By James Marlow
Tens of thousands of mourners left their Yeshivot, Kollelim and places of work for the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, 87, who died suddenly in the early hours of Shabbat morning at his home in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sha’arei Chesed.
In an unusual move for the custom of Jerusalem, the funeral was postponed from Saturday night to Sunday, so more mourners could be bused in from across the country and give honour to Reb Shmuel who was buried at Har Menuchot cemetery in the capital.
As the funeral procession left Sha’arei Chesed via Diskin Street and then Sderot Ben Zvi towards the entrance of the city, hundreds along the route were standing on rooftops, balconies and hanging out of open windows watching in silence as thousands walked behind the vehicle carrying the body.
Reb Shmuel was Rosh Yeshiva of Ma’alot HaTorah in Sha’arei Chesed and recognised throughout the world as a knowledgeable Torah scholar. He was the son of Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who was truly one of the greatest revered Halachic authorities of the twentieth century. But despite being one of the leaders of the Orthodox non-Chassidic (Lithuanian) Haredi world, Reb Shlomo Zalman was always known as a moderate who never endorsed any political movement and stayed away from all politics.
When he was niftar (died) in 1995, his son Reb Shmuel began to take an active political role and on certain issues opposed the mainstream Charedi leadership.
The established Lithuanian Charedi political party is Degel HaTorah, but Reb Shmuel came out in support for a new party representing the Lithuanian community when the Torah sage of the generation at that time, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, was in severe physical decline.
Nevertheless, in 2002, Reb Shmuel became a member of the Council of Torah Sages of the Degel HaTorah movement for more than a decade. But in 2012 he and others rebelled against the mainstream rabbinical leadership after the death of then-leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and some say, sought to take the mantle of leadership for himself.
In the end he lost the battle to the more senior Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who was widely perceived as being the “leader of the generation” of the Haredi community.
But Reb Shmuel with his close aides continued to fight an insurgency against the mainstream Lithuanian community and the rebellion caused a serious dent costing the Charedi political party, United Torah Judaism (Agudah Yisrael and Degal HaTorah) at least one, probably two seats in the 2013 general election.
With Rabbi Shteinman’s passing last year, the leadership of the mainstream Lithuanian Haredi community was thrown into even more doubt, as Reb Shmuel and one of his two closest assistants, Nati Grossman, established a new political movement called Peleg Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Faction) group. It is believed to hold the support of between 10 to 15 percent of the Lithuanian community.
Grossman set up the Hapeles newspaper as a mouthpiece for the new movement which quickly began to attack the mainstream leadership. A new political party, Bnei Torah, was established which captured a small number of seats on municipal councils in Jerusalem, Modiin Illit and Bnei Brak during the 2013 local elections.
The split in the community developed deep roots especially on matters of educational institutions and the two factions increasingly were segregated from each other.
The Jerusalem Faction were also well known for their vitriolic opposition to Charedi enlistment into the IDF. Whereas mainstream community members reported to IDF offices with their military service exceptions, Reb Shmuel endorsed a policy of yeshiva students associated with his group to refuse to even cooperate with the IDF in order to obtain their military service exemption. This ruling rendered many deserters and law breakers and were liable to arrest by the military police. This in turn led to Jerusalem Faction supporters inciting and rioting in their neighbourhoods.
Reb Shmuel insisted that the only purpose of drafting Charedi men was to make them non-religious and therefore refused to accept the policy under any circumstances.
The Rabbi and his advisors would frequently send out large numbers of yeshiva students studying in institutions associated with the Jerusalem Faction onto the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. They blocked intersections and major highways in protest and demonstrated against the arrest of yeshiva students who failed to report for IDF duty when called.
In recent months, these demonstrations have increased in frequency as more yeshiva students associated with the Jerusalem Faction turned 18 and were arrested which fed a cycle of extremist civil disobedience.
It should be pointed out that leading Charedi rabbis of the past and the mainstream leaders of today, have refused to adopt such unprecedented violation of the law.
Now that Reb Shmuel has passed on to HaOlam HaEmet (next world), it remains to be seen whether the Jerusalem Faction has been weakened and its influence is significantly damaged or whether the movement will regain its strength.
Some have said that since he was the lone true and great rabbinical leader and scholar calling for the demonstrations, the Jerusalem Faction’s ability to bring out large numbers of protestors in future will be severely weakened.
On the other hand, close colleagues and associates gave eulogies last Sunday during the funeral ceremony in Sha’arei Chesed with strong predictions. Some including Rabbi Tzvi Friedman of Bnei Brak, who is a supporter of the Jerusalem Faction, spoke of continued uncompromising opposition to Haredi military service and said the campaign is not lost.
Others were much more moderate in their tone like one of Reb Shmuel’s many brothers, Rabbi Azriel Auerbach, from Bayit Vegan. He and some of his colleagues spoke of Reb Shmuel’s abilities and influence on thousands of Yeshiva boys. Although Rabbi Azriel Auerbach has become increasingly involved in the Jerusalem Faction in the last 2 years.
But the Hapeles newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Jerusalem Faction, hastened to publish a mourning notice from 12 prominent rabbis associated with the movement who pledged to uphold Reb Shmuel’s uncompromising positions on matters affecting the Haredi community. It was suggested that this group of rabbis could eventually constitute a council of Torah sages for the Jerusalem Faction and its Bnei Torah political party would become a replacement for Reb Shmuel Auerbach’s leadership.
Among the 12 rabbis mentioned were Rabbi Tzvi Friedman who gave one of the eulogies, Rabbi Shmuel Markowitz of Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and Rabbi Asher HaCohen Deutsch, a respected figure also from Bnei Brak.
But none of these Rabbis are considered to be rabbinic heavy weights and this lack of a “Torah Giant” status amongst the leadership ranks of the Jerusalem Faction is likely to be a significant problem for the legitimacy and authority of the movement.
According to Yisroel Cohen, a senior reporter for the Kikar HaShabbat Haredi news website, the Jerusalem Faction leadership was totally unprepared for Shmuel Auerbach’s death and no one figure has been groomed to inherit the movement’s mantle of leadership.
However, there are said to be internal divisions within the faction regarding the correct approach to matters such as military service, among others, and that the group faces significant challenges in the coming months to preserve its unity and its influence.
Cohen said it would be hard to imagine large numbers of the Jerusalem Faction returning to the mainstream Charedi community, given the deep divisions within the sector over the political issues which involve yeshivas and synagogues which have become split between the two camps.
The leadership could also become more geographically oriented, with Rabbi Deutsch holding sway in Bnei Brak and Rabbi Azriel Auerbach gaining primacy in Jerusalem, said Cohen.
Regardless of who emerges as leader, or leaders of the Jerusalem Faction, or if the movement and the Bnei Torah recede from prominence and lose their political standing, it appears certain the values and positions espoused by Shmuel Auerbach will endure.