Chaim Kanievsky can’t use a phone, rarely leaves his house, has never made a cup of tea successfully and doesn’t know the name of Israel’s prime minister, according to those who know the rabbi who studies the Torah for 17 hours a day, give or take.
Yet despite his seeming detachment from worldly life, Kanievsky has become one of the most consequential and controversial people in Israel.
The spiritual leader of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, he has landed at the centre of tensions over Covid-19 between the mainstream and the growing ultra-Orthodox minority.
Throughout the pandemic, authorities have clashed with the ultra-Orthodox over their resistance to antivirus protocols, particularly their early refusal to close schools or limit crowds at religious events. Similar conflicts have played out in the New York area.
Kanievsky, issuing pronouncements from a book-filled study in his cramped apartment in an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, has often been at the forefront of that resistance. Twice, during the first and second waves of the pandemic in Israel, he rejected state-imposed antivirus protocols and would not order his followers to close yeshivas, independent religious schools where students gather in close quarters to study Jewish scripture.
“God forbid!” he exclaimed. If anything, the pandemic made prayer and study even more essential, he said.
He eventually relented and it is unlikely that he played as big a role in spreading the virus as accusers said but the damage was done.
Many public health experts say that the ultra-Orthodox – who account for about 12 per cent of the population but 28 per cent of infections, according to Israeli government statistics – have undermined the national effort against the virus.
The reaction has been fierce, much of it centred on Kanievsky.
The rabbi “must be arrested for spreading a disease”, blared left-wing newspaper Haaretz. “This rabbi dictates the scandalous conduct in the ultra-Orthodox sector,” said the Yedioth Ahronoth.
The backlash exaggerates both the rabbi’s role and that of the ultra-Orthodox in general. Ultra-Orthodox society is not monolithic and other prominent leaders were far quicker to comply with antivirus regulations. Ultra-Orthodox leaders say the majority of their followers have obeyed the rules although their typically large families, living in tight quarters under what is now the third national lockdown, have inevitably contributed to the spread of the contagion.
Kanievsky’s position has also been more nuanced than sometimes portrayed but he has contributed to one of the biggest-ever showdowns with the mainstream.
“I don’t remember such a case in the history of the state of Israel,” said professor Benjamin Brown, an expert on ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredi”, thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the past, he said, ultra-Orthodox leaders have tried to avoid direct confrontation with the state.
Born in what is now Belarus in 1928, Kanievsky immigrated to what was then Palestine before the Second World War. He has spent most of his subsequent waking life studying Jewish texts, gradually building a following among the so-called Lithuanian Jews, a non-Hasidic sect with Eastern European roots who form roughly a third of the Haredim in Israel.
When the sect’s previous leader died in 2017, Kanievsky was one of two senior rabbis who filled the vacuum, which gave him considerable authority over the sect as well as an ultra-Orthodox political party that now forms part of the government.
His pedigree adds to his prestige. His father and uncle were legendary spiritual leaders but it is his relentless Torah study that gives him his authority – his followers believe his encyclopaedic knowledge of Jewish teachings endows him with a near-mystical ability to offer guidance.
“They see him as a holy man,” says Eli Paley, chair of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research group. “They see their existence as relying on Rabbi Chaim and his Torah learning.”
On a recent afternoon in his apartment in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, Kanievsky appeared oblivious to the controversy raging around him. He sat silently at a small wooden table covered in a silvery tablecloth, surrounded by religious books. His wrinkled and reddened hands gripped a white book of scripture. Since rising before dawn, he had been studying the Chullin, a rabbinical text on the laws of ritual slaughter and would continue to study late into the night.
He never gives interviews and barely registered my presence, glancing at me only briefly to offer the short blessing he gives to most visitors.
It is this devotion to religious study that made Kanievsky – sometimes nicknamed the “Prince of Torah” – so reluctant to tell his followers to close their yeshivas at the start of the pandemic. The pandemic, he believed, according to his interlocutors, made prayer and study more important not less.
“He believes the Torah sustains the world,” says his grandson Yaakov Kanievsky, his main mediator with the outside world. “Without Torah learning, we don’t have any reason to live. It’s written in the Bible – if you stop learning, the world will collapse.”
For a few hours each day, Kanievsky stops studying to take questions from his followers, who either put their requests in writing or pose them in person during visiting hours. Since he is hard of hearing, the questions are relayed by his grandsons, who shout them in the rabbi’s ear and, when necessary, contextualise the questions and clarify their grandfather’s terse, mumbled answers.
A few such exchanges, at the start of the pandemic, quickly gained national notoriety.
“There is now a great epidemic in the world, a disease called corona and it affects many people,” one grandson shouted in the rabbi’s ear last year, following a question from a visitor, according to a video of the conversation. “He asks what they should take upon themselves so this disease does not get to them and there are no problems.”
“They should learn Talmud,” the rabbi whispered.
On a separate occasion, Yaakov asked his grandfather: “The question is, if grandfather thinks that they should close the schools because of this?”
“God forbid!” the rabbi replied.
Yaakov, better known as Yanki, says these brief clips don’t tell the whole story. The rabbi, he says, has long complied with government policy.
“There are things that get misunderstood,” Yanki says. “He takes Covid very seriously, and he takes the patients very seriously.”
Several weeks into the pandemic, the rabbi ordered his followers to obey social distancing guidelines, even equating those who scoff at the rules to murderers. In June, he said facemasks were a religious obligation. In December, he gave his blessing to the vaccine, not long after recovering from the virus himself. In recent days he condemned a group of Haredi youths who clashed with police trying to enforce virus regulations.
And he ultimately reversed himself on closing the yeshivas, which remain closed or under quarantine during the current lockdown.
“If you look at the news tonight, there will be one Haredi school open and people will say, ‘Oh, it’s all Rabbi Kanievsky’s fault’,” Yanki says. “But it’s really not.”
Yanki Kanievsky’s dominant role in his grandfather’s life has led to questions about who is really in charge and whether Rabbi Kanievsky is alert enough to judge matters of national importance. Critics say the grandson controls who can and can’t reach the grandfather – even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been granted the privilege of talking to Rabbi Kanievsky.
It is usually Yanki who shapes the way questions are put to the rabbi, potentially influencing the way that he might answer them.
Professor Kimmy Caplan, an expert on Haredim at Bar-Ilan University, says: “It’s all a question of how things are presented; the man does not have the ability to figure out how things are projected to him. We’re talking about a person who has been living in bubble wrap for quite a few years. The man is 93. I’m not taking away from his wisdom but he is in many ways detached from reality.”
The younger Kanievsky says his grandfather is entirely his own man and that it would be impossible to influence him even if he tried. Everyone has the right to ask him anything – they just have to line up and wait their turn.
“I can’t tell the rabbi what to say,” Yanki says. “If he thinks I’m trying to manipulate him, I am finished.”
But without speaking to the rabbi directly, it is hard to know exactly what he thinks. As the interview with Yanki draws to a close, we ask for a final audience with the rabbi.
Yanki shakes his head… Rabbi Kanievsky is taking a nap.
© The New York Times
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies