Understanding the haredi perspective on the coronavirus – analysis

Numerous explanations have been put forward over the last number of weeks for this seemingly cavalier attitude toward the virus.

Haredi Jews prepare for the upcoming fesitval of Rosh Hashanah, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, September 15, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Haredi Jews prepare for the upcoming fesitval of Rosh Hashanah, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, September 15, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Many outside the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, looking in, are increasingly appalled at what appears to be the wholesale flouting there of the coronavirus regulations.
Be it the dean of the Lithuanian yeshiva world Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordering yeshivot to remain open in March; or a massive wedding of the Belzer Rebbe’s grandson in Jerusalem in August; or a tisch (gathering around the table) with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe on the night after Yom Kippur attended by hundreds of his hassidim, the response of most Israelis is: “Don’t they get it, don’t they understand that this is serious?”
Numerous explanations have been put forward over the last number of weeks for this seemingly cavalier attitude toward the virus.
Some say it has to do with the importance of community life to the haredi lifestyle. Others, somewhat patronizingly, say the rabbis are worried that if the students are not in yeshivot for just a few months, they will be tempted by all the wonders modern Israeli life has to offer. And others say that the haredi independence on this matter stems from a refusal to ever recognize the authority of the state, as well as the state’s failure to extend its “sovereignty” to the haredi neighborhoods.
Often lost in this discussion is an effort to listen to what the haredim themselves are saying as to why they want to continue to gather in large groups in synagogues and demand that yeshivot remain open.
The rabbis who want to open up the yeshivot are not stupid men who don’t realize that there is a pandemic swirling around them. Nor do they want to endanger the lives of their followers. So what gives?
In recent days, two leading haredi figures – one a veteran politician and another a widely esteemed rabbinic judge – addressed the issue of haredim and the virus. The politician, United Torah Judaism’s Yisrael Eichler, did so from the Knesset podium on Monday, with his audience being the general public. The other, Bnai Brak’s Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein, pre-taped his comments that were broadcast last Thursday night on the haredi Kol Hai radio station. His audience was the haredi community.
It was a tale of two completely different explanations, the sad part being that Eichler’s oration – angry, hostile to the state and its institutions – is the one the general public heard about, and which will only increase antagonism toward haredim. Klein’s speech – one which actually provided a degree of understanding of the haredi mindset – was limited largely to the haredi community.
In Eichler’s telling, the government’s decision to close synagogues and yeshivot, precisely during the month of the High Holy Days, is an indication of the godlessness in the country that “as the years go by, loses even more of its connection to Judaism.”
In Eichler’s narrative, the haredim who violated the regulations and stubbornly went ahead with their holiday observances as usual were nothing less than religious heroes, “proud to be Jews who know how to pass on to future generations that the Jewish tradition continues vigorously despite all the decrees and attempts” to wipe it out.
As if the goal of the Jewish state in issuing the restrictive COVID-19 regulations was to uproot Jewish religious observance; as if the State of Israel is akin to Soviet Russia.
Not only did his words not shed any light to a public that would like to hear a rationale for the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox, but his indictment will only cause more animosity toward the community he represents.
Not so the words of Klein.
Though one might not agree with him, he provided at least a rationale for haredi actions during the virus. And he did it with the use of a well-known story from the Talmud’s Tractate Brachot in which the second century sage Rabbi Akiva, who was teaching Torah at a time when the Romans banned it, was warned that he was putting people’s lives at risk.
Akiva answered with a parable about a fox and fish.
One day, Akiva said, a fox walked by a river and saw fish darting about. When the fox asked why the fish were fleeing, they replied that they were escaping fishermen. The fox said if that was indeed the case, they should just come up on the dry land and he would protect them.
The fish replied: If we are in danger here in the water where we live, how much more so would we be in danger on dry land, where we would surely die?
“I once said that the fox is not stupid: The fox has the head of an animal – he doesn’t understand the life of the fish,” Klein said. “According to his mentality, he explains [to the fish] what needs to be done. But the fish live differently, with the water, and the fox does not understand their life. The same thing here: Those who are not Torah people don’t understand that Torah and mitzvot are what sustain Israel.”
Without Torah and mitzvot, we have no life, Klein continued.
“There are opinions among the doctors that gatherings should be prevented to prevent infection. And that is right – gatherings cause infections. But there is a need to distinguish between gatherings for optional activities, and gatherings to perform a mitzvah,” he said.
The latter falls into a completely different category, Klein argued, adding that the sages said that those engaged in performing a mitzvah will be protected and saved by those mitzvot. Further, he said, the figures of those coming down with the virus does not reach the level of what could halachically be characterized as commonly present danger.
As to the reality of a concern for infection, Klein said that “we have a different way of looking at the whole thing.”
To explain his point, he again launched into a story, this time of the 19th century sage Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, who was taking a number of big donors to a hospital. They had each donated a number of beds for the facility.
When a Torah scholar entered, Kagan left the donors to greet and bestow respect on the scholar. When challenged by the donors about this, and reminded that the scholar did not donate any beds, Kagan replied that the scholar’s learning and praying prevents people from being sick.
And that, Klein said, is “the basic principle that we must keep. We must know that the perspective of the doctors is not the Torah perspective. A Torah perspective is very different.”
Anticipating, perhaps, the argument that one can perform mitzvot and follow the Torah even if synagogues or yeshivot are closed, he said that the “alternative of praying or studying in the street is not right. It is impossible to study or pray like that – we need the life of Torah and mitzvot in the usual way.”
This attitude of a need to do things in the “usual way” was echoed by the Belzer Rebbe, Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who told his followers on Sunday night they “need to act like they have always acted.”
Dov Eichler, a haredi journalist and the son of the UTJ politician who grew up in a Belz household, was grilled about this comment on Kan Bet Tuesday morning in light of the fact that the Belzer Rebbe is currently sick with COVID-19 and has had an intensive care unit set up in his home.
“We are essentially speaking in two different languages,” Eichler said, summing up succinctly the difference between the haredi and non-haredi perspectives. “He is speaking about the spiritual life, eternal life, the life of the world to come, and we are speaking about the material world.”