Wednesday, October 31, 2018


It seems there is a limit to rabbinical influence and perhaps even an erosion of their authority, if what has happened in the Beit Shemesh municipal election can be used as a barometer of such things.

The mayoral election in the city is, at press time, very delicately balanced between incumbent Charedi mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) and his religious-Zionist challenger Aliza Bloch.

It appears that there have been significant numbers of Charedi residents who voted for Bloch despite the instructions of the leading Charedi rabbis to vote for Abutbul.

And it appears that there are many more who, despite the instructions of the rabbis to go out and vote for Abutbul, either stayed at home or voted only for the municipal council and not for mayor.

This phenomenon is somewhat surprising and almost unprecedented given that the incumbent mayor was endorsed by the entire spectrum of Charedi rabbinic leaders – Sephardi, non-hassidic and Chassidic alike.

Political activists in the city are pointing in particular at the Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel neighborhood – which is overwhelmingly Charedi but populated with a large number of working Charedim – as the source of this failure to adhere to the instructions of the rabbinic leadership.

The neighborhood is very new, but lacks communal infrastructure including synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths), kindergartens, schools and bus lines, which  
as upset many residents, especially given the financial investment they have put into their properties.

Although polling-booth data is not yet available, it is possible that Abutbul’s fragile lead/defeat was in part due to a protest vote by these residents against his poor management and planning of their neighborhood.

In addition, corruption allegations, reports of rampant nepotism and poor financial management within the municipal council have meant that many other Charedim in other Beit Shemesh neighborhoods have grown weary of the Abutbul administration.

According to one activist, thousands of Charedim voted for Bloch. Her adviser for the Charedi community Yaakov Amar said that as many as 4,000 Charedim could have voted for her, which would amount to a staggering 10% of all votes cast in the city.

So what explains the apparent fact that many Charedim in Beit Shemesh defied the instructions of the leading Charedi rabbis, especially when considering that in all other major cities the Charedi community largely adhered to their instructions?

It seems that the limit to rabbinical power may be the hard reality of sincere, real-life difficulties faced by people leading normal lives, who also happen to be Charedi.

When such people weigh up the instructions of rabbis to vote for an ineffective mayor who has had a detrimental effect on their lives against their desire for normative, effective and uncorrupt municipal administration, it appears that many have elected for the latter.

Such people are less dependent on the rabbis and the various forms of financial support the Charedi parties guarantee for those not employed, and have more of a stake-hold in their city if they own their property, as many in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel do.

A similar phenomenon could be the failed battle of the Charedi rabbinic leadership against the internet and smartphones.

At first an all-out war was waged against these developments, but the inescapable necessity of electronic communications in today’s world meant that the rabbis could not hold back their flock from going online and obtaining smartphones.

Reality confronted rabbinic authority, and the authority lost.

Why then did Charedim in so many other cities vote in accordance with what their rabbis told them – such as in Haifa, where Degel Hatorah and its rabbis even backed a woman who emerged victorious, Einat Kalisch Rotem.

Largely, it would seem, it's because the issues in most other cities are far less immediate, or there is no experience of mismanagement by the candidate endorsed by the rabbinic leadership.

When the issues are merely whether or not shops and restaurants open in non-haredi neighborhoods – or if, as in a mixed city like Jerusalem run by a non-Charedi mayor, Charedi residents feel discriminated against in mixed neighborhoods, then it is a much easier choice to vote for the rabbinically-endorsed candidate.

So what has happened in Beit Shemesh does not presage any massive rebellion against the authority of the Charedi leadership; that authority is still alive and well.

But what it does do, however, is to show the limits of this power – in particular when sectors of the Charedi population are involved who are more integrated into Israeli life, and particularly into the work force.

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