My Take on the News

Will the Kollelim and Yeshivos Reopen?

If you were to ask me to identify the most pressing issue that we dealt with this week, I would find it very hard to answer that question. There have been many topics of concern, but one of the most significant was the issue of yeshivos and kollelim. And since there is nothing more important than Torah learning, I will begin with that, before moving on to some other topics that have been the subject of much discussion: the festivities in Meron on Lag Ba’Omer, the progress in the battle against coronavirus, and the story that has dominated all the headlines in the secular press—the recent upheaval in the Ministry of Justice.

The government has removed or loosened many of the restrictions that were put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For instance, it is now permissible to hold gatherings of 50 people. Of course, certain guidelines must still be observed: The people must maintain distances of two meters from each other, masks must be worn, and shaking hands is still prohibited. This decision could have had an immediate impact on the chareidi community, which yearns to resume the minyanim in its shuls rather than davening in parking lots or forming minyanim with the participants on separate porches. But in spite of the government’s decision to loosen the restrictions, it has been decided for the time being that tefillos will still not be held in shuls. This is because shuls tend to become crowded during minyanim, and it would be difficult for the government’s guidelines to be observed. In fact, several gedolim have ruled that even if the government relaxes some of its restrictions due to pressure from the public and the sense that the rules are becoming unbearable, that does not give us the right to be frivolous about the mitzvah of v’nishmartem meod l’nafshoseichem. At the same time, weddings taking place after Lag Ba’Omer will be able to be attended by 50 people, which certainly makes a huge difference.

Meanwhile, any yeshivos that can implement the “capsule arrangement” approved by the government are permitted to reopen. This plan calls for groups no larger than 39 bochurim to be isolated in separate sections of a yeshiva. Every bochur in a group will be tested for coronavirus before entering a “capsule,” and once he has entered, he will not be permitted to leave. The bochurim will then be permitted to learn in their respective capsules without concern that they might infect each other. After 45 days, all the capsules in a yeshiva will be permitted to learn together in the main beis medrash, and additional groups will be admitted for a second round of “capsule” learning.

It is considered somewhat simpler for the kollelim to reopen; they are easier to supervise, and it is presumed that yungerleit can be relied upon to observe the precautionary guidelines more than bochurim in yeshiva. Nevertheless, every kollel is supposed to appoint someone who will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the rules. The yungerleit in a kollel are expected to learn at a distance from each other, to wear masks, and to exercise all possible caution.

As for schools, the yeshivos and Bais Yaakov schools, like the schools in the secular education system, opened first only for the higher grades, and only in areas where the corona infection rates were not particularly high. The lower grades will return to school only next week. And any parent who does not wish to take the risk of sending their children to school will be permitted to keep them home.

A Gradual and Cautious Return

Although many of the government’s restrictions have been relaxed—or perhaps because of that added leniency—there is a concern that people may mistakenly believe that the pandemic is over. The gedolei Torah have been emphasizing the importance of caution and have warned that if the maximum level of caution is not observed in a yeshiva or kollel (or if the physical conditions do not make it possible to implement the capsule arrangement in a yeshiva or to maintain distance between the members of a kollel), then the talmidim should continue learning at home and over the telephone. At this time, I believe that most of the kollel yungerleit, yeshiva bochurim, and schoolchildren in the country have not returned to their regular schedules. In any event, the capsule arrangement does not allow the full complement of talmidim in many yeshivos to return at once.

In order to facilitate the capsule arrangement, Dr. Tzion Schlossberg was assigned to serve as the liaison between the Vaad HaYeshivos and the Ministry of Health. Today (Sunday), Dr. Schlossberg announced, “About ten yeshivos will begin their studies tomorrow under the capsule arrangement that we proposed. We received many calls from yeshivos that are interested in implementing the plan. We have examined and approved many of those yeshivos. Another set of yeshivos were required to make certain modifications to their facilities in order to receive approval. The arrangement might become unnecessary in another two weeks, but the reverse might also take place. We must prepare for every possible scenario.”

