In a community defined, at least in part, by a decision to abandon the tangled paths of philosophy for the pursuit of emunah peshuta (simple faith), one of the more interesting phenomena of the past decade has been the emergence of a cluster of thinkers arguing for Charedi renewal through the creative use of wisdom drawn in part from thinkers of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. While these writers cannot yet be said to have coalesced into a movement, they have formed a sort of “Republic of Letters,” united by a common diagnosis of what ails the Charedi world and how to fix it. Common themes include the need to promote civic engagement and virtue, to recognize the dignity of salaried professional employment, to stop seeing the welfare state as a resource bank to be exploited, to provide better general education, and to re-examine the applicability of community policies originally designed to rebuild Orthodox Judaism following the double whammy of mass defection and the Holocaust. While the Burkeans, as I will call them for want of a better term, can be found in a variety of different publications, their greatest concentration is probably right here in Tzarich Iyun, in which three recent articles (adding to more previously) were published on the subject of Charedim and COVID-19.
I should state here that I count myself as a supporter of this new breed of Charedi thinkers. On my own blog, I have tried to offer some constructive ideas for reform in my native Stamford Hill, and, as an educator, my goal is to ensure that Charedi children enter adulthood not just with the core skills they need to compete in the job market, but the cultural literacy and capital they require to engage confidently with the outside world.
Precisely because I support the cause of the Burkeans, I want to write here about what I believe is a strategic and theoretical error that they are currently making which, absent a change of course, threatens to relegate them to the status of irrelevance
Precisely because I support the cause of the Burkeans, I want to write here about what I believe is a strategic and theoretical error that they are currently making which, absent a change of course, threatens to relegate them to the status of irrelevance. I will argue that the Burkeans have erred twice. First, they have misread the mood of the Charedi public and fallen for a misleading narrative that ignores the attitudes and beliefs of the Charedi majority. And second, they have forfeited the opportunity to demonstrate how Charedim can engage constructively with modernity, science, and social change by uncritically adopting doctrines that, if taken to their logical conclusion, are incompatible with the maintenance of any kind of Charedi community.
I hope of course that the lockdown period is behind us and that there will be less cause for writing on the attitudes of Charedi society to COVID restrictions. One way or another, the underlying issues are certainly worthy of discussion, and, like many other issues that surfaced during the coronavirus period, are relevant far beyond the COVID context.
Misreading the Room
While they approached the issue from different angles, three articles – by Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, Rabbi Aryeh Meir, and Maayan David – are united by the view that the Coronavirus pandemic has brought the Charedi world to the point of crisis by bringing to the fore exactly the deep structural problems that the Burkeans have already diagnosed. Difficult reforms that were already necessary to secure the medium to long-term viability of Charedi society are now matters of urgency required to stave off imminent collapse. Amidst the gloom, however, there is, I feel, also a sense of optimism borne of a belief that Charedim have been shaken out of their complacency by the failure to tackle COVID and appreciate as never before the need to adapt if they want to survive. In the face of a truly miserable year for those who aim to combine membership of the Charedi community with respectability in wider society, this is a much-needed crumb of comfort. But unfortunately, the underlying analysis is completely wrong.
The crucial problem with the way the Burkeans are approaching this issue is that, at a very basic level, the vast majority of ordinary Charedim completely disagree with them. R. Meir writes that “it is fairly clear to all of us that the Charedi community has not succeeded” – succeeded in effectively handling COVID – yet this “us” doesn’t seem to include the vast majority of rank and file Charedim. To the contrary, the consensus is that they have succeeded in maintaining ordinary life while wider society has been gripped by an exaggerated and crippling panic. This is not an attitude borne of COVID denial; after all, how could we deny a disease that nearly everyone we know has had? Regardless of our level of scientific or media literacy, we certainly know how COVID-19 burns through communities; and yet we are happy with our non-compliant stance, if not the fallout from our being caught.
Ahead of selling fellow Charedim the solution to the crisis, the Burkeans would have to convince them that there is actually a crisis. It’s easy to read the New York Times and conclude that Charedim are living in a state of bewildered despair, but that’s not how it feels on the ground. Charedim are not looking at the closed schools and shuttered shops of the world around them consumed by regret and shame. Even those who in the past have chafed at the restrictions that Charedi life imposes, wondering in their darker moments whether it might not be worthwhile to pack up and leave, have found a new appreciation for the privileges of Charedi membership in a year when the dominant themes of the wider world have not been freedom and exploration, but house arrest and public muzzling.
In tying their agenda for reform and moral renewal so explicitly to compliance with COVID lockdowns, the Burkeans are making the number one marketing mistake: Don’t lead with the least attractive feature of your product
In tying their agenda for reform and moral renewal so explicitly to compliance with COVID lockdowns, the Burkeans are making the number one marketing mistake: Don’t lead with the least attractive feature of your product. Civic virtue is a tough enough sell if it means paying your taxes and complying with municipal bylaws; if it means not leaving the house or seeing your grandchildren, then it’s no dice. Assuming the new vaccines will allow us to return to normality over the coming months, so that the costs of COVID will gradually fade from memory and the costs of lockdown, now substantially hidden under an unprecedented avalanche of peacetime government spending, will gradually come into view, the sales pitch is only going to get harder. Rhetorical prudence dictates that those who truly believe that it is “God’s will … to shatter all our routines and turn our world upside down” should desist from saying the quiet part out loud.
The COVID watershed moment that the Burkeans are hoping for is thus nothing but a pipe dream. Far from strengthening their hands, COVID has been the best advert for continued separatism in Charedi society for decades. By tying their agenda to COVID compliance, reformers will do nothing to inspire an appetite for social distancing and will do great damage to their primary goals.
