When funerals are fatal

Ultra-Orthodox crowds at 2 rabbis’ funerals were ‘helpless’ in the face of the ‘divine decree,’ an MK suggested. But helplessness is not an option when the consequences are deadly

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Ultra-Orthodox Jews carry the body of Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik during his funeral in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. The mass ceremony took place despite the country's health regulations banning large public gatherings, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews carry the body of Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik during his funeral in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. The mass ceremony took place despite the country's health regulations banning large public gatherings, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

So what should we do? How should we respond, as a state struggling to beat a deadly pandemic, when a sizable minority of our citizens knowingly endanger their own lives and consequently the lives of the rest of us?

The past few weeks, as Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive has gathered pace — three million, a third of the populace, have had their first shot, and more than half of those have had our second shots too — a minority of the 12% of the population who identify as ultra-Orthodox has defied the national lockdown. Many schools and yeshivas have been open as usual. Intermittent police efforts to impose the law have been met, on occasion, by protest gatherings and acts of violence by a minority within the minority.

The breaching of social-distance rules has inevitably raised contagion rates within the community, in turn exacerbating the spread of the virus beyond ultra-Orthodox areas, heightening the strain on an overextended national health service, causing avoidable deaths.

The insistent flouting of regulations by this minority within the ultra-Orthodox minority has dragged the so-called Orthodox/secular divide — actually the ultra-Orthodox/non-ultra-Orthodox divide — back to the forefront of tense national discourse.

Increasingly angry non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis fume that the country is in extended lockdown, the economy is in freefall, the kids are home from school, and the contagion rates are still high, in part because an obdurate minority is keeping its schools open and gathering en masse for festivals, prayers, weddings and funerals. Worse still, runs the complaint, the rest of Israel is financing this deliberate harm, since taxpayers’ money funds the social welfare payments on which the ultra-Orthodox community heavily relies; the rest of Israel is allowing the ultra-Orthodox community to largely duck out of military and/or national service; the rest of Israel is indulging the ultra-Orthodox males who study rather than work, and so on.

Outside Israel, similar defiance of lockdown rules by some in the ultra-Orthodox community is sparking and exacerbating anti-Semitism.

If last week saw new heights of violence — with a small number of ultra-Orthodox extremists torching two buses in Bnei Brak and targeting the light rail in Jerusalem — Sunday saw new heights of defiance: Hours apart, two Jerusalem funerals of leading rabbis, both dead of COVID-19, drew thousands of ultra-Orthodox participants, many maskless, to densely crowded processions.

Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner attends an event in Jerusalem on June 13, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

Some leading ultra-Orthodox sages had specifically urged followers to stay at home, and made clear that they would not be attending. The latter of the two deceased sages, indeed, had specifically ruled in favor of compliance with coronavirus regulations. In ostensibly honoring Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, his mourners were directly disobeying him.

Senior police officers had been negotiating with the relevant ultra-Orthodox leaders in the hours before both funerals, pleading with them to urge followers to stay home — to no avail, or next to no avail.

That “only 4,000” mourners gathered to bid farewell to Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik showed the “restraint” that the community was exercising, one participant in his funeral told Israeli television. For Soloveitchik was a giant of his age, whose wisdom had directly impacted tens of thousands of students, and whose passing would ordinarily have drawn crowds many, many times larger. (The police estimate was actually 10,000.)

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

One feels no small amount of sympathy for the police, reasonably expected by most Israelis to ensure that the lockdown laws are equitably enforced all across Israeli society, but in practice undermined by a governing coalition some of whose Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox MKs have openly sided with the lockdown protesters.

One can also well understand the explanations proffered by police officers on Sunday for why they didn’t forcefully disperse the mass funerals. “There would certainly have been bloodshed,” a Jerusalem district police commander, Ofer Shumer, stated flatly. “And we won’t spill blood in order to enforce the lockdown restrictions.” Shumer noted that there were lots of children at the Soloveitchik funeral — he estimated at least 1,000 boys aged 10 to 14 — and said there was simply no question of the cops sending in officers on horseback or resorting to tear gas or water cannons in such a circumstance.

Sadly, I have had to attend many such funerals recently because of COVID-19

He was on somewhat weaker ground when it was put to him that the police had indeed utilized a water cannon at a demonstration against Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street the night before — the latest in a long series of such protests where demonstrators do largely wear masks and where efforts to maintain social distancing are complicated by the cops placing barriers to hem in the permitted demonstration area. “We are professionals… The police force is doing excellent work,” Shumer said by way of response. “Every sector of the populace has its own characteristics… This is not simple work… There is no perfect solution.”

Explaining why he had broken the law to attend Soloveitchik’s funeral, participant Nathan Rozenblum sounded almost helpless. The rabbi had been a Torah giant, a yeshiva head for decades, who simply had to be honored in this way, he told a Channel 12 reporter.

“Sadly, I have had to attend many such funerals recently because of COVID-19,” Rozenblum added.

I don’t know about you, but I’m unable to get my head around that sentence.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner, who died from COVID-19, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

So what is Israel to do? Plainly it would help if Netanyahu were to give weight to his declaration Sunday that “a gathering is a gathering is a gathering… It doesn’t matter if it’s ultra-Orthodox, secular people or Arabs.” For a start, he should discipline the ultra-Orthodox members of his government who have castigated the police for trying to enforce the law.

But should the cops be arresting funeral participants, or the rabbis who encourage mass gatherings, or the school principals and yeshiva heads who flout the rules? Should they be issuing more fines to an impoverished community? Should COVID sufferers who seek medical assistance be asked whether they’ve been defying lockdown, or been to any rabbis’ funerals lately, and turned away if the answer is yes?

Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik attends an event in Jerusalem on August 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an Israel Radio interview on Sunday afternoon, Yitzhak Cohen, a deputy minister from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was asked why so many ultra-Orthodox Jews had defied the law by attending the Soloveitchik funeral. “There are some divine decrees that simply render the [God-fearing] public helpless,” he said. “The death of the ‘greatest of the generation’ at 99, such an important Jew,” was such an event, he said.

Even at the cost, he was pressed, of ignoring the foundational Jewish requirement to protect your life and the lives of others? “I have no explanation for this,” he said, sounding profoundly troubled. “They know [the religious requirement to safeguard life], believe me.”

Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen (Flash90)

Why not mourn at home, when the COVID-19 contagion is already so high in the ultra-Orthodox community? “I have no explanation for this,” Cohen repeated unhappily. “The emotion, the admiration” for Soloveitchik was apparently too deep,” he suggested. “Reality is stronger than anything else.”

Hours later came the funeral for Scheiner, a venerated sage of a different stature; nonetheless, thousands, again, evidently could not resist participating.

To me, the notion of crowded masses of devotees knowingly endangering their lives and the lives of others to pay personal last respects to a departed sage during a pandemic is the antithesis of life-affirming Judaism. I have to conclude that some of my fellow Jews think very differently about life and death and spirituality, about the core principles of our shared faith. And I don’t imagine anything anybody says or does or threatens to do right now is going to greatly change that.

Nonetheless, a shared responsibility for each other’s well-being has to prevail. Israel’s political leaders, its religious authorities and its law enforcement officers must urgently work together to ensure that happens, before the yawning ultra-Orthodox/non-ultra-Orthodox divide widens further, with still more deadly repercussions.

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