Jewish communities around the world have been hard-hit by the coronavirus and are still struggling to deal with its implications. In an in-depth study, Dr. Shuki Friedman and Gabriel Abensour analyze how the pandemic has created challenges for halakha (Jewish law) and upended communal life and what these communities should be preparing for when this crisis finally subsides.
The coronavirus crisis poses complex communal and halakhic issues for religious Jewish leaders in Israel and around the world, as its practices necessitate community gatherings and communal prayer. In the past, the religious Jewish world has tended to respond to major crises with gatherings, mass prayer, mutual aid, and extra-stringent observance of religious commandments. In this case, however, traditional religious responses are in total contradiction with the approach which must be adopted in order to halt the spread of the virus. As a result, communities are having to invent new methods of providing support to their members; religious leaders are seeking creative alternatives to make it possible to continue to lead a religious Jewish life, and rabbis are being asked to rule on complex new issues. At the same time, the crisis has revealed the ability of the religious Jewish leadership in Israel—which effectively serves as the public leadership of the religious community, and especially the ultra-Orthodox community—to respond to events in real time, to adapt to new situations, and to mediate between state institutions and their communities, so as to optimize its capacity to effectively cope with both the health and economic challenges presented by the crisis, and to strengthen the relations between members of their communities and Israeli society as a whole.
This paper examines the challenges and opportunities facing Jewish religious leadership during the crisis, as well as the challenge posed to the state by the character of religious leadership in Israel, in five sections:
1. The nature and timeliness of the response of religious Jewish leadership in Israel and around the world to the coronavirus crisis, broken down by religious denomination
2. The halakhic discourse regarding compliance with instructions and regulations issued by the state in response to the epidemic
3. Reshaping community life in the shadow of the coronavirus
4. The main halakhic issues raised by the crisis
5. A first look at “the day after”: the changes and opportunities that can be expected in the wake of the epidemic
This paper has been prepared even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, and thus is intended to provide only an initial and interim summary of trends in halakhic rulings and of responses to the crisis from members of various religious Jewish groups, as well as to share some tentative and initial insights.
Part I: The State, the Rabbis, and the Coronavirus
1. Chronology of a Pandemic: The Rabbinical Response in Israel and Around the World
On January 30, 2020, Israel’s Ministry of Health began issuing guidelines to the public designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some six weeks later, on March 12, the ministry published a series of far-reaching public health directives and orders, including a complete shutdown of the country’s educational institutions, a ban on public gatherings of more than ten people, and subsequently-- a comprehensive stay-at-home order, with only a handful of special exemptions allowing people to leave their homes. These orders had a major impact on the daily lives of all Israeli citizens, and drastically affected the daily routines of Torah study and prayer of many religious Israelis. In the ultra-Orthodox sector, compliance with the orders was limited at first, and is still not complete.
In the first months of the pandemic, the infection rates in Haredi residential areas, headed by the city of Bnei Brak, were significantly higher (by tens or even hundreds of percent) than those in other areas. There are several reasons for this, including the communal lifestyle and urban crowding common to ultra-Orthodox localities and neighborhoods. That said, the main factor seems to have been the ultra-Orthodox community’s delayed reaction in complying with public health orders. Part of this can be attributed to the lack of culturally adapted communication strategy from the Ministry of Health. This was particularly distressing as the Minister of Health (acting) himself from 2014, is a member of the Gur Hassidism. Another part can be attributed to the halakhic ruling issued at the start of the crisis by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (the spiritual head of the Lithuanian faction (non-Hassidic) of the ultra-Orthodox community) which flew in the face of Ministry of Health orders, as well as to the reluctance of a part of the rabbinical leadership to adopt these orders and grant them the status of halakhic requirements, in cases in which they were relevant to the observance of religious commandments and traditions.
Rabbinical rulings relating to those public health orders affecting religious life, and compliance with these orders, differed from community to community. In some religious communities, rabbinical rulings and adoption of strict safety guidelines actually preceded the state-issued orders, while in many others, the rabbis and their followers fell into line with the state at a later stage, only after the extent of the damage inflicted by the virus on religious Jewish communities in Israel and abroad had become clear.
