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October 9, 2020 10:28 am

COVID-19, Haredi Jews and the Error of ‘Piety’

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, in New York City, to protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, Oct. 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Yuki Iwamura.

One of the most disturbing features of the pandemic has been the behavior of huge swathes of the Haredi community across the globe.

There have, thank goodness, been exceptions — rabbis of significant standing who have insisted their communities obey the laws of the land and limit public gatherings and services even at a cost to religious observance.

But there are others who steadfastly refuse and encourage their followers to disobey. I have seen several learned opinions, she’elot utshuvot (responsa, legal opinions), from both Israel and the US that insist that God will protect anyone studying Torah and praying, in defiance of restrictions — despite the tragic loss of Haredi life. All this achieves, is to undermine their religious and moral authority.

I want to stress that this is not a matter of which doctor or which politician is right or wrong. It is about perception and ethical consideration for others. Not acting like backwoodsmen men from Montana, fighting the law and everyone else.

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The disdain for wearing masks and social distancing has been the greatest chillul Hashem (desecration or bringing Judaism into disrepute) that I can remember. Blasted across the already unsympathetic media, hardly a day goes by without newspapers and TV channels showing Haredi communities not just ignoring the rules, but actively opposing them. Haredi friends (I still have a few) have come back from funerals and other public gatherings absolutely shocked at the disregard for masks and distances.

This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced lockdowns of several communities in New York, most of which are Haredi — because of a rebound of cases of infection and death. The large gatherings over the Holy Days and Festival season will not have helped.

As a result, there have been Haredi riots, mask burnings and refusals to disperse. Of course, it will only increase antisemitism and hatred. It has reached a point where people cross over the street when they see a Haredi approach. You’d have thought our brethren would have learned from the first wave, which affected Haredi communities much above the average. As usual, they claim that they are being picked upon.

Whereas previously Haredi communities were respected for being law-abiding, non-violent and socially supportive, now they are portrayed as insensitive and uncaring. All the good things that they do — charity, social support, cohesion, passion for study and religious life — are ignored as day after day in Israel, Europe, and the US, they appear to show no concern for others. I am deeply embarrassed and disappointed.

I concede that, everywhere, the medical opinion is divided and contradictory. All over the world, opinion has been wrong at times over the past six months and there is still a question hanging over lockdowns. Even Sweden — touted as a great success for not locking down — has seen new spikes and instituted changes. Only China, the autocratic, police state that monitors everyone has succeeded in getting it under control. But that is the penalty we pay for the freedoms we value. Sadly, almost everywhere, relaxation has led to rebound. Those who might have intended well also got it wrong whether through misinformation, conflicting medical opinions, misguided attempts to avoid panic, or get the economy going again. But this is not an excuse for ignoring governmental authority.

One can point to the sheer hypocrisy of secular political leaders, so blinded by their desire to suck up to the “woke” and their own constituencies that they allowed mass protests and indeed violence, in the name of freedom of speech. Even so, two wrongs do not make a right.

Nevertheless, the Haredi world touts the idea of Jews being responsible for each other and for all Israel. The holy protectors are supposed to be setting a superior moral example. Manifestly as with the Holocaust, many of them have failed. Their pious claim that God will save and protect them because they are the guardians of His will, shows utter disregard for everyone else. However much they revile the secular culture, goodness knows they are happy to benefit from secular state handouts and from soldiers defending them, despite their belief that God will stop suicide bombers and rockets.

What I object to most strenuously is when their actions impact the wider society. The Talmud time and again uses very specific terms to justify leniency to encourage good relations with others. In the end, despite conflicting views, the impression is what counts. Maarit ayin, appearances, is a serious matter in Jewish law.

The clearest source for our relationship with the outside world can be found in Deuteronomy (4:6): “ You should keep these laws because they will emphasize your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of other nations of the world … who, when they hear of these laws will say what a wise people this is, so close to God that they have such wise and righteous statutes and laws.”

Frankly, most people in the world today are more likely to think we are backward and seriously challenged if we think we do not need to take precautions but rely on miracles to protect us from natural disasters.

Certain sections of the Haredi world have gotten away for too long with their defensive isolationism. Once upon a time, it was argued that if they got more involved in the life and culture of power, they might become more tolerant and sensitive. Instead, they have become even more intolerant and aggressive — and to hell with anyone who disagrees with them.

Perhaps the anger and scorn directed at them from the outside might just get them to realize what a disservice they have done to the cause of Haredi Judaism. Maybe they might begin to see the light. Although I doubt it. Closed minds are not open to logic or others.

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