Appearances to the contrary, the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) do not really have voting rights. No Haredi ever experienced the democratic thrill of "Who do I feel like voting for this time?" All the Haredim, with the exception of wayward sinners, have always voted, and will vote until the end of time, for the party their rabbi tells them to vote for.
Like all things in Judaism, education with respect to this important commandment also begins at an early age, even before one has learned to think for oneself. I remember vividly one particular evening - today I know it was during the election campaign of 1984 - when I went with my mother to buy a pair of shoes. On one of the side streets in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood, a few excited children ran over to us and stuffed a lot of little white pieces of paper bearing the Hebrew letter gimmel into my hand. I remember asking my mother what was going on and hearing, for the first time in my life, about the Knesset, the government, the elections and the voting booth. The point is that half a minute before I even knew what elections were, I already had the right ballot in my hand. (Gimmel was the letter representing the Haredi Agudat Israel party and afterward United Torah Judaism.)
A few days later, closer to election day, our whole Haredi neighborhood was plastered with gimmel posters. There wasn't one balcony without a huge gimmel hanging from the laundry-laden clothesline. One Friday, shortly before the last Shabbat preceding the elections, my father tried to pull a fast one. On the balcony of our small home he hung no fewer than three letters: beit (National Religious Party), gimmel and dalet (Poalei Agudat Israel). Treason! The smiling message he wanted to get across by means of this small installation was: Let us unite, we are all Jews, forget Haredim, national-religious people and so forth - it's all the same thing, I am voting for all of them and have a good Shabbat. Nu, how did the "Haredi street" respond to this cordial initiative of unity? A few minutes later, while my father was in the synagogue, a few angry Hasidim knocked on our door and demanded that we remove the disgrace immediately. What, are you making fun of something sacred and important like the elections? One of them even ruled that now, on the holy Shabbat, we must rip down the posters. No less. The next thing was that right there, on the threshold of our house, a theological discussion began about desecration of God's name versus desecration of Shabbat, at the conclusion of which, and with the agreement of all the parties, it was decided that as soon as the third star came out the next evening, and even before performing the havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the onset of the new week, my father would remove the disgrace.
But the election campaign whose very mention generates the thrill of sacred action in everyone who is - or was - connected to the Haredi world is the campaign of 1988. I don't remember who was running for prime minister, or how many seats his party got, but I, along with my generation, will never forget the atmosphere of those historic days. Two-hundred years after the ferocious struggle that split the Orthodox world, between the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and his great opponent (mitnaged), the Vilna Gaon, the war between Hadisim and Mitnagdim flared again, and with tremendous intensity.
Who sparked it? It was Rabbi Schach, the leader of the Lithuanian faction of Agudat Israel, who was angry at the humiliating and contemptuous attitude shown the Torah institutions and the representatives of the Lithuanian yeshivas in the veteran party, and decided to "break the tablets." He established a competing party: Degel Hatorah.
The atmosphere in the founding assembly of Degel Hatorah, which was held in Binyanei Hauma on the last day of the "between-the-times" break in yeshiva study of Sukkot 5748 (1987), was on the brink of ecstasy, as the moderator, Rabbi Yerachmiel Boyer, screamed into the microphone that Rabbi Schach - introduced with the prestigious appellation of maran rosh hayishiveh shalita - was entering the hall. The thousands of yeshiva students who packed the hall and the aisles, and the dozens of elderly yeshiva heads who had been sitting silently on the huge stage, rose to their feet and broke into rapturous song: "Add days to the days of the king, may his years extend through generations."
I have to admit: I was not at that assembly. Everything I am describing is a living memory taken from a small audio cassette that was distributed in thousands of copies a few days after the event. There were no Haredi ratio stations back then, and those who wanted to get a taste of the event waited for the recording, and when it arrived I listened to it in a trance, over and over and over. I was only 12 at the time, but I can still repeat word for word large sections of Rabbi Schach's oration and from the debut sermon of a new and promising star who was discovered that evening: Rabbi Avraham Ravitz.
It is important to understand that until that election campaign, Hasidim and Lithuanians coexisted in wonderful harmony. The historic battle from the time of the Baal Shem Tov was long since forgotten, and each side conducted its life according to its religious doctrine on the basis of mutual respect. And then along came Rabbi Schach and fomented a great rift, which transcended a political split.
