COVID-19 underlines rabbis control over ultra-Orthodox, not the state

Less than two weeks ago, Netanyahu phoned Kanievsky junior to implore that his grandfather, for the first time during the pandemic, call for schools in the ultra-Orthodox sector to be closed.

Hundreds of haredi protesters blocked the Sarei Yisrael-Jaffa intersection on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. (photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Hundreds of haredi protesters blocked the Sarei Yisrael-Jaffa intersection on Tuesday, December 22, 2020.
On Monday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted his second phone call of the last two weeks to discuss COVID-19 policy with a 30-year-old man who has not been elected to any public office, heads no government department and has no professional medical qualifications.
That man is Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of one of the most senior haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis in the world, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and widely considered to be the political force behind the throne of his grandfather’s great Torah scholarship.
Less than two weeks ago, Netanyahu phoned the younger Kanievsky to implore that his grandfather, for the first time during the pandemic, call for schools in the haredi sector to be closed during the current lockdown.
The rabbi reluctantly acquiesced, having fought such a closure ever since the coronavirus began to take hold in Israel in March, insisting that the metaphysical protection of Torah study afforded the Jewish people by children studying Torah in haredi schools was more important in combating the virus than social distancing.
Instead, Kanievsky sufficed with a brief statement by a spokesman, citing Yanki’s conversation with Netanyahu that his grandfather had indeed given his assent to a school shutdown.
But Yanki said his grandfather had agreed to the closure “for a few days,” and with two weeks of the closure almost up, Netanyahu is now clearly concerned that haredi schools will reopen next week while schools in the rest of the country will remain closed following the lockdown extension.
Kanievsky is not the only rabbi the prime minister has beseeched to keep haredi schools shuttered, having made calls to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe and United Torah Judaism MK Ya’acov Litzman, who represents the Gerrer Hassidim and reports to the Gerrer Rebbe.
All of this begs the question: Who actually is in charge, the rabbis or the government?
To a large extent, and as has become clear in the months since COVID-19 first arrived in Israel, the answer in everything that relates to the haredi community is clearly the rabbis.
Belzer hassidim continued to pray and celebrate as usual from the outset of the pandemic, Vizhnitzer hassidim congregated in a similar fashion, and tens of thousands of families sent their children to school when Kanievsky told them to, in the largest incident of civil disobedience in the country’s history. The extremist Eda Haredit communal organization defied most regulations on the orders of their rabbinic leadership, as did the radical Jerusalem Faction.
Even those who complied to a greater extent with the COVID-19 regulations, such as the Gerrer Hassidim, did so due to the orders of the Gerrer Rebbe and not the government.
The incident in October when tens of thousands of haredi children in the non-hassidic sector went to school despite the second lockdown was perhaps the greatest demonstration of the community’s adherence to the principle of Da’at Torah (Torah knowledge) and the Torah injunction to strictly adhere to the rulings of judges and priests above those of the government.
Da’at Torah is the relatively modern concept in ultra-Orthodox Judaism: that great Torah scholars have an innate ability to make the right decisions on temporary matters regardless of their lack of expertise on such issues.
The principle has been applied to all walks of modern life, such as who to vote for, whether to install an Internet connection or buy a smartphone, which school to send your children to and whether to send your children to school during a pandemic.
When combined with the Torah command to do exactly as instructed by judges and priests, in modern times interpreted to refer to rabbis, the result is that the rabbinic leadership of the haredi community has a great deal more authority over its people than the government.
To a large extent, however, this autonomy has existed for a long time.
Prof. Benjamin Brown, a lecturer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Jewish Thought, said even during normal times, the haredi community has several areas of autonomy.
Men from the sector are legally not obligated to serve in the IDF as all other Jewish men are, haredi schools are not required to teach core curriculum studies in school, members of the community go to rabbinical courts to resolve civil matters, and free-loan funds provide financial services and other resources to the community.
In addition, the extremist communities of the Eda Haredit, present in radical neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, have for a long time been somewhat extraterritorial for law-enforcement agencies that enter and carry out enforce laws only when absolutely necessary.
These features of autonomy have been present for decades, and it is the severe health and social crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has highlighted the phenomenon, Brown said.
The state’s relationship with the community can return to normal without too much damage once the pandemic abates, he said.
The autonomy enjoyed by the sector is not especially dangerous to the state, Brown said, adding that it would be more problematic to try and dissolve it by force, bearing in mind the sectors of Israeli society where the government’s writ similarly does not extend entirely.
“If the state interferes in the internal business of the Arabs, the Bedouin, the Druze and the haredim, it will get into too many clashes, which we don’t want,” he said.
Despite this situation, the large degree of independence the haredi sector apparently enjoys from the central government does presage problems for the future, problems that have also been the source of conflict for several decades.
Given the rapid growth of the community and the blanket exemptions from military service it enjoys, will the IDF have enough manpower when the haredi community is 40% of the Jewish population in 2065.
And how will the country survive economically if just 50% of haredi men are employed, and when the overwhelming majority of such men do not get a basic primary and high-school education?
It is possible and even likely that the autonomy of the haredi community during the COVID-19 pandemic will not have a devastating effect on Israel as the country looks set to avoid the heavy mortality rates seen in other countries given the mass vaccination program currently underway.
But looking into the future, the independence of the community from central government authority and its adherence to the instructions of its rabbis above those of the country’s political leadership could spell more severe trouble for the Jewish state.