Chapter 3: The Two Main Haredi Groups by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

Chapter Three

The Two Main Haredi Groups




written by

Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky



from Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, 1999.



A brief consideration of the historical background should provide a basis for understanding the differences between the two major Haredi groups: the Ashkenazi and the Oriental, formerly called Sephardi. Throughout most of their history, Jews lived scattered in different countries. Not surprisingly, separate Jewish communities emerged, comprised of Jewish residents of a single country, of a cluster of countries or sometimes of different parts of a single country. Until about AD 1050 one particular community existed as a Jewish center, recognized by other communities as the authority for dictating rules and issuing instructions binding upon Jews throughout the world. The last such center was the Jewish community of Iraq. After the collapse of the last center in Iraq, the differences between Jewish communities deepened considerably. Different communities, for example, although keeping and using some of the ancient prayers common to all Jews, composed new prayers, used only in their own services. Even the chanting of prayers in different communities changed and thus varied. Religious rules of conduct in almost every conceivable area of life, to which pious Jews adhered, also changed to some extent and varied from one community to another.

The Ashkenazi community that emerged in northern France and western Germany between the tenth and twelfth centuries became more innovative and began to deviate more from previously established patterns than any other community with the possible exceptions of small communities in remote countries, such as Georgia. The Ashkenazi divergences became embedded and persisted. Until this day, for example, most pious Ashkenazi Jews refuse to eat meat or any foods containing meat that are prepared under supervision of non-Ashkenazi rabbis; pious members of other Jewish communities are content with dietary supervision of rabbis not belonging to their community. Thus, a pious Sephardi Jew, visiting a pious Ashkenazi Jew will eat food prepared by the latter, but a pious Ashkenazi Jew visiting a Sephardi Jew will refuse to eat any foods containing meat or often any food whatsoever. Ashkenazi exclusiveness is evident in many other aspects of their religious conduct. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, developed as early as the twelfth century an exclusiveness of their own, based upon the consideration that they were superior in some ways to other Jews. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews, a part of Sephardi Jewry, especially developed a pride in the supposed "purity of descent." (In Hebrew Sephardi means Spanish.) Most of them not only refused to marry but also often despised being together with Ashkenazi Jews. Moses Maimonides, who lived until 1204 and was both a rabbi and the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher, moralized in a testament addressed to his son:

Guard your soul by not looking into books composed by Ashkenazi rabbis, who believe in the blessed Lord only when they eat beef seasoned with vinegar and garlic. They believe that the vapor of vinegar and the smoke of garlic will ascend to their nostrils and thus make them understand that the blessed Lord is near to them ... You, my son, should stay only in the pleasant company of our Sephardi brothers, who are called the men of Andalusia [or southern Spain, then ruled by the Muslims ] because only they have brains and are clever.

Similar statements, in which members of a Jewish community express feelings of their superiority over other Jews, abound in Jewish literature and are common. Even as late as the 1960s older Sephardi rabbis and other Jewish men in Jerusalem, when signing their names, would invariably add the Hebrew initials meaning "pure Spanish." Ashkenazi exclusiveness, as it developed and deepened over centuries, however, became more all-encompassing and extreme than Sephardi exclusiveness.

The developing exclusiveness had geographical, social and political causes. Prior to the formation of the Ashkenazi community, almost all Jews lived in the Mediterranean basin or in countries, such as Iraq, connected with the basin by trade routes. In the tenth century most Mediterranean countries were under either Muslim or Byzantine rule. The communications between this region and the emerging feudal Europe were tenuous largely because of the language barriers: Greek and Arabic, spoken on the one side, were largely unknown in Western Christian areas, while Latin was largely unknown in the Orient. Jews, who almost always spoke the language(s) of the people among whom they lived, encountered the same communication obstacle as did other people. The Ashkenazi community, therefore, framed its own life style without knowledge about or guidance from the older, Jewish communities. The Ashkenazi Jewish life style developed within the context of the emerging feudalism in Europe, which differed in many crucial respects from other regimes in other areas in that time period. In spreading eastward into the emerging states in central and eastern Europe, the Ashkenazi community solidified its cohesiveness and its identity: these have persisted to date but in more pronounced forms among religious rather than secular Ashkenazi Jews.

Expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1498, Sephardi Jews not only settled in but also transformed other Jewish communities. In these communities the new Sephardi immigrants tended to maintain an exclusiveness and to remain aloof from other Jews. Having come from the relatively developed society of the Spain of the Renaissance and having settled in less developed countries, they soon became the wealthiest, best educated and most politically connected Jews in Mediterranean countries. The Sephardi Jews that settled in Saloniki (now in Greece but then part of the Ottoman Empire) received privileges from the Ottoman Sultan, because they manufactured the best cloth and provided textiles for the uniforms worn by members of elite units of the Ottoman army. The Saloniki Sephardi Jews kept this monopoly for 130 years, losing it only when more modern textiles were imported from England and the Netherlands. Spanish Jews mostly and Italian Jews to a lesser extent actually did most of the creative work in all areas of medieval Jewish culture. Largely because of their wealth and education, Sephardi Jews imposed their customs, language and name upon Jewish communities in all the countries to which they emigrated. One good illustration of this occurred in Jewish communities in the Balkans and what is now Turkey. The Jews in these communities called themselves "Romaniole," taken from the popular name of the Byzantine Empire "Romania." They spoke Greek until about 1550 at which time, influenced by the effects of the Sephardi immigration, began to call themselves "Sephardi" and to speak Ladino, an ancient form of Spanish. The fact is that no Sephardi communities existed other than those made up of the immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula, their descendents or those who assimilated themselves into Sephardi communities. European travelers and some Ashkenazi Jews have referred, and still refer, mistakenly to all non-Ashkenazi Jews as Sephardi. This is because the real Sephardi Jews established a lasting hegemony over other Jewish communities. Many other than Sephardi, non-Ashkenazi members of Jewish communities have more correctly defined themselves not only as Jews but also as Iraqis, Moroccans, Italians or another nationality.

Until the end of the seventeenth century, Ashkenazi Jews constituted a small minority of world Jewry. Their cultural advancement trailed far behind other Jewish communities, especially the Sephardi and Italian. Since the eighteenth century, the populations of Mediterranean countries, especially those in the Ottoman Empire, steadily declined economically and demographically. This trend greatly affected Jewish communities of those countries. Between 1700 and 1850, Jewish populations in these countries steeply declined and became increasingly impoverished. The modest increase in Jewish population between 1850 and 1914 did not to a significant extent offset the decline. From the beginning of the eighteenth century the political and technological advancements in Europe affected the Ashkenazi community. From the mid-eighteenth century the Ashkenazi population began to increase rapidly; by 1800 Ashkenazi Jews had become the majority of world Jewry; this increase and the majority percentage accelerated in the nineteenth century. Jews living in the European part of the Russian Empire, nearly all of them Ashkenazi, proliferated sevenfold between 1795 and 1914. Ashkenazi Jews developed a variety of innovations in Judaism, some of them secularist. By the first half of the twentieth century, Ashkenazi Jews had surpassed the relatively small, non-Ashkenazi minority in every major respect, including Talmudic studies. The current split between religious Ashkenazi Jews and non-Ashkenazi Jews stems from the fact that during the past two centuries, in contrast to what had previously been the case, almost all rabbis of distinction have been Ashkenazi. In non-Ashkenazi communities during this time period the quality of talmudic study, of books published and even of older books being reprinted has disastrously declined.