We are all feeling a certain degree of relief. Even though the coronavirus has yet to be eradicated, it has certainly become less of a threat. Today, the Ministry of Health announced, “The trend of a decrease in corona cases has continued in recent days. For the first time, there were no deaths in Israel from coronavirus over the past 24 hours. The number of deaths and intubations has decreased. The problem is that there has also been a decline in the level of observance of the guidelines.”

Of course, we all hope that the positive trend will continue and that all the dire predictions of another outbreak (which the experts anticipate taking place around Sukkos, chas v’sholom) will turn out to be unfounded.

As I mentioned, yeshiva bochurim throughout the country have begun the zman learning in their courtyards, on their porches, and over the telephone. In my own parking lot, a mini-yeshiva of sorts was founded. The bochurim sit at a distance from each other and wear masks; I doubt that anyone ever thought the day would come when we would tell our children, “You had better put on a mask so that you don’t make anyone afraid!”

All News Subject to Change

It is very hard to write a column about the developments in Israeli politics, since things change so quickly that anything I write today will be irrelevant by tomorrow, and even more so in four or five days. Take the issue of the soon-to-be-formed government, for instance. The country today is fixated on the conflict between Yamina and Netanyahu regarding whether the right-wing party will enter the government or join the opposition. It is clear to everyone that if Yamina remains in the opposition, it will leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths. After all, Yamina is part of the right-wing bloc, without which Netanyahu would not have survived. On the other hand, Yamina cannot demand more than their share in the new government. That is actually the issue at the core of their conflict with the Likud.

Netanyahu has a problem. He made so many concessions to Blue and White that no matter how much he expands the government—and it will already be the government with the largest number of ministers and deputy ministers since the founding of the state—he will have nothing left for the Likud. It is already clear that some of the current Likud ministers will lose their positions. He has decided to compensate one of them by appointing him the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and to give another the position of ambassador to Washington, but what will he do for the others? With plenty of disgruntled politicians within his own party, Netanyahu certainly cannot afford to be overly generous to Yamina.

He also has the problem of Yuli Edelstein, the former Speaker of the Knesset. The Blue and White party vetoed the idea of reinstating Edelstein in his previous position. Personally, I believe that their decision is wrong. Edelstein resigned after deciding that he could not comply with the orders of the Supreme Court. The Blue and White party considers his actions to be a show of contempt for the court, and they have been opposed to him ever since. This is in spite of the fact that Divine hashgochah clearly thwarted the plans of the court and caused their attempts to undermine Netanyahu (by forcing Edelstein to convene the Knesset in order to allow himself to be replaced by Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid) to backfire and benefit the prime minister. Edelstein’s resignation was the catalyst for Benny Gantz to join the unity government and to take the position of Knesset speaker in the interim. As of now, Edelstein has informed Netanyahu that the only job he would accept is Knesset speaker, he will not be a minister in the government. Several other politicians have issued ultimatums: If they do not receive ministerial positions, then they will not be part of the government at all. Netanyahu has enough trouble contending with his own people’s demands, and there is nothing he can do for Yamina.

Nevertheless, the new government is scheduled to be sworn in on Wednesday evening, at the final Knesset sitting of the week. Therefore, anything that I write today should be taken as tentative, as the current state of affairs may very well evaporate by the time you read this column.

Netanyahu and Yamina Cross Swords

What is happening with Yamina? It is very simple. The right-wing party actually consists of three separate factions. One is a secular right-wing party headed by Bennett and Shaked, another is the religious nationalist party headed by Smotrich and his colleagues, and the third is the party that was previous known as the Mizrachi or Mafdal or NRP, which is represented today by Rafi Peretz. All four of these people insist on holding ministerial positions; none of them will budge from their demands. But Netanyahu is unable to accommodate them. As of today, the members of Yamina insist that they are heading toward the opposition. This is actually a good thing, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, since it is always beneficial for the opposition to represent both the right and the left.

