Analysis |

Israel's Leading Rabbi Thinks Not Studying Torah Is More Dangerous Than Coronavirus

In the U.S., the ultra-Orthodox accept the state powers and play by the rules – but in Israel, they're so focused on maintaining their autonomy that they don’t care if they turn into a public health threat over the coronavirus

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during Purim celebrations in Bnei Brak, March 10, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during Purim celebrations in Bnei Brak, March 10, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Schools were closed for the second day across Israel and the night before, the government had prohibited gatherings of over 10 people. But at noon on Sunday at Ohel Shimon, a Hasidic yeshiva in central Jerusalem, it was business as usual. “No one told us about any changes,” said one of the black-garbed teenagers as he sauntered out of the study hall.

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Just like at Ohel Shimon, in hundreds of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, Torah academies and hayders, or Haredi primary schools, study continued as normal. Other religious education streams had closed down, but most of the institutions linked to the main Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox groups were ignoring the government’s orders. And they had backing.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the 92-year-old maran, most senior of the Lithuanian rabbis who uphold the standards of ultra-Orthodox ideology and piety, had decided that suspending Torah study, even for one day, was a greater risk to the survival of the Jewish people, even to the very existence of the world, than the fears of infection from the new coronavirus. Not all the senior rabbis agreed with Kanievsky’s choice. But few dared voice objections once his ruling was published – not even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is dependent on Kanievsky’s goodwill for his minority coalition. (Netanyahu was eventually forced to allow them to keep their schools open, while studying in groups of 10, in return for at least closing the dormitories).

It didn’t matter that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman himself is an ultra-Orthodox politician. He certainly isn’t one to uphold medical ethics above the rabbis’ edicts. And Netanyahu, who has taken to lecturing Israelis on everything from how to blow their noses to how to kiss in the days of coronavirus, won’t say a word. On Sunday afternoon he actually found the time to meet with the rabbis’ representatives in the vain hope of changing their minds.

In some places, police arrived at (usually smaller) Haredi schools and imposed closures. But by and large, those that chose to do so remained open. It’s as if the majority of the population is obeying the Israeli government’s policy of social distancing and self-imposed isolation, while a minority living in a hundred towns and neighborhoods across the country is acting upon the opposite policy of the British government, where people are allowed to continue gathering in the hope of promoting “herd immunity.”

Kanievsky and the rabbis who agree with him have a firm base for their conduct. Torah magna u’matzla – Torah protects and saves. If the children of Israel are studying, nothing can harm them. And if they do so on the orders of a holy rabbi, then the tzadik orders and God follows. Who are we to tell them otherwise? Do the doctors know what they’re doing? And anyway, the shopping malls and supermarkets are still full. So why should the yeshivas close?

But what about the strictures of pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) that are supposed to supersede any other mitzvah? Why have Haredi rabbis in the United States decided otherwise and closed down synagogues and study? But it’s not the same. In the U.S., the rabbis recognize the non-Jewish local, state and federal governments. In Israel they don’t. They have built an autonomy which lives by its own rules, and no one can interfere with that.

Despite what many secular Israelis believe and their politicians claim, the ultra-Orthodox leadership is not really trying to impose the rules of halakha, or Jewish religious law, on all of Israel. They know that for the foreseeable future – and despite their high birth rate – they are destined to remain a minority. What they want, and have effectively received from all Israeli governments since the state’s establishment, is an autonomy. And what’s more, since Likud’s rise to power in 1977 and its coalitions with the growing ultra-Orthodox parties, they’ve also got the state budget to pay for it.

Not only is their Torah learning the reason we all exist, but they claim that they are keeping alive the “real tradition” of our grandparents – the world destroyed in the Holocaust. This is of course a historical fallacy. Ultra-Orthodoxy has existed for less than three centuries and is not much older than the Reform movement. At no point in time were all Jews religiously devout and there were never more than a few thousand men studying in the yeshivas. Jews had to work for a living. But it’s the myth they have built their present-day reality upon. It’s all they have.

For rabbis like Kanievsky, who have spent their entire lives building this autonomy, it’s not just about resurrecting an imagined pre-Holocaust world. It’s also about not setting a precedent. How can they accept the opinions of the medical professionals and the secular officials over their beliefs? It would be the thin edge of the wedge, an intrusion into their autonomy.

Israelis have rarely paid attention to what is happening within the Haredi autonomy. There is certainly rancor over the fact that the young men of the community do not serve in the Israeli army and that taxpayers’ money goes to subsidize the autonomy, but as far as what happens inside, Israelis have been content to allow the ultra-Orthodox to lead their lives of poverty as they see fit. Inside that autonomy, children are not taught the most basic skills for their livelihoods. Sexual assault rarely goes reported (though in some parts of the community there has been change). Women are forced to marry at nineteen and bear a dozen children, and if they need a divorce, they are often held in miserable limbo by rabbinical courts.

Finally Israel is beginning to notice what is happening in the Haredi autonomy, when its insistence on living by its own rules risks becoming a threat to the general public’s health. Where have Israelis been until now?

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