1.1 The Ultra-Orthodox Public in Israel
Eventually, more than two weeks after the outbreak of the epidemic in Israel and the Ministry of Health’s public orders, most ultra-Orthodox rabbis accepted these orders and called on their communities to comply with them. However, some rabbis did so only later, and only vaguely. The crisis exposed significant differences among ultra-Orthodox communities. This is the basis for our proposal to divide—in the current context— ultra-Orthodox society into four main groups for our purposes here: the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox group; the Lithuanian group; Hasidic communities, and the anti-Zionist Orthodox Council of Jerusalem; along with an outlying extremist minority grouping containing several marginal independent communities. This division highlights the differences between ultra-Orthodox groups who differ in their attitude toward state authorities and the degree of their trust in alternative non-establishment and intra-communal sources of authority.
The Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox Faction
This group mainly includes rabbis identified with the Shas movement and the family of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who’s son is the Sepharadi Chief Rabbi). It was the first ultra-Orthodox group to fully comply with the restrictions imposed by the government, and which even recommended taking additional precautions beyond those stipulated in the official rules.
The rabbis’ instructions made direct reference to the state authorities, expressed complete trust in them, and viewed them as a source of authority even when it came to restrictions on religious life. However, these rabbis did not dare to speak out explicitly against contradictory directives that came from Rabbi Kanievsky at the beginning of the crisis, even though it was clear that these had a significant influence on the ultra-Orthodox population as a whole.
The Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox Faction
The Lithuanian community is identified with the Degel Hatorah movement (Ashkenazi Haredi political party), and adheres for the most part to the rulings of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. The Lithuanian halachic authorities, led by Rabbi Kanievsky, eventually accepted the Ministry of Health’s public health orders and ruled that these should be adhered to by the public, but only after a considerable delay, resulting in a higher rate of infection in ultra-Orthodox areas, which may have come at the cost of human lives. Thus, on March 14, just a few minutes after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a series of restrictions and the shutdown of Israel’s education system, Rabbi Kanievsky ruled that studies in the educational institutions under his supervision should continue as normal. The following day, after a delegation of experts visited the rabbi at his home, a compromise was reached according to which studies would continue in small groups of up to ten students, in coordination with the health authorities. On the same day, the delegation also visited with other prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis—Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein, Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, Rabbi Yehuda Silman, and Rabbi Sinai Halberstam—all of whom signed a letter calling on the public to comply with medical guidelines.
Despite Rabbi Kanievsky’s decision, Rabbi Yitzhak Mordechai Rubin, a senior Lithuanian rabbi in Jerusalem, published a severe warning on March 15 instructing his community to fully comply with the public health orders. At the same time, Rabbi Rubin emphasized that in his opinion, the non-compliance in the ultra-Orthodox sector stemmed to some degree from the authorities’ failure to make information accessible to the ultra-Orthodox public. Beginning with March 16, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox educational institutions began closing their doors: Rabbi Landau and Rabbi Rosenstein closed the “Darchei Yosher” school network, which runs elementary schools (“Talmud Torah” institutions) in several ultra-Orthodox locations, including Modi’in Illit, Ahisemech-Lod, Givat Ze’ev, and Beit Shemesh. Only on March 18 was a new instruction issued by Rabbi Kanievsky stating that any schools still left open, should be closed. On March 29, Rabbi Kanievsky published a series of short halakhic responses, this time—clear and unequivocal, in which he ruled that the public health orders should be followed, institutions shut down, and public prayer avoided. He also advised that all instances in which self-isolation being flouted should be reported to the authorities. He even ruled that anyone contravening the orders should be classed as a “rodef,” the most severe halakhic classification of one who endangers others’ lives.
A review of the various rabbinical responsa and publications indicates that the Lithuanian public, for its part, was willing to adopt the instructions issued by the state authorities from the very beginning of the crisis. In all the materials and documents we reviewed, we found no substantial opposition to the authorities; rather, it was repeatedly emphasized that the virus presented a significant danger and all necessary precautions should be taken. At the same time, several rabbis, headed by Rabbi Kanievsky and his court, fell into line with the public orders only after a significant delay, which created confusion within the Lithuanian community about the halakhic legitimacy of complying with the orders in cases in which these interfered with the maintenance of day-to-day religious life. In practice, this delay led to a drastic rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox individuals diagnosed with the virus at the beginning of April. It appears that Rabbi Kanievsky’s slow response to events dealt a blow to his authority and status within the Lithuanian public, and other rabbis began to make their voices heard. A first semi-public dispute emerged on April 19th after the government’s relaxation of measures when Rabbi Edelstein announced that though it was now permitted, minyanim (prayer quorums) should not be held and educational institutions should remain closed. The journalist Yair Sherki reported that Rabbi Kanievsky’s court attempted to publish a decree that said the opposite, but were rebuffed by the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman, due to the stance taken by Rabbi Edelstein.
The Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Faction, and Extremist Groups
Several ultra-Orthodox groups continue to refuse to comply with the public health orders for a number of reasons: a fundamentally oppositional stance toward state institutions; the belief that the state was unjustly undermining their religious life; and a desire to demonstrate their independence from the directives of other ultra-Orthodox rabbis. These groups are led by the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem (“Ha-Edah Ha-Haredit”) and the Jerusalem Faction (“Ha-Peleg Ha-Yerushalmi”).
The Orthodox Council of Jerusalem is a longstanding separatist Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox group. Despite representing only around 5% of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, it wields considerable influence. When the Ministry of Health published its lockdown restrictions, the Council was one of the oppositional groups that refused to comply with orders to close educational institutions and banning public gatherings. Only on March 23, did the head of the Council’s rabbinical court, Rabbi Avraham Sternbuch, publish a letter calling for full compliance with the public health orders, due to pressure from political figures.
To this day, groups even more marginal and with an anarchist character, vehemently refuse to comply with the orders. Chief among them is the Hasidic group of Rabbi Berland, but in addition, there are anti-Zionist Hasidic communities from Me’ah She’arim and Beit Shemesh. Reaching a mutual understanding with these groups is unlikely, thus necessitating police enforcement of the law. They present a direct and immediate danger first and foremost to the ultra-Orthodox majority, which must live side-by-side with them. Where state authorities are unable or unwilling to assert their authority, these extremist groups will continue to behave in this way, endangering the Israeli public, particularly their ultra-Orthodox neighbors who carefully uphold the lockdown rules.
The diversity in the responses of rabbis from different ultra-Orthodox streams stem from their stance on two important issues: first, their varying attitudes toward the State of Israel and its institutions in general, and thus-- also toward the state’s instructions on the coronavirus; and second, their attitudes toward the strictures of ultra-Orthodox religious life, and their fears of violating these, even at risk to their health.
The rabbis of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox stream, many of whom serve in official positions as municipal rabbis or rabbinical judges, and who have a more trusting attitude toward the state, tended to fully back the Ministry of Health’s orders as soon as they were issued. Presumably, this relates to their different and a bit more relaxed stance and that of their f community) regarding total and uncompromising commitment to the regimen of ultra-Orthodox life.
By contrast, the Lithuanian and Hasidic rabbinic leaders, who have a more restrained and reserved relationship with the state and who view, any instructions from state bodies as a potential threat to religious life, tended to reject the public health orders in the early stages, and changed their minds only when the very real health risk posed by non-compliance became clearly apparent.
The members of the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Faction, who in any case reject the State of Israel and its institutions and are zealously committed to an extremist ultra-Orthodox way of life, have refused to follow the health orders even when the crisis was at its peak. When their rabbis do adopt Ministry of Health guidelines, they do so with reserve, continuing to ignore some restrictions by, for example, holding minyanim (group prayers) and large funerals. All this while continuing their sometimes violent protest—against police efforts to enforce restrictions.
1.2 Religious Zionism and the Coronavirus Crisis
The religious-- Zionist community fully complied with government restrictions, and its rabbis called for full compliance even when the public health orders affected religious life. Thus, the vast majority of national religious yeshivot (Torah study institutions) and other educational institutions closed their doors on March 14.
Religious Zionist rabbis also sought to provide halakhic responses to questions aroused by the crisis. The Tzohar rabbis’ organization published a database —the only one of its kind in Orthodox Jewry in both Israel and abroad—presenting an ethical- halakhic discussion of major civic issues that have emerged from the pandemic. Alongside more common halakhic questions about ritual baths and prayer, these rabbis discussed what constitutes proper civic behavior in terms of obeying state authorities, reporting instances of violation of isolation orders, navigating the clash in values between “honor your father and mother” and respecting lockdown restrictions when visiting them, and more.
1.3 The Chief Rabbinate and the Coronavirus Crisis
The coronavirus crisis in Israel could have been the chief rabbis’ finest hour. As the heads of a state system that is expected to provide spiritual and halakhic leadership, they had the opportunity to fulfill this mission by supporting and strengthening the ultra-Orthodox, religious, and traditional communities during this difficult time, and offering meaningful halakhic solutions to the challenges that have arisen. The chief rabbis could also have led a huge effort to extend aid to the needy, called for helping one another, used their standing to help the government deal with rejectionist rabbis and religious groups, and exert significant influence on the civic arena.
