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Ultra-Orthodox Religious Leaders Aid COVID-19 Updated – OpEd

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Yaakov Litzman, who was Israeli Minister of Health for the past 9 years was reported by members of his own community as having violated the orders of his own Health ministry by attending worship service with ten or more men that had been forbidden, in order to prevent the spread of the corona virus in Israel.

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Israel, Litzman acted to exclude the ultra-Orthodox community from social-distancing rules and to permit mikvehs (ritual public baths) and synagogues to continue to operate. He even promised that the Messiah would come and eliminate the pandemic.

Litzman’s version of religion—in his case, Ultra-Orthodoxy connected with the Gur Hasidic group—is both anti-modern and anti-Zionist. His brand of extremist other-worldly Judaism rejects science and the scientific method.

Litzman’s views are Israel’s version of America’s evangelical groups-as in the case of Florida and other southern states, where their leadership have been telling their followers –and in some cases are still telling them—to continue to go to worship services, despite what the governmental authorities are telling them about the danger this poses to their own health and the health of the public.

Indeed, Litzman’s Ultra-Orthodox views are close to those of the religious leaders of Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, powerful Muslim clerics forced the government to leave mosques open throughout Ramadan. Mullah Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad, ordered adherents to pack communal prayers and Friday worshipers were shoulder-to-shoulder.

And Iran’s Imam Muhammad Saeedi opposed restricting the city of Qom, home to the country’s top Islamic clerics, which each week has thousands of pilgrims paying their respects by kissing and touching the numerous shrines and landmarks.

Instead of quickly quarantining the city, Imam Mohammad Saeedi campaigned for pilgrims to keep on visiting.

“We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from both spiritual and physical diseases.” said Imam Mohammad Saeedi.

“We should have quarantined Qom from day one… this disease is not a joke, which is the way we are dealing with it,” vice-speaker of Iran’s parliament and former Health Minister Massoud Pezeshkian said.

Now infections rising in country’s southwest despite declines elsewhere as total infections hit 106,220 and the death toll reaches 6,589 But a report by the research arm of Iran’s parliament said 11,700 may have died. In Tehran, the municipal council said it had to add 10,000 new graves to its largest cemetery, Behesht e-Zahra.

So between 6500 (government) and 11,000+ Iranians have died because of narrow minded religious politicians in Iran; and in Israel where the Ultra-Orthodox are only 11% of Israel’s population, they make up more than half of those with Covid-19 in Israel today.    

Israel’s Interior minister recently urged ‘soul-searching’ in ultra-Orthodox community citing the very high coronavirus infection rate [around 70% of the sick in the entire country are ultra-Orthodox who are only 11 percent of the general population] Aryah Deri said in an interview with an ultra-Orthodox news site.

He said that Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities abroad had also been disproportionately affected, with high infection rates in the New York neighborhoods of Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights.

Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, two strongholds of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population, account for 37 percent of the country’s coronavirus deaths, according to official figures. Bnei Brak residents were 14 percent of deaths and Jerusalem’s heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods accounted for  23% of all deaths. The average age of those who died is 81.3.

The Torah has several commandments regarding personal and public safety. For instance, Jews are instructed to build a fence around any flat roof, to prevent anyone from falling off the roof.

The 12th century Spanish/Moroccan Philosopher and M.D. Rabbi Moses Maimonides explains this to include any dangerous situation, such as an unguarded swimming pool.

In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands Jews to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby.

I am sure that Sharia law also contains such statements of caution. But we all need religious leaders who can find them and follow them. Fortunately, the majority of the Israeli government is not politically Orthodox religious and Israel reacted very quickly to the Covis-19 danger and its death rate is under 2 percent.


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Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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