Don’t build a wall around the haredim – opinion

This novel coronavirus crisis – which has not yet peaked – will have major repercussions for the ultra-Orthodox public.

Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak (photo credit: ROI HADI)
Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak
(photo credit: ROI HADI)
The prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the ultra-Orthodox is far greater than among the population at large; and contagion is spreading in the community at five times the rate among the general Israeli public. It seems that the ultra-Orthodox are the highest risk group of all.
The emerging disaster is associated with the fact that the alarm bells did not ring in Bnei Brak. Because the ultra-Orthodox cut themselves off from the mainstream media and digital platforms, they suffer from a knowledge and information deficit that limits their perception of the danger. Most of them did not see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightly warning broadcasts and went about their lives as usual. They were only vaguely aware that an epidemic was raging in the outside world and without taking any concrete action in response to the threat.
To make matters worse, the alarm bells were muted because – from the ultra-Orthodox perspective – the remedy proposed to deal with the plague was quite unacceptable. Torah study is at the core of ultra-Orthodox identity and its raison d’être. Praying with a minyan is a supreme obligation. Within this outlook, the notion of shutting down yeshivot and synagogues is simply impossible.
State authorities, who do not enjoy great trust among the ultra-Orthodox in any case, did not find a way to get around this mindset. How, asked the ultra-Orthodox, can we silence the voices of children learning Torah? How can we elevate the souls of the departed if we do not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish? In matters of religion, great rabbis outrank the prime minister and command full compliance.
This was exemplified by the scandalous scene in which the grandson of Rabbi Kanievsky (one of the leading authorities in the ultra-Orthodox community) asked the rabbi whether to comply with the authorities’ order to close down the yeshivot. The aged rabbi replied with a vehement “no,” without taking the time to clarify the facts. His reaction makes an outside observer’s blood boil, but is precisely what is demanded by the ultra-Orthodox genome, which holds that the way to ward off any danger is by even more intensive Torah study.
This novel coronavirus crisis – which has not yet peaked – will have major repercussions for the ultra-Orthodox public. The charisma of the rabbinical leadership of the ultra-Orthodox sector will be dealt a blow.
This process was already under way, but the coronavirus pandemic will intensify it. Rabbi Kanievsky erred in a matter of life and death for both individuals and for the collective, as did many other (but not all) important rabbis.
Gradually, the understanding that greatness in Torah knowledge is precisely that; it does not convey supreme wisdom in other matters. Further, that there is no rational basis for the idea that Torah knowledge endows rabbis with special insight into all matters great and small, will slowly penetrate.
The talmudic dictum that “the Torah protects and saves us” was cited in justification of the rabbis’ ruling. That same phrase serves as the theological foundation for the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from service in the IDF. As the ultra-Orthodox see things, Torah study protects the Jewish people no less than service in the Golani Brigade. But now that we have seen that Torah study cannot be a substitute for life-saving practices in matters of health, perhaps some will realize that it also cannot replace life-saving practices in matters of national security. The time has come to internalize another Talmudic principle: “One should not rely on miracles.”
With time, technology – which the ultra-Orthodox still view as a diabolical menace – will penetrate their world more and more. Access to information via smartphones and computers has now been shown to save lives. And it turns out the ultra-Orthodox not only turn to the state when it suits them, but that this is also precisely what “protects and saves” them. The police officers dispatched to Bnei Brak – at great personal risk – will rescue the town from the irresponsibility of its leaders. The ultra-Orthodox public understands this.
Finally, a majority of the ultra-Orthodox are furious with the extremists among them, who account for only about ten percent of the sector. Perceived as having taken up arms against the majority of their community, they will be ostracized from its midst. One day in the future, this will make it possible to build more stable bridges between the majority of the ultra-Orthodox community and other Israelis.
But for now, we are witnessing the reverse – a growing wave of animosity towards the ultra-Orthodox – similar to the hostile attitude towards the Religious Zionist camp after the Rabin assassination. Israelis are seething, because the conduct of the ultra-Orthodox may lead to a shortage of life-saving ventilators and endanger the life of each and every citizen.
The hateful discourse must be vigorously rejected. It is, of course, unacceptable in and of itself. The result of the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox will bring about results that harm us all, but first and foremost it will harm the ultra-Orthodox themselves. This behavior is not intentionally exploitative or offensive. It is rather a grave mistake rooted in cultural differences.
Hate discourse may reverse a process that is crucial for the country’s future and which has been gaining steam over the past decade: the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society. We are at a delicate moment, and we must get past the crisis without playing into the hands of the separatist elements who would take the ultra-Orthodox community back to the ghetto.
The mayor of Ramat Gan has proposed constructing a wall along his city’s border with Bnei Brak. The idea is absurd, of course, but it signals the possibility of the erection of a mental wall, built out of hatred of the Other, between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the Israeli public. We must all reject and resist this. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis can dismantle the wall if they repent. They must add the confession that “we have sinned, we have betrayed,” to their prayers, and broadcast this message over the internet.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.