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Influential rabbi claims ultra-Orthodox more prone to God’s COVID-19 wrath

Ultra-Orthodox Jews receive harsher punishments for sins than secular Jews, Gershon Edelstein says in latest attempt to blame pandemic on anything but science

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, at his home after lighting Hanukkah candles on December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, at his home after lighting Hanukkah candles on December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

A leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi is claiming that his community is bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic because secular Jews aren’t as prone to divine retribution as the religious, whose sins are judged more harshly by God.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein is a prominent figure in the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy. He serves as the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak and as the chair of the Degel Hatorah political faction’s Council of Torah Sages.

Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel have seen the lion’s share of infections and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, thought to be due to the initial refusal of rabbis, including Edelstein, to endorse social distancing measures and the shutting of synagogues and other religious venues.

According to Edelstein, though, the source of the scourge is the fact that God is punishing the most fervent believers, who are held to a higher standard than others.

In a video address live-streamed from his Bnei Brak home on ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat (Hebrew), Edelstein said that non-observant Jews fall into the category of tinok shenishba, a Jewish legal term referring to someone raised without a religious education.

“They are not guilty,” he asserted. “Their sin is an inadvertent sin” but this does not apply to ultra-Orthodox so the divine “attribute of judgment affects the ultra-Orthodox more.”

The majority of the cities in the top 10 list of per capita cases of infection are predominantly ultra-Orthodox. According to the latest Health Ministry data, there have been 3,592 confirmed cases in Jerusalem, most of them coming from the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, 2,871 confirmed cases in Bnei Brak, 497 in Beit Shemesh and 409 in Modiin Illit.

Edelstein’s city of Bnei Brak was put under a government closure due to the severity of the outbreak, as were ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the cities of Beit Shemesh and Netivot.

Ultra-Orthodox men wearing face shields as a protective measure against the coronavirus study in an outdoor area in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Along with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, widely considered the most influential rabbinic leader in non-Hasidic Orthodoxy, Edelstein initially opposed government efforts to shutter yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox schools as the pandemic began to spread across Israel this March.

Kanievsky asserted that yeshivas could remain open because Torah study offers divine protection for the Haredi community.

While educational institutions and synagogues were later closed and ultra-Orthodox leaders made an about-face and called on their followers to observe government regulations, many Haredim continued to hold clandestine prayer groups and public weddings in violation of social distancing guidelines.

Jewish communities abroad have also been disproportionately affected, with high infection rates in New York’s Hasidic neighborhoods of Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights.

Various rabbis have attempted to grapple with the pandemic in theological terms, offering ideas for protection or casting blame for its spread.

Police officers take ultra-Orthodox men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Last month, the Bnei Brak-based charitable organization Kupat Ha’ir launched a campaign in which, in exchange for an NIS 3,000 donation ($854), a donor would receive an assurance on behalf of Kanievsky that “he will not get sick and that there will not be anyone sick in his home.”

Street posters known in Yiddish as pashkevilim are a common way of communicating in the Haredi community and several such posters have fingered laxity in Torah study and insufficient female modesty as causes of the pandemic.

In early March, Meir Mazuz, an influential Sephardic rabbi, claimed the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world was divine retribution for gay pride parades.

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