The coronavirus cabinet authorized local lockdowns on Thursday in “red towns,” or those with the highest rate of COVID-19 infection. These include Bnei Berak, Elad, Beitar Ilit and Beit Shemesh, where half of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population resides. The lockdowns include closing the education system, but don’t expect the Haredi yeshivas there to shut their doors. Even if the ultra-Orthodox politicians fail to get the government to exempt them, no police officers will be sent to force a yeshiva to close.
Haredi leaders already drew their red line on Wednesday, when they got behind the instructions of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who told them not to test the students boarding in their yeshivas for COVID-19 for the current 40-day term, so as not to disrupt studies there. The 92-year-old rabbi, who is widely recognized as the main spiritual leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, gave similar instructions in March. When the government ordered schools across Israel to close, Kanievsky said that all the Haredi places of learning should continue as normal.
As the first wave of the coronavirus spread, disproportionately impacting Bnei Brak and other Haredi areas, other rabbis contradicted Kanievsky in a rare move, and ordered yeshivas and synagogues to comply with the government's restrictions and close their doors. Although the current second wave is much more devastating, that precedent will not be repeated now.
During the first wave, Haredi apologists tried to blame a failure of communication, saying that the government had not made an effort to inform and educate their community, which is not exposed to the mainstream media and doesn’t use the internet. Those excuses are no longer available. The ultra-Orthodox are now as aware of the pandemic as any other Israelis, perhaps even more so, as they have suffered many more casualties from it. This time around, the decision by the Haredi leadership, rabbis and politicians to set their own rules was made with full cognizance of the risks involved.
It may be difficult for non-Haredi Israelis to digest this decision, but it isn’t inherently different from similar decisions by politicians who have to weigh and manage the risks of utilizing the blunt instrument of a lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 against the heavy costs to the national economy and mental health of their citizens. As far as the Haredi leadership is concerned, closing down yeshivas carries a far greater risk than infection.
It makes perfect sense from the rabbis’ perspective. For the past 73 years, they have built their own autonomy within Israel, with the blessing of all the elected governments. Over the decades, the state has not interfered. It hasn’t insisted that the ultra-Orthodox teach their children necessary skills for the modern workplace. It hasn’t forced young Haredi men and women to enlist in the IDF. It hasn’t acted to safeguard the rights of women or of Mizrahi and Black members within the Haredi community. Why should the rabbis now allow the state to dictate whether or not to close their places of learning? Five and a half months ago, they let it happen due to the initial shock of the first wave. It was a dangerous precedent for them that must not be repeated.
The Haredi backlash has taken different forms in recent weeks. Thousands of Belz Hasidim defied restrictions and took part in the wedding of their rabbi’s grandson in Jerusalem. The Bratslav Hasidim insisted they be allowed to fly to Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nahman’s grave in Uman, with support from the Haredi politicians, who usually have little patience for the relatively small and anarchistic Bratslav sect. It was an act of principle – no government, and certainly not coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who is already being set up as the national scapegoat, will decide on matters that are central to their beliefs and way of life.
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Whether it's studying Torah in yeshivas throughout the 40 days of the Elul term, physically taking part in a rebbe’s family event, or spending Rosh Hashanah at Rabbi Nachman’s grave, giving up on any of these threatens Haredi autonomy more than the damage to the health – and even the loss of life – of its community members. It endangers this autonomy’s very existence.
For Haredi men, from the age of 13 onwards, the arrival at the yeshiva’s bet midrash (study hall) on the first day of the Elul month of mercy and repentance, the moment the mashgiach (spiritual advisor) knocks on his lectern and calls out “Elul,” the hubbub of study-pairs discussing the Talmud, raising to a crescendo as Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur grow nearer, are a fundamental experience. It binds them to what the late Professor Menachem Friedman termed “the learners’ society,” which is the essence of post-war ultra-Orthodox communal existence.
Repeating the sequence annually is essential for maintaining their society. The rabbis also can't allow a re-run of the summer term, during which many yeshivas remained closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and many of their students forwent studying at home to go hiking. They are aware of how tenuous their hold is on this younger generation, many of whom already defy their strictures, own smartphones and are much more aware of what’s happening in the outside world than their fathers were. It’s not just about Torah study as a value and a divine mission. If they are not studying together in yeshiva and taking part in communal rituals, the glue that holds the community together and ensures it abides by the rabbis’ rulings will continue to weaken.
The rift between the Haredi leadership and Gamzu cannot be bridged. The emerging media narrative of a personal conflict between the rabbis and the “disrespectful” coronavirus czar is of course convenient for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud ministers, who are eager to lay the blame for their mishandling of the pandemic on someone else's shoulders. But even when Gamzu resigns, which now seems inevitable, and someone else is prepared to accept his poisoned chalice, the same fundamental discord will exist. There is no room for agreement between a medical authority whose concern is for the health of the entire Israeli public, and those who are determined to guarantee their autonomy, their right to calculate risks and their right to make up the rules for themselves.