Rabbi Kanievsky, who has COVID, always put Torah study before regulations

Kanievsky has from the onset placed an emphasis on keeping ultra-Orthodox educational institutions open and allowing communal prayer to continue over combatting the public health crisis.

RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY ‘learns about the outside world through his assistants.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY ‘learns about the outside world through his assistants.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On Friday, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 93, the most senior and revered rabbinic leader of the non-hassidic, ultra-Orthodox community, was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Kanievsky, whose instructions and rulings are closely followed by hundreds of thousands of haredi Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, as well as four members of Knesset, has from the outset placed an emphasis on keeping ultra-Orthodox educational institutions open and allowing communal prayer to continue over combating the public health crisis.
Indeed, he has frequently repeated the mantra that “the Torah protects and saves” people from ill health, and therefore insisted ever more strongly on the importance of allowing schools and yeshivas to remain open, despite the risks.
One important caveat is that Kanievsky, like many top ultra-Orthodox leaders, has a group of close associates, in his case his grandsons, who determine who is allowed to speak with the rabbi, what information he receives, and likely have strong influence over his decisions.
Kanievsky also has an exceedingly terse manner of expression, rarely speaking more than a one- or two-word answer.
He is also famously utterly immersed in Torah study and the world of the Talmud, so much so that on March 19, when the first wave of COVID-19 infections was at its height and he was asked by his grandson if schools and yeshivas should close, he said he had not heard about the pandemic.
He subsequently ordered all educational institutions to remain open and refused requests to close them down until the winter semester ended for the Passover holiday.
He has never backed away from this stance.
Although the rabbi, together with his partner in the leadership of the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, did issue a series of stricter instructions regarding communal prayer and observance of government health regulations ahead of Passover, he never insisted that synagogues close and has always advocated keeping schools and yeshivas open.
Even while the country was still under lockdown at the end of April when the new term for schools and yeshivas was about to start, Kanievsky still sought to give instructions to reopen them regardless of the government ban on the opening of educational institutions.
In an embarrassing internal clash with Edelstein, who has been far more inclined to restrict yeshiva study and communal prayer, Kanievsky sent a letter to the ultra-Orthodox daily newspaper Yated Ne’eman giving instructions to reopen schools and yeshivas, but the paper refused to publish it.
In July, when infection rates nationally were already approaching 2,000 cases a day, Kanievsky instructed the four MKs of Degel Hatorah, the party representing the non-hassidic community in the United Torah Judaism faction, to resist any closure of educational institutions.
“The merit of Torah study in schools and yeshivas is what protects and guards us from danger,” he insisted.
And in the middle of August when there were around 1,600 cases a day, said all parents must send their children to school or yeshiva without any exemption.
On September 2, Kanievsky even gave instructions to yeshivas to stop arranging coronavirus tests for students believed to have the virus, arguing that doing so would result in so many students being sent into isolation that yeshivas would have to close.
It remains to be seen what exactly will transpire on October 19 when the yeshiva and ultra-Orthodox winter semester is supposed to restart, but it is almost certain that Kanievsky will instruct them to open and for students to attend.
The fact that he himself has been infected with COVID-19 is unlikely to change his direction, and will likely not alter the mindset of his community, especially if he emerges from the disease without serious ill effects, as his associates say they are confident he will.
Furthermore, although the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community that he heads has been relatively compliant with government health instructions, the relatively few number of dead from the disease so far has led some to believe that the almost total rejection of health regulations by the hassidic community is now a better model.
It appears likely that Kanievsky’s doctrine of “The Torah protects and saves” is set to persist among his followers for the time being, with all the accompanying complications that may bring to the country at large.