Until 1948, Zionism and the emigration of Jews to Palestine were predominantly Ashkenazi inventions. Most religious Jews viewed Zionism as being in opposition to Judaism; hence, only Jews emancipated from their religious past could become Zionists. Even so, few Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Palestine because of Zionist convictions. The great majority of those who immigrated did so only because their lives were so difficult in their own countries of origin. The great majority of Jews in Israel in 1948 were those who had immigrated to Palestine after the increase in anti-Semitism in Europe after 1932 and especially after Hider came to power in Germany. The number of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel at the time of the state's creation was relatively small. For most Jews in non-Ashkenazi communities, the religious influence, especially the messianic strain, was in the 1950s and early 1960s still potent. Living standards in Israel in the 1950s, although below those throughout Europe, were superior to those in most of the Arab Middle East. The Israeli government, therefore, could easily persuade Jews from many countries, for example, Morocco, Yemen and Bulgaria, to immigrate to Israel. The Israeli government induced Jewish immigration from Iraq by bribing the government of Iraq to strip most Iraqi Jews of their citizenship and to confiscate their property. By contrast, few Jews immigrated to Israel from the more advanced countries of the eastern Mediterranean, such as Greece or Egypt. The majority of the Israeli Jewish population shifted to the non-Ashkenazi. During the period from 1949 to 1965, Ashkenazi Jews in Israel declined to a minority that stabilized at about 40 per cent of Israel's population. The substantial immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union thereafter increased the Ashkenazi population to about 55 per cent. By virtue of their having come from more advanced countries, the bulk of Ashkenazi Jews were relatively modern in outlook and secular.

The non-Ashkenazi Jews, increasingly referred to as "Orientals" instead of "Sephardis," remained predominantly religious. Upon their arrival in Israel many Oriental Jews and their children were put through a cultural socialization directed by veteran Ashkenazi residents and advocated by members of the Zionist Labor Party then in power. This socialization included a considerable amount of coercive modernization and attempts to secularize the young. The results of this coercion were mixed during most of the first two decades of Israel's existence. The majority of Oriental Jews remained traditionalists, meaning that these people ignored the more exacting commandments of Judaism, such as the ban of Sabbath travel, but followed other commandments, especially those dealing with synagogue attendance. Even more importantly, it meant that they retained belief in the magical powers of rabbis and "holy men." To date, only a few Oriental politicians dare criticize a rabbi in public, even when the rabbi strongly opposes or curses them. Ashkenazi Jews of all political views in contrast criticize rabbis freely. Most Ashkenazi politicians despise any kowtowing to rabbis. Almost all Oriental politicians, including the Black Panthers of the early 1970s and the members of tiny Oriental peace movements, commonly bow to and kiss the hands of rabbis in public.

The Ashkenazi religious minority, particularly its Haredi segment, has resisted secularization of Oriental Jews. They have succeeded to some extent, most particularly in persuading a minority to retain the strict observance of Judaism's commandments. They have established separate religious schools and yeshivot for the Orientals and have admitted, although in strictly controlled numbers, some of the most qualified Oriental youngsters to their own schools and yeshivas. After the passage of time, an Oriental Haredi elite group of rabbis and talmudic scholars emerged in Israel. Almost without exception, Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis trained members of this elite group.

By the beginning of the 1990s, the confrontation between the unbending Haredi version of Ashkenazi exclusiveness and Oriental traditionalism, which previously was potentially explosive, erupted. The Ashkenazi Haredi movement insisted upon completely freezing the situation that existed in central and eastern Europe around 1860. The Oriental Jews, trained by Ashkenazi Haredi Jews, were forced to discard their traditional garb, wear the black Ashkenazi clothing and learn and speak Yiddish. Yiddish was the language of oral instruction in the Haredi yeshivot; Hebrew was reserved for writing. The Oriental traditionalists were also forced to adopt the Ashkenazi manner of praying, which differed in numerous ways from their former method. Revered rabbis, who commanded authority and encountered almost no opposition, imposed those radical changes. By contrast, the various attempts by the Labor movement to impose modernizing constraints upon the Orientals in the 1950s sparked furious opposition among the Oriental masses, who would often criticize politicians but hardly ever criticize rabbis.

The Oriental students in Ashkenazi Haredi yeshivot, after years of docile submission to demands and after being ordained as rabbis, were not granted status equal to that of their fellow students and rabbis. They have continued to accept and even today seem to be content with their inferior treatment. An excellent illustration of this is the inequality in intermarriage with their Ashkenazi peers. All Jewish communities share the time-honored custom that the head of the yeshiva arranges all marriages of yeshiva students. He carefully picks the daughters of rich and pious Jews as wives for students. The better students are matched with the daughters of the wealthiest parents. (The head of the yeshiva also matches daughters of rabbis with sons of the wealthiest parents.) Yeshiva students have selflessly complied with this matchmaking; resisting has been--and still is--considered to be a grave sin. This practice was instituted so that yeshiva students, who had no marketable skills, and their families would be supported. Students could continue their sacred studies, and the entire supporting family would supposedly then be able to enter paradise. More recently, yeshiva heads, when unable to find wealthy, prospective fathers-in-law for students, find prospective wives that are previously trained in skilled professions suitable for Haredi women and are willing to support husbands engaged in "sacred studies." (Such support will supposedly bring the wives to paradise.) By being matchmakers, yeshiva heads have most often been able to control the livelihoods and thus the lives of yeshiva students and their families.

Ashkenazi Haredi Jews have never formally prohibited marriages with pious Jews from other communities. Such marriages, nevertheless, often have been--and still are--considered disgraces. Because of this, the heads of Ashkenazi Haredi yeshivot adopted the custom, still followed, of matching Oriental students, however distinguished in their studies, with either physically handicapped Ashkenazi brides or ones from poor families.

Not surprisingly, an unwritten rule developed whereby Oriental students, however distinguished, would not be appointed to any responsible teaching positions even in lower-rank yeshivot, attended solely by Oriental students. These teaching jobs were reserved for Ashkenazi rabbis, the underlying assumption being that Oriental Jews were not yet sufficiently mature to hold responsible religious positions. When Rabbi Shach, one of the foremost Haredi leaders, explicitly reiterated this assumption shortly before the 1992 elections, he was denounced as being racist by many Ashkenazi secular Jews; neither Oriental rabbis nor Oriental political activists uttered one word of public criticism.

No Oriental initiative was responsible for the creation of the Haredi political party, Shas. Rabbi Shach formed Shas before the 1988 elections, because he, in his rivalry with other prominent Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis, needed to have Knesset members that would be subservient only to him. He, therefore, ordered those rabbis that were his students and retained personal allegiance to him to form two new, separate, Haredi political parties: Degel Ha'Tora (Banner of the Law) would be purely Ashkenazi; Shas (an acronym for Sephardi List for Tradition) would be purely Oriental. After the formation of both parties, the party leaders publicly regarded Rabbi Shach as their highest spiritual authority and vowed to obey him unconditionally. In order to make Shas also attractive to non-Haredi Orientals, Shach handpicked a non-Haredi Oriental rabbi upon whom he could rely--Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph, the former chief rabbi of Israel--to act as the nominal party head. Shach, of course, retained authority. For Shach, Yoseph's greatest virtue was that, after failing to win re-election as chief rabbi due to the NRP's refusal to exert influence on his behalf, Yoseph hated the NRP as fiercely as did Shach himself. As is well known in Israel, hatred between secular Jews cannot match in intensity the mutual hatred between diverse groups of religious Jews, especially in the quarrels between rabbis representing those diverse groups. Shach had good reason to expect that, because of his wish to retaliate against NRP rabbis, Yoseph would remain loyal to him and be content with his subordinate role.

For a while everything worked as Shach had planned. The two parties, controlled by Shach, obtained eight Knesset seats altogether in the 1988 elections; Degal Ha'Tora had two seats; Shas, six seats. The Haredi party, Agudat Israel, against which Shach formed his parties, obtained only five seats. Degel Ha'Tora and Shas preferred a Likud government and after the 1988 elections supported Yitzhak Shamir as the prime minister. Their support may have been decisive. After 1990 Shamir would not have had a Knesset majority without their support. The self-demeaning attempts by the Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, to reverse this situation failed. Peres spent months attending lessons of Talmud, given in his home by Rabbi Yoseph. Peres attempted unsuccessfully to be received by Rabbi Shach; Shach received many petty secular politicians but not Peres. Peres made repeated, public pronouncements about how deeply he respected Judaism in general and the Haredi rabbis in particular. Everything Peres attempted was in vain. Shach and his rival Haredi rabbis did not bend in their support for Shamir. Yitzhak Rabin's victory over Peres for the leadership position in the Labor Party primaries preceding the 1992 elections was largely due to Labor's rank-and-file disillusionment with Peres' attempts to ingratiate himself with Haredi Jews and to win their support. In spite of this experience, Peres repeated the same attempts that resulted in the same results in the 1996 elections.