Announcing their intent to join the opposition, Yamina issued a sharp statement making believe that they weren’t joining because of political considerations. They wrote, “In light of the makeup of the government and its apparent policies as a left-wing government headed by Netanyahu, and in light of the prime minister’s blatant contempt for Yamina and its voters, the Yamina party has decided to serve the people from the opposition in the upcoming term and to fight from there for the nationalist camp.

This decision was reached after many repeated attempts to successfully conduct negotiations with the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has chosen to dismantle the right-wing bloc and his partnership with Yamina. Yamina says it will prepare for the day after Netanyahu’s tenure ends, which is scheduled to come in a year and a half, and say they will create an alternative, right-wing party while sitting in the opposition. To quote, “It will be a right wing that will not agree to sell the judicial system to the left for the sake of personal survival, a right wing that will not be willing to show softness to Hamas and Abu Mazen, a right wing that will be committed to the development and organization of settlements, a right wing that will not sell Judaism itself to public activists or the Israeli economy to Amir Peretz and the Histadrut, a right wing that will not give up on the battle to expel infiltrators and restore our neighborhoods. We do not regret for a moment the loyalty that we demonstrated to the right-wing bloc over the past year. Going to the opposition is a natural outgrowth of our faithfulness to the right-wing public, to whom Netanyahu has not been loyal.

“Yamina will be a combative yet responsible opposition, which will offer external support for the favorable decisions of the government, such as declaring sovereignty over Yehuda and the Shomron, provided that it comes without any recognition, either explicit or implied, of a Palestinian state. We call upon Netanyahu to provide for the needs of religious Zionism in the coming government, in the areas of education, settlement, appointments for religious services, and other matters as well, in keeping with his promises to many of the people who voted for him on account of those guarantees.”

The Likud responded by mocking Yamina’s statement. “If Yamina had received another portfolio, would they have considered it to be a right-wing government?” they demanded rhetorically. “This is the first government in the history of this state that will impose sovereignty on Yehuda and the Shomron. It is sad that Yamina will not be a part of that, simply because of internal conflicts over the division of portfolios. We hope that Yamina will come to its senses, demonstrate responsibility to the nation, and enter the government that will preside over a historic process for the future of Zionism.”

Praying for a Proper Burial

The coronavirus has thrown the entire world into disarray, but in some ways it has been forcing us to address some longstanding issues. The world is on hold, in a sense, as a global “restart” takes place. This year, Lag Ba’omer came without any of the usual hustle and bustle, but without the throngs of people flocking to Meron. We have also discovered that we can manage with much more limited purchases (in our preparations for Pesach, for instance) and with more modest simchos and other events. For the past two months, we have somehow been managing without dentists, shoemakers, and tailors. We have also rediscovered our wonderful neighbors and we have gained new appreciation for our precious children; we have been awed by their profound desire to return to their botei medrash, and we never dreamed that they would be able to learn at home with such vigor and intensity.

This week, a tzaddik with whom I am acquainted told me that he had added a tefillah to his daily prayers for the sick to be healed, for the healthy not to become ill, and for the deceased to be buried with dignity. Observing my surprise at the final clause, he added, “The Gemara speaks about this explicitly in Maseches Brachos (8b), where Rabbi Yochanan states that the posuk ‘for this, let every righteous man pray to You at the time You are found’ refers to a proper burial. The Gemara derives this from the posuk, ‘Those who are gladdened by joyous things will rejoice when they find a grave.’ You see,” he continued, “having a proper burial is a reason to rejoice. The Maharsha explains that not everyone merits being buried. The Gemara adds that a person must daven for ‘peace until the last shovelful of earth,’ which Rashi explains to mean that a person must daven to be at peace throughout his life and even on the day of his burial, until his grave has been completely filled in. I have been watching the recent funerals and have been reminded to daven for a proper kevurah.”

