Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 93, can’t use a telephone. He hardly ever leaves his home. His household says he has by no means efficiently made a cup of tea. His closest aides assume he doesn’t know the identify of Israel’s prime minister. He research the Torah for, give or take, 17 hours a day.
But regardless of his obvious detachment from worldly life, Rabbi Kanievsky has turn out to be one of the vital consequential and controversial individuals in Israel at present.
The religious chief of a whole lot of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Kanievsky has landed on the heart of tensions over the coronavirus between the Israeli mainstream and its rising ultra-Orthodox minority.
All through the pandemic, the authorities have clashed with the ultra-Orthodox over their resistance to antivirus protocols, notably their early refusal to shut faculties or restrict crowds at spiritual occasions. Related conflicts have performed out within the New York space.
Rabbi Kanievsky, issuing pronouncements from a book-filled examine in his cramped residence in an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, has typically been on the fore of that resistance. Twice, through the first and second waves of the pandemic in Israel, he rejected state-imposed antivirus protocols and didn’t order his followers to shut their yeshivas, unbiased spiritual faculties the place college students collect in shut quarters to review Jewish Scripture.
“God forbid!” he exclaimed. If something, he mentioned, the pandemic made prayer and examine much more important.
Each instances he ultimately relented, and it’s unlikely that he performed as large a job in spreading the virus as he was accused of, however the injury was carried out.
Many public well being specialists say that the ultra-Orthodox — who account for about 12 p.c of the inhabitants however 28 p.c of the coronavirus infections, in line with Israeli authorities statistics — have undermined the nationwide effort in opposition to the coronavirus.
The response has been fierce, a lot of it centered on Rabbi Kanievsky.
The rabbi “should be arrested for spreading a illness,” blared a column final week in Haaretz, a left-wing newspaper. “This rabbi dictates the scandalous conduct within the ultra-Orthodox sector,” mentioned an article in Yedioth Ahronoth, a centrist information outlet.
The backlash exaggerates each the rabbi’s position and that of the ultra-Orthodox on the whole. Extremely-Orthodox society just isn’t monolithic, and different distinguished leaders have been far faster to adjust to antivirus rules.
Extremely-Orthodox leaders say most of their followers have obeyed the foundations, though their usually massive households, dwelling in tight quarters underneath what’s now the third nationwide lockdown, have inevitably contributed to the unfold of the contagion.
Rabbi Kanievsky’s place has additionally been extra nuanced than generally portrayed. However he has nonetheless contributed to one of many biggest-ever showdowns between the Israeli mainstream and the ultra-Orthodox.