COVID-19: Need for haredi communal life outweighs virus risks - analysis

There should be no reasonable expectation that this will change.

Israeli police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israeli police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
On Sunday, two of the most senior and revered rabbis in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world died following complications they suffered from COVID-19.
Rabbi Meshulam David Soloveitchik, 99, a scion of the famed Soloveitchik family and rabbinic dynasty and dean of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem, died Sunday morning after a series of medical problems, including being diagnosed with the coronavirus three months ago.
Later in the day, Rabbi Yitzhak Scheiner, 98 and dean of the Kamenitz Yeshiva also in Jerusalem, passed away from COVID-19.
Both funerals were attended by thousands of haredi men despite the ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
Soloveitchik and Scheiner join a long list of other prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have died from COVID-19 in Israel and the US, as well as numerous other senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis and educators, including the grand rabbis of the Amshinov, Kozlover, Stanislaver and Novominsk hassidim in New York and the Pittsburgher hassidim in Israel.
Last October, 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior Ashkenazi, non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox leader in the world, contracted COVID-19 as well after a failure to observe regulations, but incredibly did not suffer from severe symptoms.
Portions of the haredi community have come under heavy criticism for many months for violations of Health Ministry coronavirus regulations, but this criticism has been from the general public and the press, essentially for harming the national effort to reduce infections and for failing to demonstrate solidarity with the rest of Israeli society.
But the death of Soloveitchik and Scheiner, two highly respected and revered, albeit extremely elderly rabbis from the COVID-19 high-risk demographic, impacts the most important element of the ultra-Orthodox leadership and community: its rabbis.
The rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox sector is the only leadership that really matters – and the community with all its different sub-groups look to its rabbis for guidance on religious and temporal matters alike.
There have been a small number of prominent rabbis who have spoken out against the mass violations of Health Ministry regulations in the community, including Rabbi Asher Weiss who accused the community of shedding the blood of senior rabbis, and the grand rabbi of the Karlin Stolin hassidic community, Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, who said the community had “behaved with such contempt” for the principle in Jewish law of preserving life.
But despite these lone voices, many of the leading rabbis have continued to assert the importance of persisting with school and yeshiva studies, weddings, communal prayer and religious celebrations, despite the risks.
Despite the deaths of such respected and authoritative rabbis, it does not appear that the haredi rabbinic leadership will reverse course.
ISRAEL FREY, an ultra-Orthodox journalist who has been critical of the community’s response to the pandemic, says he does not see “even a gram” of introspection or change in direction in the leadership’s attitude to this unprecedented health crisis.
He says that due to the apparent heightened risk to pregnant women and youth during this current third wave, a degree of greater caution is being demonstrated, but only within the context of ongoing communal prayer, celebrations and school openings, which are all still banned by government regulations and constitute a risk of spreading the disease.
Ultimately, however, Frey says that the continued mass violations by large sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community will continue because of the critical need of ultra-Orthodox Judaism to engage in large communal events and worship.
“Ultra-Orthodoxy is based not on observing the Torah and commandments but on being communal,” said Frey.
“Torah and the commandments are the basis, but it’s not just about putting on tefillin and studying Talmud. Ultra-Orthodoxy in 2021 is about the energy of communal gatherings and celebrations: everyone being together. That is what sustains ultra-Orthodoxy – it’s entire basis is communal gatherings.”
Because of this critical need to continue such gatherings in order to buttress the haredi way of life, the rabbinic leadership could never agree to forgo the normal cycle of religious life, worship and celebrations for what will be more than a year, for fear of severe damage to the community itself.
So despite the incongruence of seeing thousands of men jammed shoulder to shoulder at a funeral for a rabbi close to the age of 100 who died after suffering from COVID-19, there should be no reasonable expectation that this kind of attitude will change.
It appears therefore that the rabbinic leadership has decided that they – together with other vulnerable segments of the ultra-Orthodox population – are dispensable when the alternative is a societal crisis throughout the entire community.