The Haredi parties wielded political power after 1988, most especially in the 1988-90 period. Peres, still in the government after 1988, supported their demands; Shamir, while Prime Minister, was even more resolute with support. Haredi political success can best be measured by the amounts of money the two Haredi parties were able to obtain from the state through so-called "special money" grants, not subject to fiscal controls of the state. These special money grants were made through a voluntary association, formed to remain under the real control of a Haredi Knesset member or his friends. The ministry of finance made grants from the state budget to such associations, most often on the basis of flimsy purpose statements and with no control exerted over expenditures. The resultant corruption was enormous, reaching a scale unprecedented in the entire history of the State of Israel and finally causing the withdrawal of such special money grants.

The extensive corruption involved in the obtaining of this special money did not necessarily mean that the money itself was used illicitly. Shas spent most of this money to establish a network of institutions designed to exert a lasting influence and to train cohorts of militants that in the future could enable the party to maximize its control over its public. This network consisted of a chain of educational institutions designed to revive traditional Jewish education for boys with only sacred and not secular subjects taught. (Shas largely ignored the education of girls.) Adult males between the ages of 40 and 50 were encouraged to leave their professions or give up their businesses in order to enroll in institutions and study sacred subjects with guaranteed remuneration. The remuneration, that is, salaries for studying, were admittedly low, but numerous individuals considered the life of study preferable to their persisting to do menial work or to maintain decaying businesses. The recruits did more than study Talmud. They were required to do political work for Shas. These recruits soon constituted Shas' political cadre, which has been and remains instrumental in turning Haredi neighborhoods into electoral constituencies under almost any conceivable circumstances.

Informed Israeli political commentators have recognized the public and political impact of such Haredi political activity. In his June 26,1992 article in Al-Hamishmar, Professor Gideon Doron, Rabin's major advisor on strategy during the 1992 elections, explained after Rabin's victory why the Labor Party refrained from canvassing votes in Shas-dominated neighborhoods:

This is a party that keeps its public under continuous influence during election and other times ... Shas' method is to turn electoral outcomes into sources of monetary revenues and spend the money obtained during the four years [between one election and another]. The method succeeds. True, they also use magic spells, amulets and vows that greatly influence their public, but their role is secondary.

According to Doron, the best way to appeal to the Shas constituency is to do so through those of the salaried elite whose role anyway is to keep the constituency under control. Doron pointed out that, with the exception of the previously mentioned elite, Shas' followers are essentially the same as the "Oriental tradition-minded segment of Likud supporters." By acquiring political power, Shas leaders, particularly Rabbi Yoseph, gained self-confidence and began to seek emancipation from the tutelage of Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis. In each Shas-dominated neighborhood, Rabbi Yoseph rather than Rabbi Shach was acclaimed to be the greatest rabbi in the world. After some years of continual adulation by the masses, Rabbi Yoseph almost certainly came to believe that he no longer needed to be subordinate to Rabbi Shach.

The split between Shas and Rabbi Shach came after the 1992 elections and was sparked by a triviality. The split in reality was over the rival claims by Shach and Yoseph to be regarded as the spiritual head of Shas. Rabin, when forming his coalition, approached and accepted the demands of Shas. Before signing an agreement, Shas asked Rabbi Shach for approval. Shach refused, because, as discussed in another chapter, Shulamit Aloni was to be named Minister of Education. Shach's newspaper, Yated Ne'eman, editorialized that this appointment was worse than the killing of one million children during the Holocaust. The reasoning employed here was that the Nazis killed the children but did not prevent their souls from going to paradise, whereas the appointment of Aloni could corrupt Jewish souls and deprive them of paradise. Rabbi Yoseph and the Shas Party, nevertheless, decided to risk the souls of Jewish children and joined Rabin's government. Rabbi Shach and his followers reacted negatively in a furious manner that persisted thereafter.

