Hasidic rabbi calls for ‘war of attrition’ against virus restrictions

Head of the Vizhnitz hasidic sect rejects government limits to curb coronavirus spread, calls on followers to continue as usual.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

A prominent hasidic rabbi has told his followers to prepare for “a war of attrition” against government health regulations aimed at curtailing the massive spread of coronavirus in Israel, many of which also restrict religious activity, Israel Hayom reported Wednesday.

“Let us prepare for a war of attrition,” said Rabbi Yisroel Hager, the spiritual leader of the Vizhnitz hasidic sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, after police broke up a large indoor gathering of his followers earlier this week in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

“Yesterday we should have prevented them [the police] from entering,” Hager told his followers. “I will not allow the closing of ritual baths, synagogues and educational institutions.”

A phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not able to assuage Hager’s anger over the national lockdown despite the high infection rates in many ultra-orthodox communities.

Several hasidic sects complain that they are not willing to give up on what they see as their religious obligations even if it involves the risk of infection.

The “Yerushalmi” hasidic sect warned that they would respond in kind if forced to comply with current restrictions that have closed schools and banned indoor prayer.

“We will not be the sacrificial goat of the ultra-Orthodox public,” an unidentified spokesman told Israel Hayom, saying that if the government was “looking for war” it should remember that the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations were a “child’s game” compared to the hasidim if they take to the streets in protest.

Columnist Yehuda Shlezinger noted that within the ultra-Orthodox sector the different hasidic communities are more independent and insular. While most of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews are following health guidelines, the hasidic Jews choose to follow their spiritual leaders rather than any government.

Vizhnitz is one the three largest hasidic sects in Israel that includes the Belz hasidim, several thousand of whom ignored warnings from both Israel and Ukraine and attempted to reach the city of Uman in Ukraine for their annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to the grave of their founder. However, Ukraine kept the border closed and the followers were forced to return to Israel, many of them infected with coronavirus.

Shlezigner discovered that the hasidic sects are opting for herd immunity as a “deliberate and conscious policy” under which the adults and those at risk will take care of themselves, but the young will continue as usual.

With Hasidism built on the community where the spiritual leader, the “rebbe,” is at the center, it is inconceivable for his followers not to be able to approach their rabbi or pray with him for many months, Shlezinger wrote. Living in densely crowded neighborhoods, they consider it just a matter of time before everyone gets infected.

“The ‘herd immunity’ policy of the followers is a fait accompli,” Shlezinger said. “The questions are only if, when and how it will affect the entire country.”