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Ultra-Orthodox Religious Leaders Aid COVID-19 – OpEd

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By Rabbi Ron Kronish and Rabbi Allen Maller*

Rabbi Ron Kronish writes of the mounting criticism of the Ultra-Orthodox “leadership” in Israel and especially of the leader of one of the main Ultra-Orthodox political parties called United Torah Judaism, Mr. Yaakov Litzman. He and his wife have both tested positive for the corona virus—and endangered the lives of his followers in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Israel, as well as the general population of Israel.

First of all, Rabbi Kronish states, as the Minister of Health for the past 9 years (as part of a coalition deal with the Likud party headed by Bibi Netanyahu) he and the Likud-led governments have starved the health system in Israel. Israel’s health system has been suffering for many years by not having enough doctors, hospital beds or medical equipment. Israel’s health system under Litzman’s “leadership”, or rather, lack of leadership, was not sufficiently prepared for the outbreak of the corona virus.

Leading journalists in Israel are now saying out in the open what many have felt for a long time: Litzman is the wrong man for this job and he must be replaced. One of Israel’s leading op-ed writers, Nahum Barnea, (in Israel’s largest circulation Hebrew newspaper), in his column this past Friday, excoriated Litzman for his irresponsible behavior, demonstrating clearly that he has acted in unconscionable ways in recent weeks and recent days that have caused great harm to his own Ultra-Orthodox people and to Israeli society in general.

It all began with the observance of the holiday of Purim five weeks ago (March 9-10, 2020). Public events all over the country were cancelled  due to the corona virus, but not public celebrations of the Purim holiday. Litzman found ways to observe Purim in his personal life and he did not demand that Purim celebrations be cancelled in his community or in any community- in Israel. 

And it ended last week with Litzman being 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.

And on April 5th, in the prestigious HaAretz newspaper in Israel (Israel’s version of the New York Times) listed the reasons why Litzman should not be allowed to continue as the Minister of Health:

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.

By now it is totally clear to all rational people in Israel that Litzman is unfit for his position, and is there only for political reasons having to do with building a coalition. Litzman represents the worst mixture of religion with politics in Israel.

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” Rabbi Kronish wrote.

And I would add that Litzman’s Ultra-Orthodox views are much closer to that of Iran’s Imam Muhammad Saeedi. According to the Iranian government, there were two “patient zeros”, both of whom died in the city of Qom on 19 February. One was a businessman who contracted COVID-19 in China. Qom is an important pilgrimage destination for Shia Muslims and it quickly became the epicenter of the outbreak.

Qom is home to the country’s top Islamic clerics, and draws some 20 million domestic and around 2.5 million international tourists a year. Each week, thousands of pilgrims navigate the city, paying their respects by kissing and touching the numerous shrines and landmarks.

Thus the virus spread quickly and the number of cases began to soar. But instead of quickly quarantining the city, representatives of the Supreme Leader – such as cleric 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. The city’s shrines have now been closed.

“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.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech developed a model that simulates the spread of COVID-19. It uses data on percentage of infected Iranian travelers who tested positive at the point of entry to other countries, as well as numerous medical community estimates, to calculate what they say is a more accurate figure. They estimated that, as of March 20, more than 15,000 Iranians had lost their lives

So between 5,00 (government) and 15,000+ (MIT) Iranians have died because of narrow minded religious politicians in Iran; and while the Ultra-Orthodox are only 11% of Israel’s population, they make up more than half of those with Covid-19 in Israel today.    

According to Israel’s Health Ministry figures released April 12, based on 96 fatalities collated last week, 51 men died in Israel from COVID-19, compared with 45 women. This is much more even than statistics from Asia and Europe, where a much higher proportion of fatalities are male.  

In the US, for example, twice as many men are dying from the virus as are women. And 69% of all coronavirus deaths across Western Europe have been male. Similar patterns have been seen in China and elsewhere.

The ministry also released figures on infection rates within cities that revealed that the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak has the highest concentration of virus cases, with 925 infections diagnosed per every 100,000 people. The second highest rate is in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye’arim, which has 683 cases per 100,000.

And two ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic have also seen a sharp rise in people dying at home, according to a new data analysis released April 17. At-home deaths in Borough Park and Williamsburg and adjacent areas in March and early April were more than 10 times higher than during the same period last year, according to data analysis by the Gothamist news outlet. Across the whole city of New York, at-home deaths have increased almost sixfold, the ProPublica news site found.

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 Muslam Sharia 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.

In terms of deaths from the coronavirus per capita, at the top of the list is Belgium, followed by Spain, Italy, France and the UK. The US is 9th and Israel is currently 27th in the world.

*Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. His new book, The Other Peace Process: Inter-religious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017.

*Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. He blogs on the Times of Israel. Rabbi Maller has published 400+ articles in some two dozen different Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. He is the author of two recent books: “Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms’ and “Which Religion Is Right For You? A 21st Century Kuzari”.


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Rabbi Ron Kronish and Rabbi Allen 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.