The psychology of disobedience

Understanding the behavior of some ultra-Orthodox during the pandemic

Men pray in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood on Sunday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Men pray in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood on Sunday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Over the course of this ongoing corona crisis it has been well recorded and reported how the haredi community in the United States, and in Israel in particular, have paid a steep price both in terms of case counts as well as in, very sadly, mortality rates.
Yet, despite those heavy costs, it seems that many ultra-Orthodox will not obey health regulations unless there is a change in the language used to address them. It is increasingly apparent that many members of the haredi community continue to congregate en masse in yeshivot, synagogues, and the large halls where hassidic rebbes hold their communal gatherings.
Various explanations have been offered to account for the unusual behavior of the ultra-Orthodox public and why they choose to disobey regulations designed to protect them and their children.
Some have argued that they lack exposure to information provided through the media, and that they lack sufficient understanding of guidelines. However, these explanations are insufficient, because this is a very prevalent topic discussed in the haredi media.
Some point to a lack of a general education and the absence of scientific background to facilitate understanding of the biological mechanisms responsible for infection and illness.
There is also a fundamental mistrust of the apparatus of a state that is perceived as being secular, and perhaps even anti-religious. While these are all potential factors in haredi disobedience and non-compliance with regulations, they are only partial explanations.
They neither address the scope of the disobedience nor the behavior of certain ultra-Orthodox leaders who continue to endanger their adherents by encouraging them to keep congregating as though there were no pandemic. Even when a major hassidic rebbe dies there is no apparent change in behavioral patterns.
Based on my encounters with haredi patients and with leaders of the haredi community, I would like to propose a deeper explanation for this phenomenon. This explanation is rooted in the unique ultra-Orthodox worldview, which differs from the view of the Western world in which we live. I would describe this worldview as “self-sacrifice so as not to change or be changed.”
Charles Darwin articulated one of the fundamental principles of the Western worldview in On the Origin of Species. As famously paraphrased, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
The Western world believes in change and progress; the faster the pace of change, the better. The haredi world sees the secret of Jewish survival, and its own survival, as the exact opposite. It is specifically adhering to custom, to distinctive modes of dress, and to the unaltered dictates of Jewish law that are perceived by the ultra-Orthodox world as the key to survival. Changing and adapting to environmental shifts are seen as the greatest danger to Jewish existence as they understand it.
According to the haredi ethos, in the face of the Holocaust and the events of the world wars, and against the world’s scientific and technological advances, the secret of their survival has been the preservation of their lifestyle, with no change. The COVID-19 pandemic is perceived as another threat to continuity and to the existence of the haredi lifestyle.
Directives to shutter synagogues, discontinue study in yeshivot, or desist from attending a rebbe’s communal gathering is seen as a surrender to environmental pressures, as weakness in the face of threats, and as a danger to the spiritual existence of society. In the face of these dangers, their insistence on not changing or succumbing to change, even at the cost of human life, is seen by haredi leaders and their followers as the only path that ensures the survival of their sacred lifestyle.
This insight into the thought patterns of the haredi public must guide the language of the directives issued to this community so that they identify with it. Only an approach according to which the directives are meant to help the haredi public preserve their lifestyle during the pandemic, and which speaks in a language that they can culturally embrace, will be accepted by this community. The chances that haredim will identify with and obey rules is much greater if formulated accordingly, as they will not be perceived as threats to their religion, but as guidelines for helping them maintain it in difficult times.
Accomplishing this shift requires forethought and readiness to accept that while the haredi world might think differently, their goals for communal survival are paramount to almost anything else about their identity.
Dr. Tuvia Peri is a clinical psychologist and a full professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University, and a member of the Israel board of Ohr Torah Stone.