Two of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel on Tuesday published a joint statement in which they warned that if the government drags its feet in finding a way to relax coronavirus restrictions and reopen yeshivas, they will consider taking “drastic steps.”
The statement from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein came in response to a report that said there was an unprecedented disagreement between the two over reopening places of religious learning, which have been a major source of Covid-19 infections.
Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Kanievsky, who is arguably the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak with hundreds of thousands of followers, signed off on a letter Monday that was sent to the United Torah Judaism party-affiliated Yeted Ne’eman newspaper calling for yeshiva study halls to be re-opened.
However, under the direction of Edelstein, who is head of the prestigious Ponevezh Yeshiva and also a prominent community leader, the paper chose not to publish the letter, the report said, calling the move an “unprecedented step” in the ultra-Orthodox world.
The report said Edelstein had taken on the role of “the responsible adult” and was standing firm in insisting that the community comply with all coronavirus regulations.
However, several hours after the report, the two rabbis issued a joint statement calling the report “baseless lies,” and said that Edelstein had only held up the publication because he wanted to “clear up some marginal issues” before it went to press.
The statement noted that both leaders were “pained by the halt to Torah study” and eager for it to resume as soon as possible in accordance with virus safety regulations.
The statement said that a team of rabbis was coordinating with UTJ politicians (party leader Yaakov Litzman is health minister) to work with the relevant ministries to find a way “to open the institutions as soon as possible.”
The statement concluded with the warning that Kanievsky and Edelstein have “decided that if there will not be a response, and the foot dragging continues without real progress, the great Torah sages will consider drastic action.”
They did not elaborate.
By March 25, Israel’s rabbinate had ordered all synagogues closed, recommending that people pray outside in small, widely spaced groups. Days later, Kanievsky made an about-face, ruling — according to his inner circle — that Orthodox Jews must pray by themselves and that it was permissible to report synagogues or any other establishment violating government directives. Those breaking the rules had the status of a ”rodef”, a Talmudic term for someone trying to kill another person.