Instead, the chief rabbis have mainly adopted a reactive stance. The directives they issued were merely a rewording of the Ministry of Health’s orders in “religious language”, and in some parts—especially those of Rabbi Lau—the language used is confrontational and pedantic, conveying a sense of dissatisfaction with the instructions themselves. The chief rabbis, in some cases together with the Chief Rabbinate Council, expressed their strong opposition to halakhic rulings on various aspects of the epidemic which they considered too lenient. Significant examples include the Chief Rabbinate’s harsh response to the ruling issued by Rabbi Amsalem, allowing women to conduct ritual bathing in a bathtub (instead of in a special ritual bath) under certain circumstances, and the condemnation issued by some members of the Chief Rabbinate Council of Rabbi Sperber’s lenient response on ritual purity. There was also an all-out condemnation of the ruling given by rabbis of the Rabbis of North-African heritage (’Rabbanei Hamizrach’) Association allowing the use of Zoom videoconferencing software on Seder night.
Despite these rapid and unequivocal responses to halakhic rulings on various issues which it considered too lenient, the Chief Rabbinate maintained a deafening silence regarding halakhic rulings published by ultra-Orthodox rabbis who made light of the precept “you shall protect your lives carefully”—that is, with regard to the serious threat to public health posed by the virus.
Moreover, in spiritual terms as well, the chief rabbis’ contribution to the public has been negligible. Beyond calling for a day of prayer and fasting before the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan, together with many other rabbis in Israel and around the world, their voice has barely been heard.
1.4 World Jewry’s Reactions to the Coronavirus Crisis
The data compiled from countries with the largest Jewish populations outside Israel—the United States (particularly New York), France, and Britain—indicate that the coronavirus has hit Jewish communities especially hard. To date, rates of infection and mortality among Jews are significantly higher (sometimes even several times higher) than among the general population. Consequently, from the very beginning, the pandemic has presented a major challenge to leaders and rabbis of Jewish communities around the world. Below, we provide a brief survey of the responses of the leadership of different Jewish communities. In general, the response of religious Jewish leaders of the main communities outside Israel was more rapid and more decisive than that of their colleagues in the Jewish state.
The Modern Orthodox Community in the United States
The members of the modern Orthodox community in the United States are highly committed to halakhic observance, and thus-- closing down synagogues and community institutions requires an explicit government order or a decision by its rabbinical leadership. Like the non-Orthodox streams, it appears that the modern Orthodox community was for the most part, one step ahead of the authorities, and on its own--decided to close down some of its institutions—particularly in New Jersey and New York, where many Jews were infected with the virus in early March.
The Ultra-Orthodox Community in the United States
Several days after the mass closures of modern Orthodox institutions, the ultra-Orthodox community also began taking steps to shut down its own facilities. On March 15, Agudath Israel of America (an organization of leading Orthodox rabbis and community leaders) issued a short announcement proposing that the shutdown of religious institutions should be considered, without making it mandatory. On March 17, the leaders of the Lakewood community, one of the largest and most significant ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States, also announced a series of stringent instructions designed to limit social interactions, though it stopped short of closing down synagogues entirely. The following day, Rabbi David Kahan, one of the most senior Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox halakhic scholars, published a strongly worded ruling forbidding people from praying in minyanim and from gathering in yeshivot.
As in Israel, Hasidic communities were the last to take concrete steps to limit gatherings in synagogues and other religious institutions. On March 17, White House representatives spoke directly to the leaders of the Satmar, Chabad, Bobov, and Vizhnitz Hasidic communities, after which all the various Hasidic groups closed down their institutions. Meanwhile, infection rates in these communities were climbing quickly leading to casualties among the rabbinical leadership as well, resulting in the adoption of stricter rules. Nevertheless, mikvaot (ritual baths) for women have continued to operate in almost all ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States.
The Reform and Conservative Movements in the United States
These two movements, making up the majority of the Jewish community in the United States, responded quickly to the outbreak, as did their member communities. Given their less halakhic orientation, the rabbis of these progressive movements did not have to issue opinions on adhering to government orders, and needed to address few halakhic questions. Instead, Reform and Conservative communities became a hotbed of ideas on how to continue community life under lockdown, in which religious and spiritual creativity blossomed. Most of them transitioned to online activities.
