One of the principal battles at present within the government over what new restrictions to impose due to the massive spike in COVID-19 infections is whether or not to close synagogues on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
The political dispute comes as new COVID-19 cases in the Jewish state hit 7,000 on Tuesday, with Yom Kippur, on which day-long prayer services are usually conducted in synagogues, starting on Sunday night.
But regardless of whatever decision is taken, it is highly unlikely that any order to shutter synagogues over Yom Kippur will be effective in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Large sections of the sector have for several months stopped adhering to social distancing regulations, while the high population density in many ultra-Orthodox cities means that finding enough open spaces to conduct prayer services outdoors for everyone is practically impossible.
Benny Rabinowitz, a prominent ultra-Orthodox commentator and journalist, said there was “no way” that prayer services could be moved outdoors entirely, and that any such policy would have required several months’ preparation to arrange the necessary logistics.
“Where in Bnei Brak is there enough outdoor space, where are the chairs, where is the shade, it’s not possible,” he said.
He acknowledged that many hassidic communities have for many months not been adhering to any coronavirus restrictions, and that thousands of hassidim had gathered in the various hassidic communities to pray indoors without masks or distancing over Rosh Hashanah.
The non-hassidic so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community has generally been more compliant with the restrictions and employed social-distancing in synagogues with mask wearing, but nevertheless continued to pray inside synagogues.
The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community has behaved in a similar manner.
Moshe Weisberg, editor of the B’hadrei Haredim ultra-Orthodox news website, says likewise that a closure order of synagogues on Yom Kippur will be widely violated.
He estimated that at least 80% of the ultra-Orthodox community, including the hassidim and various extremist factions, have not been obeying social distancing in synagogues in recent months, and that that figure would climb even higher on Yom Kippur.
In B’hadrei Haredim’s editorial on Wednesday, the site described a closure of synagogues on Yom Kippur as “a declaration of war on God and his Torah,” and that “thousands of worshipers and synagogue administrators will not comply with such a decision.”
Weisberg said that there would not be enough outdoor prayer space for the number of worshipers, including in non-religious neighborhoods and cities where many traditional and secular people go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, some for the only time during the year.
He said that despite the high infection rate, large parts of the general public in the ultra-Orthodox community did not believe that the risk of contracting COVID-19 and the dangers of the disease are high enough to dissuade them from prayer on Yom Kippur, or indeed any other time, especially given the low rate of severe cases in the sector.
Rabinowitz laid the blame for the lack of adherence to COVID-19 regulations in the ultra-Orthodox community, and beyond, squarely at the foot of the government, saying that the inconsistencies in policy and messaging had destroyed public faith in its management of the crisis.
He said that even the senior rabbinic leadership of the community, whose instructions the sector obeys, was confused as to whom to listen to and what information to trust, meaning that even their ability to influence the situation has been reduced.
Rabinowitz insisted, however, that the frequent cries from within the ultra-Orthodox community and the political leadership about the protests against the prime minister were insincere, saying that synagogues and yeshivas would not suddenly close if the protests stopped.
Amid the fight over prayer in synagogues, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau came out in support on Wednesday for closing them on Yom Kippur if medical professionals believe that this is the correct step to take.
At the same time, his colleague Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is still of the opinion that synagogues should remain open in accordance with the previously adopted plan for prayer on the High Holy Days, as long as they strictly adhere to hygiene and social distancing regulations.
Yosef’s position was, however, contradicted by his own brother, Rabbi David Yosef, a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, who has called for synagogues to be closed on Yom Kippur and for prayers to be conducted only outdoors over the fast day.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians have been loath to support closing synagogues at all, and for Yom Kippur in particular, arguing that if other mass gatherings take place, especially the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prayer in synagogue should also be permitted.
On Tuesday, Lau told Netanyahu that closing synagogues while allowing the protests and other gatherings to continue would lead to mass violations of the synagogue closure order.
The Ashkenazi chief rabbi is now supporting closing synagogues regardless of the government’s position on the protests, if medical professionals support such a policy.
In guidelines issued by Yitzhak Yosef on Wednesday, he said that large synagogues should reduce the number of worshipers allowed into the prayer hall, divide up the area into capsules separated by thick plastic sheeting, and open all the windows.
He also said that women should pray at home if there wasn’t enough space in the synagogue, and that women should not come to synagogue in great numbers this year.
He did not say that there was a need to close synagogues.
David Yosef said in a video message on Wednesday that the COVID-19 outbreak in Israel had reached “awful levels” and said “therefore, please, close all the synagogues and study halls immediately,” and “to pray and study only outdoors.”
“These things have already happened in previous generations and the great Torah leaders gave these instructions,” he continued, citing the passage in the Torah commanding people to “greatly protect your lives.”