What aggravated the situation was the fight for every vote. The Lithuanians' terrible fear was that Degel Hatorah would not get enough votes to enter the Knesset and that they - and Rabbi Schach as their leader - would become a laughingstock. Worse, without Knesset representation, who would look after the interests of the thousands of yeshiva students? The MKs of Agudat Israel, against whom Rabbi Schach had declared war? God have mercy!
A furor in the village
Back, now, to my parents. In the meantime they had left the small Haredi neighborhood in favor of one of the villages established by Poalei Agudat Israel. And here is another brief lesson in Haredi history: The Poalei Agudat Israel (PAI) movement, which is a small Haredi-Zionist sub-party within the veteran Agudat Israel, established some 20 glorious farming communities (such as Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, Moshav Yesodot, Kibbutz Shaalvim and others) in which a distinctive Haredi species resided. Nice-guy, middle-of-the-way Haredim. On the one hand, not inclined to religious compromise, like the National Religious Party types, but on the other hand, not isolating themselves from Zionist- settlement activity, like the Haredim.
In those fateful elections of 1988, PAI ran as part of the Agudat Israel list. And a furor erupted in our PAI village. It was only to be expected that PAI would find its place in Agudat Israel - after all, what connection did it have to the rabbis of Degel Hatorah? What connection did it have with the anti-Zionist world of Rabbi Schach? But still, who would people like my parents vote for, people who lived in a PAI village, but who ideologically and even genetically belonged to the Lithuanian camp? What would they do on judgment day? Would they obey their ideological commitment (Degel Hatorah) or their municipal commitment (Agudat Israel)?
It is hardly necessary to imagine what the patrons of the village in the PAI land-settlement movement would have thought had they opened the small ballot box and discovered that the majority of the residents had voted for the enemy party, Degel Hatorah. After wrestling with the issue at length, my parents decided on a compromise: They would vote for both parties. How? Simple - Dad for Degel, Mom for Aguda (or vice versa).
But in our village there was also a certain Reb Shmuel. He was an old-timer there, one of the founders, and he cared about the place, about its development and about its status - all of which heightened his need to vote for Agudat Israel. On the other hand, though, he was a true admirer of Rabbi Schach and he simply wasn't capable of standing aside in such a critical vote of confidence. So what's the problem, you will ask. Didn't he have a wife? Let them vote for both parties! Well, yes, there was a fine wife, but she couldn't vote. She was born and raised in America, and even after her marriage to Reb Shmuel, she did not bother to take Israeli citizenship. So there was one vote and one election and Reb Shmuel was torn: to whom is my commitment greater - to the builders of the village or to the revered rabbi?
Election day arrived, the hours flew past, the news on the radio reported incidents around the polling stations in Bnei Brak, Hasidim and Lithuanians were jostling for every vote, and Reb Shmuel had still not decided what to do. Six o'clock in the evening and soon the polling station would close, but the evening prayers did not produce the miracle: Heaven did not reveal whom the rabbi should vote for.
And then, in a flash of brilliance, Reb Shmuel understood that only one person in the world could decide the vexing question. He got into his old pickup and sped to Bnei Brak, to Ponevezh Yeshiva, the ascetic home of Rabbi Schach, the rosh yeshiveh (head of the yeshiva). Time was running out fast. The polls would close at 10 and he had to vote the right way.
Rabbi Schach, on one of the most critical days of his life, was doing what he did every day: sitting in his small room in front of the bookstand, a large Gemara before him and a white fluorescent light above him, and studying. One of his grandsons led Reb Shmuel into the room and asked the question for him in Yiddish. The rabbi thought for a moment and immediately replied. When Reb Shmuel heard the answer, he didn't believe it. "The rosh yeshiveh says," the grandson translated, "that it is clear that a commitment of gratitude to the PAI movement must override every other consideration. Go and vote Agudat Israel."
Rabbi Schach died four and a half years ago. But long before that, the dispute had long since disappeared. For the campaigns since then, arrangement committees have been at work: There is a Hasidic candidate, a Lithuanian candidate, a Hasidic candidate, a Lithuanian candidate - and so forth until the 120th slot.
Next Tuesday Degel Hatorah and Agudat Israel will again run together as United Torah Judaism. And I no longer know what type of sacred action stirs the world of today's 12-year-old Haredim.