The U.S. Jewish community is made up of multiple denominations, with little or no central authority. In the U.S., as in Israel, we see a clear negative correlation between religious conservatism and the pace of reaction to the looming crisis. The progressive Jewish movements were the first to close their institutions during the critical first days of the epidemic, while several ultra-Orthodox institutions did not close until they were issued a formal order to do so by local authorities. This slow reaction does not necessarily indicate disregard for public health, but rather- the much deeper impact of the restrictions on community life on the more conservative groups, which view studying Torah together and praying together as fundamental values and religious obligations. This may also be the reason for the reluctance of the Orthodox religious leadership to close mikvaot, as this would mean imposing complete physical isolation even within homes, between husband and wife.
The French Jewish Community
France is home to the world’s third-largest Jewish community, numbering some 400,000. Most of its synagogues and religious institutions are affiliated with the Consistoire, an Orthodox umbrella organization divided into regions. Alongside this system, there are also various Reform, Conservative, and ultra-Orthodox communities. French law forbids conducting surveys and keeping statistics on religious beliefs or ethnic origin, and thus the precise number of deaths among Jews is unknown, but the leadership of the Jewish Community estimates that between 1,300 and 2,000 people passed away. This is approximately 5% of the total deaths from covid-19 in France, although the Jewish population is less than 0.7% of the total French population.
The British Jewish Community
The Jewish community in Britain numbers some 250,000, about 0.3% of the total British population. However, at June, Jews accounted for 1.1% of the number of deaths from Covid-19 in the country.
The rapid spread of the virus in the British Jewish community led Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to close all synagogues on March 17, about a week before the government decided to close public institutions and institute social distancing. Like in Israel and the United States, Britain has also seen a positive correlation between religious conservatism and infection rates, with the ultra-Orthodox community being the most affected.
As the epidemic took hold, the Jewish community joined forces with the British Muslim community to oppose a proposal for emergency legislation that would require cremation in all cases in which the deceased died ofCovid-19, in violation of both Jewish and Muslim law. On March 23, the proposal was amended so that it would not apply to anyone for whom cremation violates their religious beliefs.
2. Discourse Analysis: “Saving Human Lives,” “Respecting the Law of the Land,” or “State Persecution?”
As described above, the overwhelming majority of rabbis in Israel and abroad eventually fell into line with public health orders and ruled that schools, yeshivot, and even synagogues should be closed down. For Jews accustomed to a daily reality in which their religious life takes place largely in a communal setting, this represented a huge crisis. Naturally, the rabbis framed their rulings on the need to comply with social distancing restrictions in terms of Halakha. However, analysis of the declarations issued by various prominent leaders reveals considerable differences in the halakhic arguments for compliance cited by rabbis from different ultra-Orthodox communities, and between rabbis in Israel and those abroad. Two main arguments can be identified: rulings based on the principle of “saving human lives” (“pikuach nefesh”); and rulings emphasizing the obligation to obey orders issued by the state and respecting “the law of the land” (“dina demalchuta”).
2.1 Summary and Interim Conclusions
The coronavirus crisis presented rabbis in Israel and around the world with a complex dilemma. On the one hand—their commitment to Torah and halakha and to maintaining religious-communal practices of Torah study and prayer; on the other-- the restrictions issued by state authorities which in essence bring religious-communal life to a standstill - as part of the social distancing rules to halt the spread of the virus.
The responses of rabbis from different communities and streams ran the entire gamut. . At one end of the scale were those rabbis who exercised extreme caution, issuing rulings that both preceded and exceeded the state’s restrictions, and at the other--those who continued to urge their followers to defy the law, even after weeks of lockdown, during which the deadly impact of the virus had become all too clear.
An analysis of rabbis’ positions and the terminology they have used, by to their affiliation to various ultra-Orthodox groups and sub-groups leads to some important (if not surprising) conclusions:
There appears to be a strong association between the groups’ identification with the state and its institutions in routine times and their rabbis’ willingness to support state orders that contradict halakhic norms, due to the nature of the current crisis. Rabbis from Zionist groups instructed their followers to comply with Ministry of Health restrictions as soon as they were published, as did some of the rabbis affiliated with Shas, many of whom hold official public positions. By contrast, the leaders of the Lithuanian community and the Hasidic factions ruled in favor of compliance only much later, if at all, which led to a severe outbreak of the coronavirus in areas in which Haredim are concentrated.
In this context, the Chief Rabbinate and the chief rabbis stand out conspicuously for their poor handling of the crisis. Though the chief rabbis did support the government orders during the first stages of the crisis, they did so in a fairly noncommittal way. As a state body responsible for halakhic leadership and aspiring to be Israel’s “official” halakhic ruling body and its leading religious institution, the chief rabbis’ response to the rulings issued by extremist bodies was severely lacking. While the chief rabbis, backed by the Chief Rabbinate Council, were quick to criticize halakhic rulings they considered to be too lenient, they remained silent in the face of rulings that contravened Ministry of Health orders and did serious harm to the state’s capacity to deal effectively with the epidemic.
