Israeli Haredi Leader Calls Deadly Mount Meron Stampede a 'Divine Decree'

Leader of Hasidic sect, whose followers illegally built a walkway where dozens died while celebrating a religious festival, claims the tragedy is 'far beyond human comprehension'

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Medical responders at the site of the disaster at Mount Meron in April.
Medical responders at the site of the disaster at Mount Meron in April.Credit: Reuters
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

The leader of a Hasidic sect whose members illegally constructed the walkway where 45 people were crushed to death during a religious festival in the northern city of Meron this spring has called the tragedy a "divine decree beyond human comprehension."

He also appeared to call into question the necessity of an investigation, according to a report in an ultra-Orthodox publication and a letter he wrote to his followers. 

"We can’t understand Hashem’s [God’s] decrees, but our job isn’t to figure it out. Our job is to awaken and strengthen ourselves [spiritually],” Rabbi Dovid Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect, was quoted as telling one of his close followers in a profile published in the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpacha.

The follower told the magazine that Rabbi Kohn had been in “terrible distress, as if he were somehow responsible” for the tragedy, which occurred after visitors to Meron began slipping on the metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway, which had been illegally constructed by Toldos Aharon to enforce gender separation at the site.

The pilgrimage site is usually overcrowded during  the festival, when responsibility for events is shared among a number of Hasidic groups, with no single authority responsible for  overall oversight.

Speaking with the Ynet news site after the tragedy, Shlomo Levy, the former head of the Merom Hagalil regional council, the local government in the area, claimed that prior efforts to address safety issues at the site had been rebuffed.

"It's impossible to move a stone there without running into this or that Hasdic group, and if you do move something there, half an hour later, you get a phone call from Jerusalem,” he quipped.

Addressing the state commission of inquiry into the disaster two weeks ago, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, police commander for the Northern District, said that safety at the site had been “neglected for years, with no division of responsibility, no regulation, and decisions weren't made.”

But while investigators have focused on more prosaic concerns, such as the proximate causes of the tragedy, Rabbi Kohn has struggled with issues of theodicy, Mishpacha reported, describing him as “hiding out, and learning” Torah and contemplating the fact that God’s providence “is far beyond human comprehension.”

In a letter to followers, the rabbi asserted that there is no solution other than belief, explaining that “there is no place here for understanding” and that belief “and the very limitedness of human understanding are not compatible.”

It took nearly two months for the government to establish an official state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, which was staunchly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties despite the fact that the victims were overwhelmingly Haredi.

According to the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news website, Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev told colleagues at a United Torah Judaism Knesset faction meeting following the tragedy that if a state commission is established, “there will be people whom we know are liable to be harmed, people at the Religious Affairs Ministry, people who are responsible for the festivities; there are people who are responsible for Meron.”

In another accident roughly two weeks after the Meron disaster, two people were killed and dozens injured at a Shavuot service after bleachers collapsed at a crowded synagogue construction site in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev near Jerusalem. The event went ahead despite warnings that the site was unsafe.

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