Split in haredi leadership? Fears lead rabbis to issue joint statement on coronavirus

Rabbis’ representatives issue joint statement after haredi party’s newspaper refuses to print letter instructing the reopening of the sector’s schools.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The two most senior rabbis leading the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, world issued a highly unusual joint statement Tuesday night assuring their followers that they were working together to deal with the coronavirus, in an effort to smooth over differences that came to light earlier in the day.

Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky had sent a letter to the haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman right before press time on Monday calling for the reopening of all schools in the sector while obeying distancing regulations, due to the supreme importance of learning Torah.

According to the network, the management then went to consult with the second-most important leader, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who said that they should not publish it.

Such a countermand is almost unprecedented in the haredi world, and when news of it broke, it immediately raised fears in the community that a split might be in the offing.

Within hours, however, representatives of the two rabbis rushed out a statement saying that the report was untrue. The real story was that Rabbi Edelstein had asked Rabbi Kanievsky that it not be printed until a few “side points” were clarified, and the latter had agreed to the request.

The statement also said that a joint team had been established “to find the right way to enable the new semester to begin” in all haredi seminaries “as soon as possible.” However, the statement threatened that if no real progress is made, the leaders will weigh taking unspecified “extremely severe steps” in response.

The supposed differences between the two pre-eminent Torah sages, who consult regularly on religious matters, can be attributed to their contrasting roles in the haredi world.

Rabbi Edelstein is the president of the Council of Torah Sages that sets policy for the Degel Hatorah party in the Knesset. As such, he is much more involved in worldly matters than Rabbi Kanievsky, who is known for his total involvement in Torah study and dependence on others for news on any kind of secular issue.

When Rabbi Kanievsky was first told of the school ban, for example, it was reported that he was not given the context that it was due to a deadly virus, so he instructed that they should stay open. Once advised of the pandemic, he ordered them closed.

Rabbi Edelstein, on the other hand, knew what was happening and had taken the Ministry of Health regulations seriously from the start. When the government called to close all educational institutions after the Purim holiday, he immediately shut the doors of his Ponovezh Yeshiva, which is one of the largest and most prominent study halls of Lithuanian, ultra-Orthodox Jewry.

Due to the health risks involved, he stopped praying in a synagogue and called for others to do so as well, even before the ministry banned praying in a quorum. And before Passover, he forbade any family to have guests for the Seder night because it would simply be too dangerous.