being perceived as the obvious choice, he will be “that rabbi” who eventually ascended to the leadership. Second, this time it is easier to identify a problem that was formerly hidden from view – the issue of stability. 

Shifting power centers

To function properly, every system needs stability. and the leadership echelon even more so. Rabbi Shach shepherded his community for 23 years, and Rabbi Elyashiv for the next 17. But Rabbi Steinman was leader for only five years, after which Rabbi Kanievsky was at the helm for four years, and Rabbi Edelstein for five and a half (and sole leader only in the last year). The power centers are shifting rapidly from one rabbinic court to another, which means that today, it is the politicians and operatives who wield actual control. 

In his doctoral dissertation, “The Revolution of the New Haredism in the 1970s” (soon to be published as a book), Yair Halevy shows how until the 1970s, the Haredim were deeply engaged with the Israeli scene and led by public figures selected by the community. The revolution came in the 1970s, as the Haredi sector morphed into a “community of scholars” headed by an absolute authority who could not be challenged – the Gadol Hador – who must be obeyed in all matters. In recent years, we have witnessed the last fumes of that revolution. The “community of scholars” is still with us, as strong as ever, and sets the tone. But other groups are emerging that more closely resemble the Haredim of the decades before the 1970s, while the mechanism of the “Gadol Hador,” who rules with an iron hand, is fading away.

We should not make light of the problems inherent in the dynamic of the Haredi power apparatus. Whereas the traditional “Rabbinical Giants” assumed not only the power attached to the title, but also the responsibility that came with it, the current structure, in which the power center switches rapidly from one rabbinic court to another, means that the real power is held by the operatives. They bear no responsibility, and there is nothing more dangerous than authority without the acceptance of responsibility. 

Time will tell “Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord and who will stand in His holy place.” Whoever that rabbi (or rabbis) may be, we must hope that he will reign long over his kingdom and lead the Haredi community wisely, in order to overcome the significant challenges lying ahead for both the community and Israeli society as a whole.

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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