The confrontation between the two Haredi movements has been waged in the magical area over the contest of spiritual authority. In keeping with commonly held and magical Haredi beliefs, the Shas leaders' sin of resisting Rabbi Shach's will could be punished by a few curses resulting in either the deaths or sicknesses of those leaders and/or their family members. The result would allegedly restore heavenly equilibrium. In order to further this magical result, Rabbi Shach's supporters resorted to conduct previously employed in similar situations. They published fake announcements of deaths, hospitalizations and/or traffic accidents of Shas leaders and then either notified the families accordingly by telephone or sent ambulances to their homes. As noted above, internecine hatred between religious Jews, and especially between Haredi rabbis, is often virulent. The existence of such hatred has continually resulted in disunity within ranks that limits Haredi political power. The methods of internecine infighting have been so customarily employed within Haredi culture that, unfortunately for Rabbi Shach's followers, the impact is severely limited. In the domain of magic, moreover, Shas has on its side the great authority and renowned miracle worker, Rabbi Kaduri, who announced that he would shield all Shas leaders by casting cabbalistic spells. Rabbi Kaduri also claimed that God revealed to him that harassment by other Haredi Jews would qualify Shas leaders for the greatest Jewish virtue, sanctification of the Lord's name through martyrdom.

In the contest of spiritual authorities, debate ensued over whether Rabbi Yoseph 's spirituality was sufficiently great to validate his challenge to Shach's rabbinical authority, especially in light of Yoseph 's former allegiance to Shach. Following the debate all the Shas rabbis decided to obey Rabbi Yoseph. Shas rabbis and followers then began to extol Rabbi Yoseph as "the greatest rabbi of his generation," greater even than any Ashkenazi rabbi. This honor had previously been awarded to Rabbi Shach. Shas had won its independence. The Ashkenazi Haredi Jews thus could not defeat but did sever all connections with Shas. No Ashkenazi rabbi distanced himself from Shach's pronouncements; some added even more venom. The leader of the largest Hassidic sect, the Gur Hassids, reiterated his previously expressed view that Israel lost the Yom Kippur War (of October 1973) because a woman, Golda Meir, was prime minister. He implied that Israel would lose its next war because of Shulamit Aloni. Ashkenazi rabbis and their followers used weapons more hurtful than their curses and pronouncements. They desecrated Shas synagogues, usually just before the beginning of the Sabbath, thus making it difficult to clean in time without desecrating the Sabbath. Many Shas leaders, who had been educated in Ashkenazi institutions and who continued to pray in Ashkenazi synagogues, were harassed or beaten during the reciting of prayers. One Shas leader, Rabbi Pinhassi, was spat upon and beaten in an Ashkenazi synagogue in the Haredi town of Bnei Brak during a Sabbath prayer session. Some children of Shas leaders were terribly abused. The then Minister of the Interior, Yitzhak Der'i, had to remove his sons from an Ashkenazi yeshiva after they were publicly humiliated. Der'i was repeatedly harassed, often when attempting to pray in synagogues, by Shach 's followers and by religious settlers. Shas followers fought back. On several occasions they beat up those who had harassed Der'i; they also desecrated Ashkenazi synagogues in retaliation. Shas retaliations ultimately served their opponent's cause by escalating the conflict.

The split and conflict within Haredi ranks illustrate the religious transformation of Oriental Jews. For over two decades many secular Oriental groups were founded; they all failed to obtain the support of the populations they claimed to represent and, as a result, collapsed ignominiously. Their failure can be attributed to their obstinate refusal to recognize that the Oriental Jewish communities define themselves primarily in religious terms. The Haredi Shas Party will in the foreseeable future likely remain the sole Oriental political party in Israel. This particular case study may help illustrate the nature of religious transformation of a not fully modernized population.








back to top





Web Editor's Note
This document is reproduced as published. No changes to the text have been made.
Reprinted in accordance with U.S. copyright law.



Alabaster's Archive
Alabaster's Archive