Emerging from the coronavirus pandemic with God’s help

“Haredim, unlike seculars who make mistakes out of ignorance, know that they are breaking the law of Torah, and therefore had to be more severely punished,” Interior Minister Arye Deri insisted.

RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY ‘learns about the outside world through his assistants.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY ‘learns about the outside world through his assistants.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
If there were still any members of the haredi community who didn’t realize the magnitude of corona’s impact on the ultra-Orthodox sector, along came Interior Minister Arye Deri and declared on a radio program on Sunday that 70% of the victims of the pandemic were haredim.
These figures require serious introspection, he said, in order to understand how a community so dedicated to the sanctity of life could reach that point.
“Haredim, unlike seculars who make mistakes out of ignorance, know that they are breaking the law of Torah, and therefore had to be more severely punished,” Deri insisted.
Yet on Lag Ba’Omer eve on Monday night, hundreds of haredim living in the Batei Ungarin neighborhood of Mea She’arim, the stronghold of the most extremist ultra-Orthodox, lit a bonfire and danced around it, disregarding all rules of social distancing, including not wearing masks.
The same scenes occurred in one of the most haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, where a large part of the Jerusalemites from this group had moved a few years ago. The police didn’t even try to interfere, causing great anger among the official haredi leadership, some of whose followers have said they feel no one protects them.
“These people should be under total blockade, getting only a supply of bread and milk, and be left alone to their own fate,” wrote a self-described haredi commenter on social media.
One question arising from this situation is whether the coronavirus is going to change attitudes toward prominent haredi rabbis. Gedalia (not his real name), a young yeshiva student living in the Romema neighborhood, is mourning two of his grandparents, both of whom died from the coronavirus.
“The ground should shake in haredi society after what happened. We were not warned on time. We were not protected,” he declared.
Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, once the spokesman for the Eda Haredit and today a strong voice for more integration through academic studies of young haredim, asserts that there are two types of haredim among the hassidim. “Those who have no life aside from the synagogue and yeshiva, whose answer to the requests to maintain distance and avoid these two places would be, ‘Why am I alive at all? There is no point continuing to live outside of this world of total immersion in the Torah.” Regarding those who crowded around the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires, Pappenheim says they are individuals united in the emotional aspect of their faith – where reason doesn’t apply.
ALMOST THREE months after the outbreak of COVID-19, many haredim feel they were not alerted and protected by their own leadership. At the same time they feel they were exposed to the worst accusations and demonization, often tainted with more than a hint of antisemitic jargon, while having to face their own community’s ultra-extremists, who refuse to uphold the rules of the Health Ministry.
“Very few among us believe that the days after coronavirus will bring a dramatic change inside the community,” said Moshe Lefkovitch, who runs a nonprofit educational association. “It‘s not as if as of tomorrow we will not listen to our rabbanim. But we will no longer accept orders from their assistants, who failed to realize the magnitude of the danger.”
Lefkovitch, while still being inside the mainstream, is not alone. Pappenheim and Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, who a few years ago launched the first high school yeshiva for young haredim who wish to take the bagrut (matriculation exam), also believe that the haredi spiritual leadership did not react properly and that things need to change.
Both hassidim and non-hassidic Lithuanian haredim say they anticipate no earth-shattering changes, but that some lessons will have to be learned, and the earlier the better.
Itzhak Pindrus, a resident of the Rova in the Old City, was a deputy mayor during Nir Barkat’s tenure and perhaps will be an MK on the United Torah list once the Norwegian Law on ministerial appointments is approved. He says the tragedy is the result of a terrible misunderstanding.
“We have two types of spiritual leaders among our rabbis,” Pindrus explained. “There are those who give us instructions, including the exact way to achieve their decisions, and those who just tell us what the Torah expects from us. [Torah sage] Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is of the second type. You ask what to do in such and such a case, and he will just tell you what the Torah wants, and will let you get there without adding a word.
“If you are facing a problem, he will tell you what should be the goal, but you have to find the way to reach there on your own. [Lithuanian haredi leader] Rabbi Gershon Edelstein is exactly the opposite. You bring an issue to his attention, he will tell you of course what the Torah wants you to do, but will also tell you how to do it.”
For Pindrus, the different approaches of these two spiritual leaders was the major reason behind the lack of clarity as to what the haredim should have done right from the start of the pandemic.
“These were the first days of the pandemic in the country, and things were not clear, and the result is what happened during Purim when large gatherings were still not forbidden. And we all know what happened right after.”
Lefkovitch, an Alexander Hassid, said the haredi community was caught between two fires.
“Rabbi Kanievsky is living in the world of the Torah. That is his strength, and whatever happens outside, he learns about through his assistants. We know that in the first days he was told that this virus was just a rumor, something that had nothing to do with the world of the Torah and the haredi way of life.
“That’s one factor, and the second one is the unbelievable level of hatred the haredim were exposed to. It was just terrible. We were accused just like in Europe, decades ago, of carrying a virus, endangering the people, causing all the damage. Everywhere, including in the media, we were accused of transgressing the laws, of disobedience to the rules of the Health Ministry, anything.
“The fact is that once things were clearly explained to the rabbis, the haredi sector was the most obedient and careful about the rules of social distancing, and everything else required. But when 10 or 12 people live in a three-room apartment, how much distance can they keep?
“But for the general public, we were and still endangering the others.”
Asked if there is anger toward the spiritual leadership, which lost about two weeks trying to understand the seriousness of the situation, Pindrus said he believes the old order will not be shaken. He also maintains that the penetration of technology inside the haredi sector will continue, but without causing real damage.
“Use of technology, like the Internet – kosher or not – and smartphones, has grown wherever it was already present, because it provided solutions we needed to continue our Torah learning outside of the closed yeshivot,” he explained. “But wherever it was not present, no change will happen.”
Cohen said the crisis has shown that the haredi sector is going through a serious leadership crisis.
“Neither spiritual nor political leaders were present to lead this community,” he concluded, adding that now, this is the next most urgent issue the community needs to address.