What’s the Halacha Rabbi Goldstein?

Many of us read the English version of various Israeli press outlets on a daily basis. It is to be expected that some reports or articles will upset us and we will disagree with others. This morning, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein castigated the Israeli Government for tightening entry rules on account of the COVID pandemic, especially in light of the Omicron mutation, which is reportedly rife in South Africa. The article disturbed me. Not wanting to rely solely on a newspaper report, a search of the Chief Rabbi’s website, however, elicited no alternative statement.

This Israeli Government is certainly not to everyone’s taste. A veritable pastiche of political extremes, sandwiched in a central mid-riff, it is an interesting and curious example of how compromise and cooperation can function in a utilitarian manner. At the end of the day, it is the result of a rigor mortis induced by successive inability to clearly choose one direction: either Netanyahu’s Likud aggregation or that of his opponents.

The Israeli Government was voted in by Israeli citizens, most of whom are Jewish. The connection to Israel from the Diaspora is inalienable, Halacha-based and subsequently enshrined in the Law of Return. Though imbued with Halacha it does not extend to proffering a formal vote to Rabbi Goldstein or indeed to any of us “Diasporans”, who find themselves awaiting the final redemption. Indeed, traditionally, when it came to rendering formal Halacha, the great sages of our generation, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ז׳ל and others, avoided issuing rulings which affected the Jews of Israel and deferred to the Poskim of Eretz Yisrael.

We are free to make comments, though the wise man will always consider his or her audience lest opinion is hijacked by a political enemy who has no respect for the Jewish State.

The aftermath of the tragic murder of Eli Kay הי’’ד, where some visitors from South Africa were denied entry to Israel and forced to transgress Shabbos on account of unacceptably hyper vigilant airport officials was calamitous and inexcusable. Apparently, complaints from many, including Rabbi Goldstein, have not elicited any response from Prime Minister Bennett, himself a Shabbos observer. Silence is not acceptable. A proper review of the incident is warranted. Prime Minister Bennett needs to address this shameful and reprehensible incident.

Based on the report, Rabbi Goldstein would like the COVID protection regime of “right of re-entry” to apply to all Jews and not solely to Israeli citizens. He would like the Government to reframe its protection of Israeli society and its institutions to apply to any Jew who wishes to visit the country. If an Israeli citizen returning from South Africa, for example, is permitted to land in Israel then according to Rabbi Goldstein “any and every” Jew from South Africa should be afforded the same privilege. Rabbi Goldstein’s thesis is essentially that the right of return should be extended to a “right to visit during a pandemic”.

Despite the unbecoming bragging from then Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel was leading the way with Vaccines and defeating the Virus, the reality is that the vaccination rate in Israel is poor when compared to other Western countries, and Vaccines remain the most potent defence against the virus. The potential for a catastrophic Omicron-based outbreak is tangible and something that needs to be considered by those who are responsible for running the country in concert with the best medical advice. Rabbi Goldstein professes to know that medical advice is that “it’s okay to allow tourists”, though he doesn’t provide a source for this advice.

Whilst Rabbi Goldstein and many of us in the Diaspora pray for the success of Israel and the health and safety of its citizens on a weekly or even daily basis, we are not responsible for running the country and we are not privy to the ability or otherwise of the Israeli Medical system to deal with an Omicron outbreak. One thing is certain: each country forges its own path trying to minimise risk to human life and does so in a very delicate balancing act.

What is the nature of the equality between Israeli citizens and Jewish tourists and their “rights” to land in Israel during a health crisis? Rabbi Goldstein refers to this as a moral issue. Is this a western-cum-egalitarian notion of morality or is this a Jewish-Halachic concept? Given that the comments emanate from the office of a Chief Rabbi, once would and should expect that the view is firmly rooted in a Halachic imperative. I do not know of any Halachic imperative or quasi Halachic morality that should lead to the conclusion that a Jew has the “same rights” as an Israeli citizen. Indeed, the Diaspora Jew doesn’t even have the designation of a Ger Toshav.

Is Judaism afraid to differentiate between different types of Jews, vis a vis the Halacha? Decidely not. Even the laws of Charity are framed in a manner that discriminates openly between Jews. If I live in Israel and have a choice between giving my last dollar to a poor man visiting from outside of Israel versus a poor man who lives in Israel, the Halacha is clear: you give the poor man who lives in your neighbourhood.

Making decisions often involves discriminating and not all discrimination is wrong. A world without discrimination is (halachically) amoral.

So what are the choices here? One extreme is to not even allow one’s own citizens to land in a country when a pandemic is threatening to grow, uncontrolled. This extreme was the one we experienced here in Australia. It resulted in some very cruel outcomes because there were no allowances for compassionate cases, which could have been handled, objectively. The Government here was trying to be “equal to all, with no exceptions” — an extreme form of nonsensical egalitarianism and a hallmark of a misdirected society. Another extreme is to open up to all citizens and Jewish tourists. A middle ground, however, the one which Rabbi Goldstein objects to, is to permit one’s own citizens until such time as it is possible to reopen. This middle ground is the one apparently being considered by the Israeli Government. Does Rabbi Goldstein truly think that if the Government had a magical way to deal with a tourist influx during a pandemic that it wouldn’t do so?

If there is a Halachic justification behind Rabbi Goldstein’s view, I’d appreciate being exposed to it.

Even if one were to agree to disagree with Rabbi Goldstein, what prompted this blog post was his other alleged comment that

“The consequences, if nothing is changed, will start to emerge over the coming months and years, because the relationship has been changed. You can’t fundamentally change the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora and then expect everything will proceed as usual”


Got Fun Avrohom! On the one hand Rabbi Goldstein appeals to the innate, intangible and God-given relationship between the Jew and the Land–Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael–to the extent that he expects equal rights between citizens and Diaspora Jews. But such a relationship is transcendent–it cannot be changed. It cannot be tainted. It cannot be lessened. It cannot be “mutilated” by a temporal pandemic. If a Jew becomes estranged from his country because he doesn’t agree with or understand a health-based decision that is designed to keep its medical institutions afloat, then the basis of his relationship was not a Divinely inspired one. Without any Divine imperative in the first place, it beggars belief that “equal landing rights in a pandemic” are some axiomatic, God-given, halachic imperative, let alone a moral one.

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

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