Opinion

Israeli Health Minister's Cure for COVID-19? The Messiah

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, also head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, at a press conference in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, also head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, at a press conference in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

“We are praying and hoping that the Messiah will arrive before Passover, the time of our redemption. I am sure that the Messiah will come and bring us out as [God] brought us out of Egypt. Soon we will go out in freedom and the Messiah will come and redeem us from all the troubles of the world.”

This remark was made by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman last week, after Yaniv Kalif of the Hebrew-language news website Hamal asked him whether Israelis will be forced to remain under lockdown until the holiday, which begins April 8. Litzman’s ignorant answer was not met with uproar.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

Is it reasonable for a religious man, a member of the Gur Hasidic community, one of the most conservative Jewish communities in the world, to head the Health Ministry as it faces the biggest crisis Israel has ever known?

It goes without saying that the solution to this crisis will, of necessity, come from science, an area of human knowledge to which Gur Hasidim are less than sympathetic.

The truth is that Litzman’s unfortunate comment flew under the radar because Israel has always followed a twisted hierarchy: Religion is superior to secularism, and religious actions are more important than secular ones.

In normal times, this narrative leads to infuriating nationwide directives: We are subordinate to kashrut laws that raise the cost of living and make us captive to corrupt kashrut supervisors. Two parties prohibit half of the population from running for the Knesset on their slates, and not even the High Court of Justice has been able to force them to do so. For these same religious reasons, civil marriages are prohibited in Israel.

Even in times of crisis, religion rules. Secular group activities, including those with fewer than 10 participants, are shut down without a second thought and without asking too many questions. No studies, no extracurricular activities, no public readings, no foreign-language courses, no cultural events. But group worship is still kosher. Not even data showing that over a third of the coronavirus patients who were diagnosed with the illness last weekend had visited synagogues made a difference.

In Israel today, Jewish collective prayer outweighs even pikuah nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any religious rule.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Litzman believes relief will come from the Messiah, but it is surprising to find out that the Israel Police also believe this. According to an internal police document obtained by Haaretz (Josh Breiner and Ido Efrati, March 22), officers had orders to let up to 20 people gather in a synagogue for worship, despite Health Ministry emergency regulations capping public gatherings at 10 people – as long as they are secular, presumably.

The police responded that the document was only a draft and stressed that the 20-person clause refers to religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals rather than regular services.

In one of the last speeches he gave before his death, Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Last Chance to See,” said: “Religion ... has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. ... [W]e are used to not challenging religious ideas. ... Yet when you look at it rationally, there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.”

Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to challenge religious assumptions and open them up to debate, just as we do with secular activities. These are matters of life and death, as well as intolerable discrimination that has gone on for too long.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of this happening is less than that of the Messiah coming to save us from the coronavirus before the start of Passover.

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