Coronavirus and the haredim - opinion

Proper understanding of the haredi situation includes acknowledging the legitimate factors that increased their vulnerability to the pandemic

Police officers close synagogues and disperse public gatherings in an ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, following the government's decisions, in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus on March 31, 2020 (photo credit: YAAKOV LEDERMAN)
Police officers close synagogues and disperse public gatherings in an ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, following the government's decisions, in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus on March 31, 2020
(photo credit: YAAKOV LEDERMAN)
Our hearts go out to the members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and worldwide. Haredim are found in disproportionate numbers among the sick and the dead of the coronavirus pandemic.
They are civilian casualties of the cruel, unrelenting war on all humanity being waged by the coronavirus. The fact that this war is not driven by antisemitism (as was the Holocaust), i.e. it is not directed at Jews specifically, makes it no less heinous, and the victims no less innocent.
Numerous people have angrily blamed haredim for the high losses in the community, arguing that their leaders initially rejected medical instructions. Various members of the ultra-Orthodox community have continued group religious experiences and Torah learning after health authorities called for social isolation. Those religious activities spread the disease much more in their midst.
However, before the Holocaust, many hassidic leaders told their followers not to go to Israel or America. During the catastrophe, many advised against flight (especially when done in cooperation with Zionists), and strongly opposed resistance.
The outcome was a much higher percentage of deaths among haredim (approaching 90% average). But nobody would think of condemning the victims for following bad advice and policies. Bad judgment does not justify rejection or hatred of innocent victims. Haredim are flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone of the Jewish people. They deserve compassion and care at this time of their troubles.
Proper understanding of the haredi situation includes acknowledging the legitimate factors that increased their vulnerability to the pandemic. Haredi families are larger and they typically live in smaller quarters, which leads to increased contagion. They live a rich, more intense religious communal life. But these experiences multiply unintentional transmission from one infected person to many others.
At the same time, respect for the truth - and commitment to prevent a recurrence - requires that we critique the flawed haredi theology that leads to greater losses in these communities.
First and foremost, they follow literally the biblical model in which God controls and does everything in history. They firmly believe that as long as humans please God by doing mitzvot, God will defeat their enemies and grant them victory. (See the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea).
They are oblivious to the main rabbinic interpretation of the Bible’s covenant idea - that God has self-limited. God has asked humans to take a more active role in history, with the results depending much more on the people of Israel’s efforts. (See the Talmudic interpretation of Purim in which that Exodus/redemption would not have happened unless Esther and Mordechai executed their plans to defeat Haman).
When presented with the question “Should haredi schools be closed to prevent infection?” Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky replied, “God forbid. Learning Torah protects and saves [the Jewish people].” (Talmud Sotah 21A). He dismissed medical considerations because God controls every detail of history.
LEARNING TORAH would please the Lord Who would protect Jewry. This is the same theology that undergirds the haredi refusal to let their youth serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Not tanks and jet fighters but the exempted students learning Torah are the real defense force of the Jewish state.
This theology is refuted by the actual facts of real life. It has not led to catastrophe in the past because 90% of Israelis understand that Israel would be destroyed instantly by its enemies if it did not have an army. The 90% serve their time and give their lives, allowing haredim to be saved from the folly of their interpretation which makes the Torah unlivable for a whole society.
In the coronavirus case this policy - which totally fails in reality - was applied to the community. The consequences are devastating.
The second serious misinterpretation in haredi theology is to see sickness and natural catastrophes as Divine punishment for sins rather than as natural phenomena.
The Talmud disagrees: “The natural order operates objectively.” It does not differentiate between righteous and wicked people. (See Talmud, Avodah Zara 54B). Rabbi Kanievsky was quoted as saying that the virus is a punishment for lashon hara (harmful speech, gossip); that people should stop and repent and the plague would stop.
The Book of Job was incorporated into the Bible by the rabbis to make clear that sickness and disaster are not retribution but part of the larger scheme of nature. God rebukes Job’s friends for insisting that his sins have caused the tragedies in his life. Moral: The innocent victim should not be blamed for his or her suffering.
The flip side of punishment for sin is the haredi teaching that if you are doing a religious act, God will keep you safe. “Those who are agents doing a mitzvah will not be harmed.” (See Talmud, Pesachim 8B).
Some haredim allowed themselves to be exposed to coronavirus because God would protect them. (Many Evangelical Christians around the world have done the same).
Given the natural laws and medical evidence of pandemic, this behavior is nothing but magical thinking. Magic claims that through certain words or actions (in this case: religious faith and behaviors) God is “compelled” to do what the practitioner wants.
The Torah treats magic as abhorrent. It constitutes a denial of God’s freedom. The Bible insists that no Divine action can be compelled by human gifts, behaviors or tricks. Magical thinking also disrespects God’s miraculous creation. It claims to override the objective and dependable system of natural processes and laws.
The sad outcome of lack of secular education is that people more easily slip into pre-modern, magical thinking. The haredi penalty for grasping at magic is greater contagion.
To protect people’s religiosity, haredi rabbinic leaders prohibit secular education and proscribe most Internet as well. As a result, haredi Jews are not equipped to participate in the science and medical fields that are the key areas to prevent and find cures for dangerous pandemics.
The side effect of this well-intentioned but wrong way of protecting religious devotion is that the average haredi Jew lacked understanding of the serious threat of the coronavirus and the urgency of taking preventive actions. Unfortunately, the gedolim - the Torah greats - who make the rulings that guide behavior are just as uninformed as their followers.
This explains their delayed and initially counterproductive responses to the threat. The community has paid a terrible price for its leadership’s ignorance of science and secular knowledge.
In the past century, the haredi gedolim, overall, were guided by the same defensive insular theological thinking and lack of secular information when they opposed Zionism. This resulted in a community with a more secular culture and exposed their community to the catastrophic Nazi assault.
They should have been turned out of office (as would happen in a democratic political system), or they should have turned in the direction of integrating modern thinking and Jewish religion. Instead, in the name of preserving the religion, they were granted unlimited authority.
By haredi definition, the gadol - the great Torah scholar - is infallible in his rulings. The Ruach Hakodesh/Holy Spirit allegedly speaks in them, even when they speak with little or zero knowledge of the realia. We can only hope that the reality check of the plague will awaken the whole haredi community to the need for new directions in their religious thought and their attitudes toward the rest of society.
All Jews are responsible for each other. The proper response is not to blame or reject but to consider together how to end the political coalitions and manipulations that have provided funding and special privileges to keep the haredi community whole and on its current path.
The failed outcome is an expanding, aggravating, sometimes even inspiring community but one deprived of essential knowledge, mired in poverty and now vulnerable to disease. Everyone, together, must draw the lessons of this disaster to prevent a future repetition.
The writer is a theologian and communal activist and author of The Triumph of Life (forthcoming) from which this column is derived.