Senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis split on response to coronavirus epidemic

Letter sent by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior rabbi of the haredi, non-hassidic world for publication in Yated Neeman newspaper stopped by second most senior leader Rabbi Gershon Edelstein.

Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016 (photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016
(photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
In a highly embarrassing incident for the rabbinic leadership of the ultra-Orthodox (haredi), non-hassidic community, the Yated Neeman newspaper decided not to print a letter by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky calling for ultra-Orthodox schools to reopen, despite the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, following the intervention of his fellow leader Rabbi Gershon Edelstein.
Kanievsky, who is the most senior rabbi of the haredi, non-hassidic world, has been highly reticent to accept the restrictions to religious life resultant from the government social-distancing orders, and just last week called on the government to allow haredi educational institutions to reopen.
Late Monday night, the rabbi’s advisers sent a letter for publication in the haredi daily newspaper Yated Neeman, which serves as the mouthpiece of the sector's rabbis and its political party Degel Hatorah, ruling that these institutions must open for the new school semester.
Kanievsky’s letter, first disclosed in a report by Channel 12 News Tuesday night, was sent to Yated Neeman’s management close to its press time.
But since Edelstein has been relatively strident in his opposition to public prayer and the reopening of educational institutions, senior staff of the newspaper went to his residence in Bnei Brak and requested his opinion on the letter.
Edelstein stated that Kanievsky’s letter should not be published and the newspaper was printed without his ruling.
It appears that the management did so to avoid a situation where Edelstein would feel the need to publish his own letter in the newspaper publicly opposing Kanievsky’s position.
The Yated Neeman management is also comprised of people who were close to the former leader of the haredi, non-hassidic community the late Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, with whom Edelstein was close. 
The incident reflects the tension between the so-called “courts” of advisers and politicos surrounding the two rabbis who advise these leaders and act as gatekeepers for them, deciding who can meet with, advise and consult with the rabbis.
The two rabbis themselves are collegial and not inclined to any public fight. Kanievsky routinely refers questions or requests of a practical nature to Edelstein, saying that he will approve what his colleague says.
Kanievsky is thought to be much less connected to the practicalities of the everyday world, and back in the middle of March when the government closed down all state schools, Kanievsky was videoed in conversation with an adviser stating that he had not actually heard about the coronavirus epidemic at all.
Kanievsky, who is recognized as an unchallenged authority on Jewish law, barely speaks to anyone, however, and replies to questions with one words answers, or on occasion with three or four words.
Edelstein, by contrast, gives lessons and converses freely with those around him.
He has reportedly spoken directly with health officials and senior hospital staff about the coronavirus epidemic, and has been far more skeptical about the resumption of public prayer and schooling due to his ongoing fear that doing so may exacerbate the epidemic and endanger lives.
Kanievsky traditionally remained above the political fray of the haredi world despite his stature as a revered arbiter of Jewish law, and was never part of the Council of Torah Sages of Degel Hatorah.
It was thought that when Shteinman passed away, Edelstein would be the more natural leader with Kanievsky remaining as a more spiritual authority, but it was the latter however who eventually gained acceptance as the leader of the sector.
Following the revelation of the incident, representatives for both Kanievsky and Edelstein issued a joint statement calling the report “false and without basis,” and said that the two rabbis were working in lockstep to deal with the challenges presented by the epidemic to the haredi community.
The statement said that the rabbis have now established a two-man team “to find the right way to open the new [school] semester… which will work in coordination with the MKs of Degel Hatorah and will set out the options to the relevant ministries for opening all institutions as soon as possible.”