Two of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel on Tuesday published a joint statement in which they warned that if the government fails to soon find a way to relax coronavirus restrictions and reopen yeshivas, they will consider taking “drastic steps.”
The statement from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein came in response to a report that said there was an unprecedented disagreement between the two over reopening places of religious learning, which have been a major vector of COVID-19 infections.
Channel 12 reported Tuesday 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.
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.
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 or workplaces for prayer.
Outdoor prayer quorums of up to 19 people are also allowed, with two meters between worshipers, wearing masks.
Men were also allowed to attend ritual baths under certain conditions.
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 from 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.
He was also criticized after it was revealed that a charity affiliated with him has been promising donors who pay NIS 3,000 ($836) that they will enjoy immunity from the coronavirus for themselves and their families.
The Bnei Brak-based Kupat Ha’ir organization launched the campaign last month. The group said it has the blessing of Kanievsky and was aiming to raise funds for families affected by the virus in the largely ultra-Orthodox city.
The Kupat Ha’ir website states that any donor who sends a payment of NIS 3,000 — in up to 30 installments — will receive an amulet in addition to an assurance from Kanievsky that “he will not get sick and that there will not be anyone sick in his home.”