Under the leadership of its rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox community functions as a quasi-exterritorial enclave within the State of Israel. By promoting a separatist way of life and raising the walls around the community with their stringent approach to halakhic rulings, the community’s rabbis have over the years instituted norms of ultra-Orthodox non-compliance with Israeli law on issues which they view as contravening their religious outlook. Ultra-Orthodox violation of the law has in some cases become a norm that is accepted even by the state itself. The coronavirus crisis has shown that the state’s willingness to overlook this disobedience in routine times can exact a great cost, including of human lives, during emergencies. When the crisis abates, the State of Israel needs to re-examine how it can ensure, in a consensual manner, that the ultra-Orthodox public as a whole fully adopts normative law-abiding behavior.
The crisis once again revealed the dubious status of the Chief Rabbinate and of the chief rabbis within Israel’s Jewish religious leadership. Chief rabbis who display no leadership, and are not willing to use their official and religious authority to confront rabbis calling for non-compliance with the law, empty the institution they lead of all meaning and render it even more irrelevant.
Part II: Rabbis, Halakha, and the Coronavirus
3. Online Communities: Community Life, Lifecycle Ceremonies, and Halakhic Questions
The coronavirus epidemic forced millions around the world to adopt social distancing practices, dealing a blow to the routines of communal prayer, study, and ritual that are at the very core of Jewish communal life This dramatic change forced rabbis to come up with halakhic solutions that would allow community life to continue, albeit in different forms. . In general, the more conservative communities had to address the halakhic limitations relating to online gatherings, such as via Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms, as substitutes for live gatherings, including on Shabbat and festivals. Questions abounded regarding the use of technology during the crisis that in routine times would be banned. . Thus, the differences between various communities during this period were evident not only in their ritual practices or types of activity, but also in their willingness to maintain community life online.
3.1 Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities in Israel and Around the World
Orthodox Jewish communities cannot conduct their regular activities on Shabbat over the internet, but several alternative ways of continuing community life have emerged. At the forefront of these have been numerous initiatives for Torah study, including the launch of online anthologies of lectures and study texts. Some Orthodox communities are continuing to hold online prayer services, as there have been halakhic rulings permitting communal prayers to be held over the internet.
Of all the various Orthodox streams, the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and abroad have faced the greatest challenge to maintaining community life during the epidemic, due to their limited access to the internet and to smartphones. Though there are several ultra-Orthodox news websites in both Hebrew and English, there are almost no online study sites targeting the ultra-Orthodox public (with the exception of those targeted at individuals who have joined the ultra-Orthodox community only recently). In contrast with the Torah study institutions in more liberal streams, including those of the modern Orthodox and national religious communities, the ultra-Orthodox sector seems to be the only one that has not been able to continue with any form of communal study routine, due to its lack of an effective infrastructure for online lectures. The most highly separatist communities, such as the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, have even issued warnings against any leniency during the crisis in terms of smartphone and internet use, resulting in almost total isolation of their community members.
In the United States, the “Torah Umesorah” school network was one of the only ultra-Orthodox educational institutions to issue instructions for continuing studies by phone or over the internet. It emphasized that using the internet required strict filters to be put in place, but clearly this is not an option for the many teachers and pupils who do not have internet access. The exception to the rule is the Chabad Hasidic group, which has a more positive approach to technology. One of the possible outcomes of the current crisis may be e a shift in attitudes toward technological tools, based on an understanding that these can be used for holy purposes during crises. Indeed, at the beginning of April, Bezeq (one of Israel’s main telecommunication companies) reported a sharp 40% increase in internet use in ultra-Orthodox localities.
3.2 Pluralistic Communities
Most pluralistic religious communities and organizations in Israel added an online option to their regular activities or switched over to online entirely.
The Reform movement in North America was one of the first to offer online resources to individuals, community leaders, and to the communities themselves. Due to its non-halakhic orientation, the Reform movement has been able to continue almost all its regular activities online.
4. Observing the Commandments in the Shadow of the Coronavirus: Selected Halakhic Issues
Due to the pandemic, religious communities in Israel and around the world are facing several unique challenges, with these having a significant impact on their spiritual activities and daily routines—on both individual and communal levels.
