These are testing times and our rabbis are not rising to the challenge

On coronavirus, our rabbinate did too little, too late

May 01, 2020 15:55

A rabbi, it is often said, is no job for a Jewish boy. The rewards are meagre in this world and promissory in the next. The career path is inchoate, the clientele ungrateful. The best one can hope for is a south-facing plot in Willesden Cemetery, downwind from the Rothschilds.

I’ve always had a soft spot for rabbis and I feel their present pain. Robbed of the joy of weddings, unable to visit the sick or pray with the dying, stood alone at an open grave with no kaddish to say or mourners to console, a rabbi’s job was never so forlorn. Even the thrice-daily trudge to synagogue now seems like paradise lost. A rabbi without a shul is like a fish without fingers. 


When rabbis phone, I listen more to the colour of their voice than the content in order to judge how they are coping. Robustly, on the whole, I’m pleased to report. Like schoolmarms and sea-captains, rabbis are mostly to be found on the stern side of things. Nevertheless, right now they need our support. I’d like to propose we give them a round of doorstep applause, like NHS workers, at 11.30 on Sabbath morning, around kiddush time. Three amens and a single malt.

But let’s not go overboard. Miriam Shaviv was right to highlight in this paper the swathe of discontent that crossed Anglo-Orthodoxy over rabbinic responses in the early corona era. She argued that the rabbinate did too little, too late to make Passover bearable.

True, rules were relaxed on supervised foodstuffs like sugar and coffee, but they should never have been there in the first place. Rabbis have been running riot for years with kosher for Pesach stamps.

One beard I know got sent to Scotland to put a rabbinic seal on bottled water. Another, refused entry to a sugar refinery on health and safety grounds, sat at the gate watching workers going in and out, and made a declaration that, having seen no leaven, the sugar had to be kosher. In easy times, we chuckled at these absurdities. Now we see the cracks in the system.

The worst was rabbinic equivocation over social isolation. Before Passover, rabbis had a God-sent opportunity — I use the term advisedly — to sanction the use of brand-new technology such as Zoom and Teams in order to avert the atrocity of single Jews sitting alone on Seder night, unable to break maztah and weep maror with family and friends. Spending Pesach alone is a darkness unseen since the ninth plague in Egypt.

Some young Sephardi rabbis in Israel tentatively endorsed Seder-by-Zoom, but they were quashed without mercy by the rabbinic juggernaut. Eleven chief rabbis, count them, slapped a Pesach cherem on Zoom. Privately, communal rabbis turned a blind eye, but the official line was adamant in its rejection of progress and humanity. Mostly, from what I’m hearing, Jews zoomed away, no questions asked.

None of this affected the strictly-Orthodox community, which is mourning a disproportionate number of deaths, among them eminent rabbis. Few can yet admit that it was the failure of rebbes to forbid prayer meetings, weddings and shivas that resulted in the rapid spread of the virus. Secret minyans are still being held, on a rabbinic nod and a wink. Police last week had to break up an illegal wedding, solemnised by a Stamford Hill rabbi in Temple Fortune and jazzed up by a Charedi band. 

Bizarrely in a sector that bans the internet, the Charedi charity Kupat Ha’ir has a busy website that advertises its activities under the approval of Gedolei Hador, the giant scholars of our generation. Kupat Ha’ir sends a twice-daily minyan to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for new donors who wish “to be saved from the corona plague”. The website further states that anyone who gives NIS 3,000 (£750) — easy payment options available — will receive a holy amulet in addition to an assurance from one of the aforementioned giants that “he will not get sick and nor will anyone in his home”. Coronavirus has brought us back to the Dark Ages.

In testing times, rabbis can be heroes. Solomon Schonfeld saved thousands of children. Leo Baeck accompanied his Berlin flock to a concentration camp when he could easily have been spared. Menachem Mendel Schneerson went to work in a Brooklyn naval dockyard. 

There are no heroes yet in the corona era and it may be too much to expect rabbis to change their stripes in isolation. But change must come, and soon. There is a realistic expectation that shuls will still be shut in September. Will that mean Yom Kippur without sermons and appeals? Rabbis need to take a view on holding us together on the holiest of days. A fish needs fingers.


May 01, 2020 15:55

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