The Holy Walls of Separation meet COVID-19 - Analysis

In the last few days and weeks, images of large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men crowding together in prayer services and celebrations have flooded the media.

Border Police go about coronavirus inspections in Mea Shearim, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Border Police go about coronavirus inspections in Mea Shearim, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In its Sukkot edition, the Haredi Camp newspaper of the Belz Hassidic community had a fascinating interview with one of its most senior leaders in Israel, Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, in which he explained the approach of the Grand Rabbi of Belz Rabbi Yissachar Rokeach toward the COVID-19 pandemic. 
The rabbi and his Belz Hassidim have largely ignored social distancing and other regulations, including wearing masks for the past six months, and have become notorious for holding mass celebrations and prayer services during the health crisis.
In his interview, Friedman emphasized that the injunction in Jewish law to preserve life at all costs could be interpreted in two different ways: protecting the physical body or the spiritual soul.
He then went on to say that after the initial lockdown when educational institutions were allowed to reopen “we saw massive numbers of boys and girls, from the best of the community, who did not return to their studies.”
Continued the rabbi: “When there is a definite danger to the soul set against a possible danger to the body, you need a lot of responsibility to rule in favor of the possible risk to the body instead of the [definite risk] to the soul and to Yiddishkeit.”
In the last few days and weeks, images of large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men crowding together in prayer and celebrations have flooded the press and social media in Israel, the US and beyond, despite the ongoing ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, rates of infection among sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community itself have spiked dramatically in Israel, the UK and the US.
Friedman explained the priorities of the Belz Hassidim, which explain how some ultra-Orthodox communities, especially the ultraconservative hassidic groups, have adopted an attitude that has had, and could continue to have, grave consequences for other parts of society wherever such communities dwell.
Friedman’s opinions are also not an outlier. A former editor of a major ultra-Orthodox new website told The Jerusalem Post this week that he believes Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox world, had “played his hand very well” regarding COVID-19.
Kanievsky has refused to order closing synagogues, schools and yeshivot, arguing that Torah study “protects and saves.”
The former editor argued that Kanievsky’s position is based on the fact that the ultra-Orthodox community is very young, and that yeshiva students in particular had little to fear from the coronavirus, due to their youth.
Similarly, another prominent ultra-Orthodox journalist told the Post that there was no reason to shut yeshivot, since students are of an age where they do not suffer from serious symptoms, and because “they don’t really leave their cities, so who are they going to infect?”
Both said that the possible ramifications of mass delinquency from the ultra-Orthodox community by youth who have no educational framework was a far greater risk than the coronavirus.
These profoundly mistaken ideas about the nature of a contagious virus like COVID-19, the manner in which it spreads, and the dangers to the health of the entire country posed by overflowing hospitals without enough capacity to treat those with severe symptoms, sadly underlie what has become the attitude of large parts of the ultra-Orthodox community to the global pandemic.
In Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, New York and beyond, the attitude appears to be that as long as the ultra-Orthodox community gets to preserve its traditions and way of life, with perhaps a few casualties along the way, what happens beyond the walls of that community is less important.
One of the primary characteristics of ultra-Orthodox society and its traditions and culture since the late 19th century has been its isolation from the rest of society, wherever that may be, and the erection of “holy walls of separation.”
These walls have been highly effective in preserving that unique way of life, but also in insulating the ultra-Orthodox community from much of what occurs outside of those boundaries, and even divorcing it from the ramifications of its own lifestyle on broader society.
Although those walls have for a long time been able to keep a good many things out, they are certainly not strong enough to keep the COVID-19 virus in.