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After apparent spat, top ultra-Orthodox rabbis announce yeshivas not reopening

Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, who reportedly previously disagreed on matter, tell their Lithuanian sect studies to be held as normally as possible from home

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (front R) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Front C) attend a rally of the UTJ party to support the candidacy of Moshe Lion ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections on October 25, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (front R) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Front C) attend a rally of the UTJ party to support the candidacy of Moshe Lion ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections on October 25, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Two of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel published a joint letter Thursday night saying yeshivas will not be reopened at this time, after one of them reportedly wanted to open them and after the pair warned earlier this week of “drastic steps” if the government fails to soon find a way to relax coronavirus restrictions.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the two most senior leaders of the Lithuanian Haredi sect, said the summer yeshiva term for men that begins Sunday would be studied at home instead.

Seminary students are required to hold at home the three daily studying sessions normally held at the yeshiva. Those who need to help with housework can study just two sessions, they said.

The rabbis said they couldn’t issue specific instructions for those who study in “kollel” yeshivas for married men, who likely have a family and kids to help look after. “The great responsibility will lie with the students alone,” they said.

They added that the home studies should resemble the regular studies as much as possible, with fixed times and topics, a designated room and study in pairs — either with a family member or with a friend by phone.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on December 26, 2019. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

A report said Tuesday that there had been an unprecedented disagreement between the two rabbis over reopening places of religious learning, which have been a major vector of COVID-19 infections.

Channel 12 reported that Kanievsky, seen as the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel with hundreds of thousands of followers, signed off on a letter Monday that was sent to the United Torah Judaism party-affiliated Yated Ne’eman newspaper calling for yeshiva study halls to be reopened.

However, under the direction of Edelstein, who is head of the prestigious Ponevezh Yeshiva and also a prominent community leader, the paper chose not to publish the letter, the report said, calling the move an “unprecedented step” in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponovitz Yeshiva, seen at his home after lightning the candles on the fourth night of Hanukkah, in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The report said Edelstein had taken on the role of “the responsible adult” and was standing firm in insisting that the community comply with all coronavirus regulations.

However, several hours after the report, the two rabbis issued a joint statement calling it “baseless lies,” and said that Edelstein had only held up the publication because he wanted to “clear up some marginal issues” before it went to press.

The statement noted that both leaders were “pained by the halt to Torah study” and eager for it to resume as soon as possible in accordance with virus safety regulations.

The statement said that a team of rabbis was coordinating with UTJ politicians (party leader Yaakov Litzman is health minister) to work with the relevant ministries to find a way “to open the institutions as soon as possible.”

The statement concluded with the warning that Kanievsky and Edelstein have “decided that if there will not be a response, and the foot dragging continues without real progress, the great Torah sages will consider drastic action.”

They did not elaborate.

The warning comes following several sometimes violent demonstrations among Haredi communities against the coronavirus restrictions that saw synagogues, schools and yeshivas closed and prayer quorums banned. There has also been widespread anger after strict closures were imposed on the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem neighborhoods, which were the worst affected by the virus.

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, following a protest against the coronavirus restrictions, April 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last week the government eased some restrictions.

Under the latest guidelines Jerusalem and Bnei Brak residents will now be under the same restrictions as the rest of the country, which keep them within 100 meters of their homes, with exceptions for purchasing food and supplies, exercising and going to work. People are also allowed to go 500 meters beyond their own homes for work or prayer.

Outdoor prayer quorums of up to 19 people are also allowed, with two meters between worshipers, and the wearing of masks.

Men were also allowed to attend ritual baths under certain conditions.

Illustrative: Jewish men pray outside a synagogue in the city of Beitar Illit, in the West Bank, March 29, 2020 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

However, synagogues and yeshivas, which were found to have been major sources of infection at the start of the crisis, are still closed.

Kanievsy has faced criticism over his handling of the crisis.

He made headlines on March 12 when, despite appeals from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israel Police, he insisted that yeshivas and schools remain open in defiance of government calls to close them, handing down a ruling stating that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

Footage of the barely audible 92-year-old rabbi giving his prognosis suggested that he did not completely understand the magnitude of his decision, with his grandson having to explain what the coronavirus was in the first place.

But the decision was respected by his inner circle and was a key factor in keeping thousands of his followers in crowded synagogues and yeshiva study halls for two further weeks, allowing the virus to spread rapidly through the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly in Bnei Brak.

By March 25, Israel’s rabbinate had ordered all synagogues closed, recommending that people pray outside in small, widely spaced groups. Days later, Kanievsky made an about-face, ruling — according to his inner circle — that Orthodox Jews must pray by themselves and that it was permissible to report synagogues or any other establishment violating government directives. Those breaking the rules had the status of a rodef, a Talmudic term for someone trying to kill another person.

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