Meron—Open to Rebbes, Closed to Their Drivers

It would probably be best for me to wait until next week to write about the events of Lag Ba’Omer. This year there were three bonfires in Meron. One lit by the Boyaner Rebbe, continuing the 150-year legacy of the hadlokah being kindled by a member of his family. A number of rebbes who have presided over their own bonfires in the past may attend. According to the police, the admorim were not to bring any companions to Meron, even their personal drivers. The police also announced that even the members of the Knesset, who are legally entitled to go anywhere they desire, will not be permitted to be accompanied by their aides or drivers; however.

The police permitted members of the press to come to Meron, also without companions and only within a designated area. Reporters were not granted access to the actual site of the hadlakos.

In addition to the three hadlakos (of the Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Amar, and Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, respectively), there was also be a stage with musical performances broadcast live to viewers throughout the country and around the world. But aside from a single centralized hadlokah in cities such as Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit, the government completely banned bonfires throughout the country on the night of Lag Ba’Omer, and the police announced that the ban will be enforced strictly.

Mandelblit Under Fire

Now let us turn our attention to the latest events in Israel’s judicial system. Rumors have long been circulating that the attorney general was suspected of some sort of malfeasance. Before holding his current post, Attorney General Mandelblit served as the cabinet secretary. Prior to that, he served as the chief military prosecutor, and a complicated scandal erupted during that time when Yoav Gallant (who is a minister in the government today) was nominated for the position of chief of staff of the IDF, and a document was published that indicated that he had tried to slander his rivals. That document turned out to have been forged, and an investigation was opened. Avichai Mandelblit, as the chief military prosecutor, was suspected of conspiring with then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to whitewash the affair. This episode became known as the Harpaz Affair.

This week, a reporter named Ayala Hasson announced that she is in possession of a recording in which Mandelblit can be heard promising to extricate Ashkenazi from the scandal. Naturally, this is highly incriminating evidence. On the other hand, the recording is classified, and therefore it should not have been brought to the public’s attention.

Hasson’s revelation placed Mandelblit in a difficult position. The attorney general’s office claimed that the reporter had presented only a partial account of the story, that the entire episode had been known when he was appointed to his current position, and that the publication of this news was in violation of the law. “I knew that as the opening date for Netanyahu’s trial draws closer, I could expect to be personally defamed,” Mandelblit added. But it would be hard to say that he was very convincing.

Outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana remarked, “I was worried when I first took this position, and I am much more worried as I leave it. Many others before me have recognized our judicial system as sick, vengeful, rotten, lacking transparency, and a host of other problematic adjectives. But the revelations exposed in recent times by certain brave journalists—such as Ayala Hasson’s recent announcement—should constitute a veritable earthquake.”

Ohana was implicitly drawing a contrast between the brave reporters who dare to speak the truth and those who function as mouthpieces for the establishment and who lost the right to be considered true journalists long ago. Perhaps I will write about this in greater detail at a different time.

The Supreme Court Dodges a Conflict

Last week, I wrote at length about the hearings taking place in the Supreme Court. The court had decided to listen to petitions that claimed that Netanyahu should not be permitted to form a government due to the criminal indictments against him and that the coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White contains illegal clauses. The deliberations were held on Sunday and Monday and were broadcast live to the public, in an unprecedented move on the part of the court that made for a fascinating experience.

It was particularly intriguing to listen to the senseless lines of reasoning being presented in solemn, self-righteous tones. Empty, meaningless arguments were presented before a panel of judges, some of whom appeared to be almost asleep in their chairs. The judges interjected with meaningless corrections; when someone mentioned the “Judicial Appointments Committee,” the judges nearly leapt out of their seats and corrected the term to “Judicial Selections Committee.” From their tones, one might have thought that the name of the committee was a matter of life and death. At the same time, the jurists presenting their arguments before the court spoke at great length and repeated themselves incessantly, ignoring the judges’ pleas for them to be brief. Ignorance was also on display; when attorney Elad Shraga quoted “Justice Shamgar in the Zarzeveski case,” many of the judges, especially Chayut and Meltzer, were quick to ridicule him. “Shamgar wasn’t on that panel at all,” they chided the attorney.

