Over a year ago, in a post entitled Yated Wars: Reactions to the New Charedim, I described the emerging battle between two factions in the Israeli Litvishe Charedi world. One faction is of extreme charedim, who believe that one should not support hospitals, only yeshivos, and that one should not educate one's children towards earning a living. And that's the more moderate group! The other faction is even more zealous in its opposition towards any sort of accommodation with wider Israeli society. The first group is under the banner of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and runs the Yated newspaper; the second group rallies behind Rav Shmuel Auerbach, and runs the HaPeles newspaper.
For those who are unaware, in the last few weeks the hostility between the two factions has reached epic proportions. This was related to the municipal elections, in which the two groups fielded different political parties, Degel haTorah and Bnei Torah (a.k.a. Etz). It made the Bet Shemesh electoral unpleasantness look like child's play by comparison.
People in many kollels were instructed to sign a loyalty oath (!), stating that they will follow Rav Steinman and Rav Kanievsky, and will not read HaPeles, or else they will be expelled. The invective from Rav Shmuel Auerbach's side was equally incendiary, to the point that a somewhat deranged young man physically assaulted Rav Steinman. And in the latest episode, Rav Chaim Kanievsky described the people in Rav Shmuel Auerbach's camp as "animals," and said that Rav Shmuel is a zaken mamre who is chayyav skilah (liable for death by stoning)!
To say that all this is causing a crisis in rabbinic authority is putting it mildly. While Rav Aharon Feldman considered the ban on my books to have caused the greatest crisis in rabbinic authority in recent memory, this may well supersede it, at least for some people. After all, the Torah-science ban just pitted Gedolim against Rishonim; this fight pits Gedolim against Gedolim.
Just think about the questions that have been raised. Someone asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky if a lifetime disciple of Rav Shmuel Auerbach is allowed to follow his direction, and Rav Chaim answered in the negative. What on earth does this mean? I'm certainly no fan of Rav Shmuel's approach, but I don't understand the conceptual model of rabbinic authority in which his followers are told by others that they are forbidden to listen to him.
Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein presented a lecture by Rav Rubin, which attempts to provide an explanation of why it is forbidden for people to follow Rav Shmuel Auerbach, but it raises more problems than it solves. Why is unthinkable for there to be two different groups? After all, we already have Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Litvaks and Chassidim, Charedim and Dati-Leumi. Why is it forbidden for Litvishe Charedim to further sub-divide?
One person argued to me that for strategic political reasons, it's important for the Litvishe Charedim to be united around one voice. Well, obviously Rav Shmuel Auerbach has a different idea about strategies! Why is his view automatically disqualified?
And who says that Rav Steinman takes precedence over Rav Shmuel Auerbach? Some might say that the idea being presented here is that there is a Gadol HaDor, a single greatest Torah authority that everyone is deemed to follow, and that person is Rav Steinman. But this lacks any basis in halachah or tradition. Furthermore, it would mean that if Rav Steinman and Rav Kanievsky passed away, which would (in the charedi Litvishe mindset) leave Rav Shmuel as the greatest Torah authority, then everyone would have to follow him!
Another claim is that Rav Shmuel Auerbach is a zaken mamre (rebellious elder), because he is going against the majority. But last I checked, it takes a Sanhedrin to have a zaken mamre. Did Rav Ovadiah Yosef have to follow the Ashkenazi Gedolim, if they were in the majority?
Rav Rubin also claims that the level of aggression coming from the Rav Shmuel Auerbach camp demonstrates their illegitimacy. But no less aggression has come from Rav Steinman's camp, especially in light of Rav Chaim Kanievsky's recent statements.
Is there any good that can come out of all this? I believe so.
Consider the ban on my books. Contrary to Rav Feldman, I don't think that the ban on the rationalist Torah-science approach was a disaster for rabbinic authority. It was only a disaster for novel Charedi concepts of rabbinic authority, relating to "Gedolim" and Daas Torah. People gave up on following the Gedolim, and instead turned to their local rabbanim. The traditional type of rabbinic authority - a person's own community rabbi, who is of a similar background and understands him - was strengthened.
A similar phenomenon could occur here. As the charedi world, to put it in the words of Rabbi Eidensohn, "self-destructs," many people may realize how seriously problematic it is, especially with regard to its notions of charedi superiority, rabbinic authority, and Gedolim. Hopefully, they will return to a more traditional and healthier form of Judaism.