In March this year, as the entire country was shutting down in the face of the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, jarring images began emerging from ultra-Orthodox cities showing life continuing as normal despite the rapidly spreading global contagion.
Students crammed into renowned yeshivot such as the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, worshipers continued to crowd together in synagogues, and children continued to congregate as usual in ultra-Orthodox schools.
The most senior leaders of the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox world, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, refused to countenance closing yeshivot, schools and synagogues, insisting that Torah study provides metaphysical protection from disease, although Kanievsky was actually unaware there was an epidemic at all.
These attitudes meant that ultra-Orthodox cities, such as Bnei Brak, and several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem quickly became epicenters for the coronavirus and sites of the highest rates of infection in the country.
It was argued at the time that there were two major reasons for the phenomenon of high COVID-19 infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox sector: a lack of public awareness and education on the disease, even among the rabbinic leadership, and high population density in ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods.
Today, more than six months later, 34% of all Israel’s COVID-19 cases are currently from the ultra-Orthodox sector, despite it representing just 12% of the general population, and the rate of infections in the ultra-Orthodox sector is double that of the general population.
And although overcrowding in ultra-Orthodox cities has not changed, it cannot be argued that the ultra-Orthodox public and its rabbinic leadership are not aware of the dangers the coronavirus poses to their community and the general public.
Yet the images coming from the community are no less jarring than they were in March. On Monday night, following the end of the Yom Kippur fast, the Grand Rabbi of the Vizhnitz Hassidic community, Rabbi Yisrael Hager, held a tisch celebration for hundreds of hassidim in the Vizhnitz headquarters in Bnei Brak, with no masks or social distancing.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of hassidim had worshiped there over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as hassidim from many other hassidic courts around the country also worshiped in their community headquarters.
In August, thousands of Belz Hassidim gathered for the wedding of a grandson of the Belz Grand Rabbi in Jerusalem.
And 6,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students became infected with COVID-19 over the course of the last six weeks during the Elul yeshiva term, with the capsule system that was supposed to suppress such outbreaks failing in many yeshivot.
The responses of ultra-Orthodox communities and leaders have been varied. Parts of the Sephardi rabbinic leadership have been extremely vociferous about the importance of observing government COVID-19 regulations.
Edelstein took a stringent line after the dangers of the disease became clear to him, especially around the Passover period, but subsequently relaxed his opposition to a return to yeshiva study.
Under pressure, Kanievsky did adopt a stricter line during the first wave of infection, although he soon reverted to his position that prayer and Torah study were more important to stopping the coronavirus than adhering to social distancing.
Just last night, both rabbis in a joint statement forbade people from hosting friends and family during the Sukkot holiday, but they did not ban prayer inside synagogues, and they repeated that “the principle of principles is that the Torah protects and saves and we must strengthen our Torah study.” And the very next day after the Vizhnitz Rebbe’s post-Yom Kippur tisch, which was broken up by the police, the grand rabbi ordered that mikvaot for men be reopened, insisting that schools and synagogues should also be open.
WHAT EXPLAINS this seeming indifference to the very real danger to health and life on the part of some elements of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, especially considering that the command to protect life within Jewish law is such a crucial principle?
How is that even traditions such as a tisch celebration or mikveh immersion for men can be given such a high priority by leading rabbis with tens of thousands of followers in the face of the pandemic?
There are several factors at play in this conundrum: the more prosaic issue of inconsistent government policy and a subsequent lack of faith in the coronavirus regulations; the societal needs of a highly communal sector of the population; and a concern that the attachment and commitment of elements of the community, especially the youth, may be damaged in the long term.
Prof. Benjamin Brown, a lecturer in the department of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that the concerns over the government’s innumerable policy vacillations and contradictions, particularly over the mass anti-government protests, did real damage to the cause of obtaining ultra-Orthodox adherence to coronavirus regulations.
“The government lost its credibility mainly because of the demonstrations. The ultra-Orthodox have claimed that if the virus doesn’t distinguish between Left and Right, Arabs, Jews, religious and secular, why has the government been so lenient over the demonstrations,” said Brown.
“Demonstrations are important for the secular public, and prayer in synagogue is important for the ultra-Orthodox community,” he continued, saying the divergence in government policy toward those activities was unacceptable to many in ultra-Orthodox society.
Indeed, the health regulations have been routinely mocked, with prayer services advertised as “protests” and notices saying “Ride to protest” placed on buses used for intercity travel to and from their communities over the High Holy Days, in violation of the lockdown.
That the numerous apparent contradictions of state coronavirus policy over the last six months have damaged ultra-Orthodox trust in the government is undeniable, just as the trust of much of the broader public in that same government has similarly been eroded.
Yet this is not the whole story. The religious injunction in the Torah that “you must greatly protect your lives,” the exhortation to “live by them” in reference to Torah commandments, interpreted as meaning not to die for them, and the importance of pikuah nefesh, saving life, for which almost all commandments can be violated, should surely have figured in the response of the ultra-Orthodox community to the pandemic, particularly in the response of its rabbinic leadership.