4.1 Prayer in a Minyan (Quorum) and Reading the Torah
Orthodox halakha requires a quorum of ten men—a minyan—for the obligation of daily prayer to be properly fulfilled. Without a minyan, an individual Jew praying alone cannot conduct the required reading of the weekly Torah portion, recite certain blessings, or say the mourners’ Kaddish prayer. The coronavirus outbreak shut down synagogues around the world, raising the question of how to meet the halakhic requirements for daily prayer. It should be noted that though almost all rabbis have ruled that people may pray individually, there have been some blatant violations in several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, due to the importance attached to public prayer and to a lack of trust in state authorities; the latter have been accused by extremist ultra-Orthodox groups of exploiting the situation to undermine religious Jewish life in Israel.
There is a clear correlation between access to technology (and overall receptiveness to the modern world) and the extent of openness to halakhic creativity regarding rules of public prayer. For example, though its directives are not binding for Conservative communities, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—which is a relatively traditionalist e committee in the context of U.S. Conservative Judaism—issued halakhic guidelines on convening minyanim during the epidemic. While the Committee recognizes women for the purposes of forming a minyan, it tends to oppose holding a virtual minyan in cases where ten people cannot gather in the same room. Thus, it ruled that virtual prayers could be held without reciting those components of prayer that require a minyan. Regarding the mourners’ kaddish prayer, the Committee proposed replacing it with alternative prayers that do not require a minyan. Similarly, the position of the Conservative movement is that virtual prayers may be held on Shabbat, but only if the internet connection is established by a non-Jew or is set up before the beginning of Shabbat.
4.2 Mikvaot (Ritual Baths)
Orthodox Jews make regular use of mikvaot (ritual baths) for purposes of attaining religious purity. Some men, particularly those from certain Hasidic communities, bathe on a daily basis. But ritual bathing is especially important for women, for without it, women are unable to complete the purification rituals following menstruation, and couples are forbidden from being physically intimate and must maintain physical separation in various ways. Moreover, ritual bathing is considered one of the most important commandments for married Orthodox Jewish women, who make every effort to fulfill it without any delay each month.
Mikvaot for men were closed in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, due to broad consensus that bathing in them is essentially a custom (rather than a formal commandment) which can be foregone if it endangers public health. By contrast, closing women’s mikvaot is a far more sensitive issue. As of the beginning of April 2020, mikvaot continued to operate in Israel in spite of the fact that several experts expressed the opinion that they pose a real danger to the public. In the U.S., many communities set stringent conditions for the operation of mikvaot during the epidemic, but mikvaot remained open. In France, several decisorstook the unusual step of deviating from the line taken in Israel and closed mikvaot in mid-March; on March 26 it was decided to close all the mikvaot belonging to the Consistoire which until that time had remained open. However, many ultra-Orthodox communities in France have continued to follow the guidelines issued by major Israeli rabbinic leaders and have kept their mikvaot open.
Mikvaot were also a major issue for the national-- religious public in Israel. Facilities have come in for much criticism over the years for poor oversight and unsanitary conditions, and about 40% of mikvaot in Israel still operate without a business license. Furthermore, while the Ministry of Health did not order the closure of women’s mikvaot, it also did not clarify the level of risk from bathing, did not appoint a team of inspectors, and largely left decisions to the discretion of local religious councils.
Should the Ministry of Health decide that the operation of mikvaot must be cut back, this can be done incrementally, as has been the case in other parts of the Jewish world. For example, most of the mikvaot in the U.S. have continued to operate under stringent rules of hygiene, which include disinfecting the facility in between each individual bather, maintaining distance between the operator of the facility and the bathers, and in particular-- requiring women to schedule visits in advance so as to limit interactions between women as much as possible and leave time for cleaning in between bathers.
This seems to be a necessary interim stage in order to enable the public to adjust to reduced access to mikvaot before closing them down, should the latter be necessary. It is doubtful whether closing the mikvaot would be a decree that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox publics can live with, but publishing clear warnings from the authorities and securing the support of more moderate rabbis from the national-- religious and ultra-Orthodox camps (such as the chief rabbis) may help to drastically reduce the number of bathers and ensure more meticulous compliance with hygiene regulations among those who continue to bathe.
In this case as well, events abroad may have an impact on ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel. At this stage, it appears that overall, the mikvaot of the U.S. ultra-Orthodox community have largely remained open, though given the high number of infections within them, this may change in the near future. It is noteworthy that moderate ultra-Orthodox rabbinic judges in France decided to close down all mikvaot in the country. This is a precedent that may influence other communities, particularly if detailed halakhic responsa on this issue are published.
