How Many Followers Did Rabbi Weiss Really Have?

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While its size may be small, the Edah Haredit ultra-Orthodox group has significant influence over the Haredi society as well as the general Israeli public.

On Sunday, the funeral procession for the late Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss of blessed memory-the leader of the Edah Haredit- the most extreme faction in Haredi society—was held in Jerusalem, with tens of thousands in attendance. When the funeral was over, one Haredi journalist tweeted: “Important information for researchers of Haredi society: If you want to understand the true size of the Edah Haredit relative to the Haredi mainstream, compare the number of mourners at Rabbi Weiss’s funeral with those at the huge funerals for leading Rabbis such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinmann, and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.”

As a researcher of Haredi society, myself, the quote that came to mind in response to this tweet was one attributed to Stalin, when he dismissively rejected a request from the French foreign minister to treat Catholics in Russia with restraint, so as not to offend the Pope: “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Assessing the significance of the Edah Haredit both for the Haredi and the general Israeli public by means of a simple head count, fails to capture the importance of this fringe group and its influence on the mainstream, for several reasons.

The first reason is the spiral of religious observance: Due to the fact that devotion and piety are always considered to be important virtues, devout fringe groups have an outsize impact relative to their actual share in the population. This impact is particularly evident regarding key religious issues, on which the stance of the more devout groups influences the leadership of the more moderate groups. Some of the most bitter and stubborn struggles in the history of the State of Israel between the Haredi and the general public, have been led by the more devout groups. Those of us who are old enough, will no doubt remember the demonstrations over driving on Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street on Shabbat, which were led by the Edah Haredit, but in which the broader Haredi public participated as well.

A second reason is ideological proximity: Despite the widespread perception in the general public that the Haredi public has become Zionist de facto, if not necessarily de jure, the pronouncements of the leaders of the Lithuanian stream—even those considered to be the most moderate—demonstrate the fact that the ideological differences between them are not all that different-- the Edah Haredit’s absolute rejection of Zionism, and the Lithuanian's leadership's tactic of cooperation with the state’s political systems.

As part of a study on attitudes toward modernity in the Haredi public, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, we also investigated the attitudes toward elections and the State of the Lithuanian leader who was perhaps considered to be the most moderate of all—Rabbi Steinmann, of blessed memory. He was perceived as the most moderate rabbi both in terms of his stance toward “outlying” groups in Haredi society such as the Chabad Hasidim, and in terms of his position vis-à-vis state institutions, as seen in his agreement with the Tal Law (which was the basis for the Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law), and military service in the IDF’s Haredi Nahal battalion.

Yet, in a letter that Rabbi Steinmann published ahead of the 1995 elections, in which he encouraged his followers to vote for the United Torah Judaism party, he explained his stance as follows: “In fact, why do we have any interest in being in the Knesset? This is a place in which the secular [Israelis] make laws … while the laws we have came down from Mount Sinai … But what can we do, unfortunately this is where laws are made and we must defend ourselves … We must always be on guard, to make sure that they don’t pass all kinds of laws that threaten the Jewish people, heaven forbid. So, everything we do is a form of defense against their harming the Jewish people.”

That is, even according to the most moderate Lithuanian rabbi, participation in the elections is a defensive tactic; were it not necessary, the Haredi public would entirely opt out of the political system, as the very idea of civil law stands in opposition to the principle of loyalty to the laws of the Torah.

A third reason is the influence on the Haredi marketplace of ideas. The Edah Haredit, which completely rejects the Zionist state and any cooperation with it, has powerful allies within the core of the Lithuanian public—the followers of the teachings of Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk, and the Peleg Yerushalmi (the “Jerusalem Faction”). In the wake of the controversies over legislation on military conscription around a decade ago, the Peleg Yerushalmi, led by the late Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach of blessed memory, broke away from the Haredi mainstream, and some of its members joined the Edah Haredit. Had there not remained pockets of stubborn resistance that reject the state and maintain their own independent community systems, the Peleg Yerushalmi would doubtless have found it more difficult to establish itself, ideologically and financially.

A conspicuous example of their impact in recent weeks can be seen in the sometimes-violent demonstrations against the light rail in Jerusalem – with the participation of other factions in Peleg Yerushalmi led protests and demonstrations against the light rail that will pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and connect the campuses of the Hebrew University.

However, the more significant impact on the country is in the long term. According to the conservative forecast of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the share of the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to reach 20% of the total population in 2040, and 32% in 2065.

The persistent opposition of these groups to the State and cooperation with its institutions, affects the degree and pace of integration of the ultra-Orthodox public into the workforce and into army service.

The stringent line adopted by the Peleg Yerushalmi on military service affects not only those who belong to their ranks. Their opposition to even coming to the recruitment station in order to receive a deferral, has an impact on the many others who waver between remaining in the Kollel – (Yeshiva studies for married Haredi men), or 'diving into the water" and joining the labor market and/or enlisting into the IDF.

Any delay in the integration of these young people, will have a long-term effect on a significant proportion of the population in the future. These are the ripples which Rabbi Steinmann's followers are creating, and which will impact the general public and the future of the country as a whole.

The article was published in the Times of Israel.