Prof. Kimmy Caplan, chairman of the department of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, insists, however, that these concepts are not so black-and-white, and that some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have balanced these considerations with the societal and spiritual concerns of their congregants.
“Life is the highest value, but the value of pikuah nefesh is a calculation of cost and benefit. It is not black-and-white; ‘protect your lives’ does necessarily mean putting everything else aside,” said Caplan.
The professor said that the ultra-Orthodox community has a unique set of values and priorities, and a special “rhythm and music” to their lives, based around prayer, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, Torah study and communal celebrations.
This community rhythm is especially pronounced among the hassidic courts, where the sense of belonging and identity of the hassidim to their specific community – fostered by attending prayer services with the rebbe, going to one another’s brit milah (circumcision) celebrations, bar mitzvahs and wedding ceremonies, and those of the rebbe – is a critical feature of their lives.
Even tisches, crucial to the bond with the rebbe, and mikveh immersion for men, which prepares them spiritually every day for prayer and a day of sanctity, are important components that strengthen the bonds of communal life.
The leading rabbis of such communities are therefore asking themselves whether it is justified to shut everything down when the risk to these social bonds is so great, says Caplan.
“They are asking ‘Does the death toll justify shutting down communal life?’” he said.
“Connection to the rebbe in particular is part of the religious experience in hassidic courts. Praying with the rebbe is spiritually uplifting; he is seen as someone with almost supernatural powers, and being with him is a religious experience.” Similar issues have been raised among the non-hassidic so-called “Lithuanian” community, especially over yeshiva study.
During the shutdown in March and April, when yeshivot were closed, many youth in the ultra-Orthodox community found themselves at a loose end and without a solid framework, and many reportedly lost interest in religious life.
In normal times, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men do nothing but study in yeshiva all day long. But now, for months on end, they have been unable to do so.
“People don’t know what to do with themselves and their time. That, to many people, is a very heavy price,” said Caplan.
BUT BALANCING the considerations of communal life and identity against the very real dangers to life and limb posed by the coronavirus contagion is a perilous task.
If the number of deaths and severe health consequences for those who become infected and recover from COVID-19 remains relatively low, then the gamble of the rabbis could well pay off.
But should there be large spikes in fatal cases among the community, the foundations of ultra-Orthodox society, rooted in a fervent belief in the wisdom of its rabbis as spiritual and temporal guides, could be shaken.
Health Ministry director-general Hezi Levi said on Wednesday that the mortality rate in the ultra-Orthodox sector has been on “a steep increase” since September, and that the number of severe COVID-19 cases in the community has also increased.
“The shortcomings of the ultra-Orthodox leadership could be clinically proven if the number of deaths spirals,” said Prof. Yedidia Stern, an expert on haredi society at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“If you’re ultra-Orthodox you might start asking how you can trust leadership,” he continued, adding that the possibility of several dozen deaths in the ultra-Orthodox community every day in a few weeks’ time following the mass gatherings over the holiday season is a real possibility.
“There are right now walking dead in the hassidic communities, and the consequences could lead to an earthquake in there and the ultra-Orthodox sector in general.
“Once the pure belief in their leaders is shaken, no one can anticipate what might be the ramifications of this change in the ultra-Orthodox world.”
If the stakes are this high, why, then, would the rabbis take such risks?
It is perhaps due to what they clearly perceive as an existential threat, not just to the lives of some, perhaps even a small number of their followers, but to the future viability of their entire communities.
If the yeshiva students who, with nothing else to do, sought out beaches and leisure activities during the first lockdown could drift from their religion and community during just six weeks, what could happen if this situation continues for another six to 12 months until a vaccine is widely available?
“Halting the connection with the community, with the rebbe, with communal life, is very dangerous in this respect,” said Stern.
“Some rabbis think that if they had to set it aside for a few weeks, then that might be okay, but suspending the entire framework of communal life is risking the future of the ultra-Orthodox community in the long term.” This, then, appears to be the real reason behind the images of the thousands of Belz Hassidim at the wedding of the rebbe’s grandson, the packed yeshiva halls, and that Vizhnitz tisch, which was reportedly specifically for young, unmarried men.
If saving a certain number of lives now comes at the cost of potentially more massive, long-term harm to the viability of the community, maybe this is too high a cost.
On Thursday, several hassidic courts did announce that they had canceled the traditional simhat beit hasho’eva celebrations, mass gatherings with the rebbe which take place every night during Sukkot, indicating at the very least that some of the government efforts to persuade the rabbinic leadership to abide by the regulations are having an effect.
How exactly the calculations and considerations of the rabbis, and the ramifications of their decisions, play out over the next few months and years remains to be seen, but the consequences one way or the other could be dramatic, and drastic for the ultra-Orthodox community.•