But the chief justice herself was not immune to error. When one of Netanyahu’s lawyers asked the court to exercise restraint, Chayut demanded, “Do you mean to say that this issue is not subject to judicial review?” The attorney replied, “According to your philosophy, it certainly is. You have said, after all, that ‘the entire world is filled with judgment.’”

Chayut responded with outrage. “No one ever said that!” she insisted.

I was surprised at her reaction. Could it be that the chief justice actually disagrees that this has always been—and still is—the philosophy of former Chief Justice Aharon Barak? Even if he never said it explicitly, his rulings certainly reflect that attitude. Moreover, his deputy at the time, the “religious” judge Menachem Elon, wrote in one of his own rulings, “Barak maintains that the entire world is filled with judgment.”

Personally, I feel that the Supreme Court was more interested in its own strategy than in the actual dictates of the law. The court was simply trying to decide how to balance their own enmity toward Netanyahu with the potential for the public to tolerate their meddling. It was clear that all eleven judges on the panel would have been happy to send Netanyahu packing. They were only unsure of whether they could take such a presumptuous step.

On Thursday night, the court announced its decision: The eleven judges had agreed unanimously to reject all the petitions they had received. Evidently, they had decided that they could not take the extreme step of disqualifying the prime minister. As for the petitions against the coalition deal, the judges explained that they were simply premature, since the deal had yet to be signed and approved by the Knesset. To put it more plainly, they were signaling that the petitioners will be welcome to try their luck again when the time is right.

An Appalling Address and a Loathsome Law

In the meantime, the Knesset has just about completed the process of passing the new laws that had to be enacted before the government could be sworn in. Benny Gantz was unwilling to take any of Netanyahu’s promises at face value; therefore, all the terms of the coalition deal had to be anchored in law. The new laws stipulate that Gantz will become the prime minister of Israel in another year and a half, and that a majority of 75 MKs is required to overturn that decision.

The Knesset usually adheres to a strict schedule, meeting on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Over the past two weeks, it has convened on Sunday and Thursday as well, in a race to pass the new legislation in time for the coalition deal to go into effect. Last Thursday, the Knesset concluded its sitting at 2:30 a.m.

I listened as all the most predictable speeches were delivered in the Knesset. Leftist MK Nitzan Horowitz derided the new government and praised the Supreme Court for its decision to prohibit hospitals from banning chometz on their premises on Pesach. Oded Forer, a member of Lieberman’s party, said mockingly, “Your masks are too small to cover up your shame.” I was perplexed when Eli Avidar of Yisroel Beiteinu turned to Yaakov Margi, who was chairing the session, and said, “Would you please tell MK Eli Yishai to stop interrupting?” After all, Eli Yishai has not been in the Knesset for a long time….

I caught up with Avidar later in the day and asked, “Who was this Eli Yishai you mentioned?”

He smiled behind his mask. “Never mind,” he said dismissively.

At that moment, Moshe Abutbul passed us and called out to me, “How are you, tzaddik?”

I laughed and chided him flippantly, “You had better be careful, Moshe. Avidar might think that you are calling him a tzaddik!”

During the Knesset sitting, Mickey Zohar warned the Supreme Court not to be presumptuous enough to overturn laws that were passed by majorities of 72 to 40 or 70 to 38. Indeed, some of the new laws were passed in their first readings by record margins, as almost all 120 members of the Knesset were present in the building.