5. The Day After: The Erosion of Centralized Authority and Opportunities for Renewal
The rabbinical and religious response to the coronavirus crisis in Israel and around the world has highlighted the decentralized and fragmented nature of religious authority and religious leadership in today’s Jewish world. With the spread of the pandemic and the growing seriousness of the crisis it brings with it, , rabbis (and subsequently, religious Jewish communities) responded independently and differently from one another, in accordance with the legal and public health circumstances in their areas, their social realities and the characteristics of their particular community and rabbinical leadership. During the crisis, it emerged that even instructions from large religious organizations and from prominent halakhic jurists were not adhered to by the public and in some cases, these even encountered the opposition of members of religious communities.
The coronavirus crisis has posed some difficult halakhic dilemmas, forcing rabbis to find creative—and sometimes, groundbreaking—halakhic solutions. Since the start of the crisis, there have been many halakhic rulings issued by individual rabbis seeking to provide a response to problems emerging from the pandemic which were not adequately y addressed by the Chief Rabbinate or by major halakhic jurists. Questions regarding mikvaot, online minyanim, and the use of online platforms to hold extended family gatherings on Seder night were the focus of much public debate in religious communities for many weeks, and the rulings and responses to them were mainly provided by rabbis not identified with major institutions or religious groups. In routine times, responsa of this kind would have received little publicity or public comment, but during the crisis, they set the religious public agenda. While the major institutions, particularly the Chief Rabbinate, fully exerted their influence in order to oppose these responsa, it is still too early to say whether they will become no more than an interesting anecdote in the years to come, or whether they will lead to a deeper change in the religious world.
Completing the picture is the open and harsh public criticism leveled against the Chief Rabbinate’s position on mikvaot, and against its attempt to call for fasting and public prayer at the height of the pandemic. It would seem that so far, the coronavirus crisis has further highlighted the irrelevance of the Chief Rabbinate’s leadership for the religious public, and has allowed voices that were previously excluded from religious discourse to resonate and reach new audiences.
The crisis has also presented an opportunity for eroding the boundaries between real-life communities and online communities and for innovation in matters of prayer, religious practices, and communal activities. The non-Orthodox communities seem to have been better prepared, since their members routinely used technological tools before the pandemic, and their more flexible approach to halakhic boundaries allowed them to hold virtual activities on Shabbat and on holidays. In the Orthodox world, and especially within religious Zionism, this period provided a platform for voices that were formerly much more marginalized. Small communities launched initiatives that reached far beyond their traditional audiences; new voices were heard in rabbinical discourse; and criticism of the Chief Rabbinate’s leadership became more open and harsher than ever.
Within the ultra-Orthodox world, it appears that the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the erosion of the centralized leadership that characterized ultra-Orthodox Judaism up until just a few years ago, along with reinforcing the gaps between different groups. The crisis can be expected to further erode the status of “da’at Torah,” the ultra-Orthodox ideology according to which this generation’s great Torah leaders have an almost mystical ability to issue rulings on any issue, even if lacking the necessary expertise to do so.
Over the course of a month, rabbis from different streams published very different opinions, retracted them, changed their minds, and eventually fell into line with the state’s public health orders. Not only is there no longer a single rabbinic leader whose authority is accepted by the entire ultra-Orthodox public, but there also seems to be an erosion of trust between leaders of smaller sub-communities and their followers; this-- after some of these rabbis were slow to rule that state orders should be followed, and thus bear an indirect responsibility for the spread of the virus among many of the members of their communities. This is true of ultra-Orthodox society in both Israel and the U.S., though in Israel the issue was complicated by the controversy regarding the fundamental authority of state institutions, which was a critical factor in rabbinical decision-making. In each of the various sub-groups, the decision to follow public health orders or to delay doing so was dependent on the group’s relationship with the state and its willingness to trust in state institutions.
The decentralized nature of religious leadership was also highly evident in the relations between Orthodox Judaism abroad and the religious leadership in Israel. After many years of almost total compliance with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the rabbis of Europe—and most prominent among them, the rabbis of France—closed synagogues and mikvaot even when this step was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate.
Another deviation from Israeli rabbinic authority came to the fore in the U.S., where prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis ruled that yeshivot and schools should be closed, in contradiction with the explicit ruling issued by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky just a few days earlier. This show of independence by rabbis outside Israel later on proved itself to have been the correct and responsible thing to do, and so—we can assume that these rabbis’ independence from the Israeli rabbinic center will grow even stronger when the crisis is over.