One of the speeches, delivered by Alex Kushnir, was a model of appalling incitement. “Look what happens when Minister Aryeh Deri declares in public, at an election rally in Ashdod, that he is sorry that there are so many Russians in the country,” he railed. “Look what happens when the Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef, claims that we are all alcoholics, Christians, Communists, and non-Jews.” He went on to “threaten” his listeners, “If you don’t respect the immigrants, then we will make you respect them!” Kushnir is not only a brutish thug but also a petty liar.

As I wrote last week, 544 proposed laws were placed on the Knesset table over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, one of those laws is tragic, and even if it is never brought to the Knesset for discussion, the mere fact that it was composed is shameful. This bill would permit the practice of euthanasia for terminal patients.

Permission Granted to Visit Grandparents

My grandson Eliyohu recently called me in a state of great excitement. “Saba,” he exclaimed, “it’s my birthday today! I am four years old!”

Mazel tov,” I replied. “I am going to buy you a present. Would you like a siddur?”

“Yes,” he said, “and Abba told me that we are allowed to visit our grandparents again.” It was indeed major news, since some families have been unable to bear the separation between grandparents and their grandchildren.

The Chazon Ish in Porat Yosef

This week marked the fiftieth yahrtzeit of Rav Ezra Attiya, who served as rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef. Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who was a talmid in the yeshiva, once wrote the following description of his illustrious rebbi: “He taught many talmidim the profundities of iyun and the commitment to hasmodah. It is related that the Chazon Ish once came to Yerushalayim to visit the Kosel Hamaaravi, and as he was leaving to return to Bnei Brak, he passed by Yeshivas Porat Yosef [which was near the Kosel] and encountered the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ezra Attiya. The two began speaking in learning, and the Chazon Ish was deeply impressed with the rosh yeshiva. He commented that [Rav Attiya’s] power of reasoning was like that of the Rashba in his own generation, whose analyses were extremely profound. Fortunate are those who can grasp his insights into the Torah.”

Rav Ovadiah also wrote, “I remember that during my youth, he used to encourage me to deliver shiurim to working men and menial laborers who earned a livelihood through their toil and allocated time for their Torah learning, and I did as he said. In his great humility, he seated me beside him in the bais din of the Sephardic community, which was headed at the time by the great Rav Yehuda Shako, the av beis din and head bochein at Yeshivas Porat Yosef. The av beis din never agreed to sign any psak before Rav Ezra; he would first hand the psak to him and insist that he sign it first. I used to share divrei halacha with them there, and he would praise me and encourage me to record my thoughts in writing. It was on account of his encouragement that I had the merit of composing Yabia Omer and my other seforim.”

Rav Ovadiah also related a fascinating story concerning Rav Benzion Abba Shaul and the Baba Meir (the son of the Baba Sali): “Rav Benzion Abba Shaul once traveled to Ashdod in the year 5733 to visit the great rov and mekubal Rav Meir Abuchatzeirah. When he arrived, the rov asked his name, and he replied, ‘Benzion.’

“‘What do you do?’ the Baba Meir asked.

“‘I am a yungerman in Yeshivas Porat Yosef,’ he replied.

“‘And what are you learning there?’

“Rav Benzion replied that they were learning the sugya of ‘ksav yadeinu hu zeh’ on daf 18 of Maseches Kesuvos. The rov replied, ‘When a person learns Kesuvos lishmah, the posuk of ‘ba’atzascha tancheini v’achar kavod tikacheini’ is applied to him, for the initial letters of these words form the word Kesuvos.’ They began discussing the sugya at great length, and at the conclusion of their analysis, [Rav Benzion] shared the novel ideas formulated by the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ezra Attiya. The rov was delighted by Rav Ezra’s pilpul and chiddushim, and they parted ways. Some time later, several yungerleit from Porat Yosef came to visit the rov, and he asked them, ‘Who is the yungerman in your yeshiva named Benzion?’ They replied, ‘He is not a yungerman; he is one of the heads of the yeshiva.’ Upon hearing that, the Baba Meir was astounded by Rav Benzion’s humility.”