This is first and foremost a practical problem, but it also indicates a deeper malaise in the Charedi Republic of Letters. It is one thing to hold views outside the Charedi mainstream; after all, every movement for change must start off as a minority. Much more worrying, however, are responses to COVID that seem to indicate the Burkeans are no longer speaking the same language.
Abdicating the responsibility to persuade by writing off the public as incapable of understanding is tantamount to a resignation letter on behalf of those who should be guiding the community to a more sophisticated relationship with modernity
Let me be as clear as I can: Charedim have not failed to do what the rest of the world has done; they have made a decision to do something else. Media commentators, or anyone else, are entirely within their rights to believe this decision is wrong, but what they cannot do, or cannot do if they want their statements to have any traction and influence, is diagnose this decision as ipso facto proof of a ‘disorder’ (apparently, the charitable interpretation!). Abdicating the responsibility to persuade by writing off the public as incapable of understanding is tantamount to a resignation letter on behalf of those who should be guiding the community to a more sophisticated relationship with modernity.
The Pikuach Nefesh Paradox
Thus far, I have argued that the Burkeans are mistaken in thinking that COVID is their opportunity to shine, unwise in so explicitly tying their agenda to lockdown, and fatally oblivious to the mood on the Charedi street. There is, however, another issue, which though somewhat abstract for the time being, will in due course need to be addressed.
The three articles noted above, alongside countless others in different publications, begin with the assumption that lockdowns are self-evidently correct and that Charedi failure to comply with them is therefore a problem that needs to be diagnosed. If the problem is lack of education, then Charedim need more education; if the problem is inflexibility, Charedim need to be more flexible, if the problem is excessive separatism, then Charedim need to be less separatist. Apparently superfluous, however, is an explanation of why Charedim are supposed to obey lockdown orders in the first place.
If the problem is lack of education, then Charedim need more education; if the problem is inflexibility, Charedim need to be more flexible, if the problem is excessive separatism, then Charedim need to be less separatist. Apparently superfluous, however, is an explanation of why Charedim are supposed to obey lockdown orders in the first place
This is an important point, even if for no other reason than lockdowns of this scale, geographic spread, and duration are unprecedented in the history of mankind. Rebbes, rabbonim, and poskim have never before needed to formulate a response to government orders to place an entire country under house arrest for months on end, so that there are no precedents on which to rely. (I will pass over here comparisons to city-wide measures made in response to cholera epidemics with a fatality rate of 50% in the 19th century, the irrelevance of which should be readily apparent). The argument of lockdown advocates has therefore come down to one simple point: pikuach nefesh. The concern for our very lives overrides virtually everything else, and since medical professionals have defined the COVID situation as a public pikuach nefesh, and have (broadly) agreed that the solution is to lockdown, our duty becomes to follow orders.
To sum up this view, we might simply say that Jews are obligated to do what doctors instruct. The problem with this, however, is manifest. By historical standards, COVID is not an especially deadly disease. By way of comparison, estimates for casualties from the Spanish flu range from 17 to 100 million out of a global population a quarter of today’s, making it somewhere between 28 and 160 times worse than the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the theoretical basis for lockdowns has existed since the discovery of the germ theory of disease in the 1840s, social distancing measures were restricted to temporary and fitful restrictions on mass gatherings.
We are thus presented by something of a paradox: Precisely at a time when people can expect to live longer than ever before, and in a situation far less life-threatening than many we have experienced in the past, pikuach nefesh (via doctor’s orders) obligates us to undergo the most severe restrictions on our individual freedom and communal life. How is it that standards of pikuach nefesh have so radically changed?
A Loss of Nerve
Several reasons join to explain how doctors and governments can join forces in declaring unprecedented lockdowns. Firstly, the advent of the Internet and the post-industrial economy allows for a greater proportion of people to remain at home without total economic breakdown. Secondly, two and half centuries of capitalist economic development have created reserves of wealth that allow for governments to manage high unemployment rates without social unrest. Thirdly, modern state-subsidized healthcare systems caring for unprecedented numbers of elderly have raised the new specter of ‘overwhelming’ the healthcare system.
But while these factors provide the material basis for the new policy of lockdown as a tool of public health, they are insufficient in explaining it. The missing element is a moral doctrine to provide the justification for total lockdown. In the words of Prof. Neil Ferguson, the architect of Britain’s lockdown policy, “Of course we knew it was possible that social distancing could control a respiratory virus” – but until China launched the then-largest lockdown in history nobody could get away with it. “Getting away with it” involved formulating a new moral doctrine according to which possessing a respiratory system constitutes a tort of sorts, something akin to the Talmudic bor bir’shus ha-rabim. It is the proper responsibility of governments to prevent resultant damages by means up to and including mandatory confinement.
It is the task of our Burkean friends, in any given era, is to question whether such rationalist logic is compatible with the accumulated wisdom encoded in the customs and mores of society
It is not my purpose here to dispute this new moral doctrine. It is, in a certain sense, a trivially obvious application of the germ theory of disease. On the other hand, the abolition of private property is a trivially obvious application of the principle of equality, and the prohibition of alcohol is a trivially obvious application of the logic already applied to heroin and cocaine. It is the task of our Burkean friends, in any given era, is to question whether such rationalist logic is compatible with the accumulated wisdom encoded in the customs and mores of society.
My emphasis here is simply the incontestable fact that lockdowns were not implemented because of any changes in scientific or medical knowledge but because of a change in the moral doctrines of the governing elites of western societies. In uncritically accepting this moral change under the label of pikuach nefesh, the Burkeans have – at least in principle – inadvertently written a blank check legitimizing any imposition made by public health bureaucracies provided it can be justified on the grounds of pikuach nefesh, which is to say, essentially, anything.
As well as making a potentially damaging strategic misstep, the Burkeans have also missed an opportunity. In an age convulsed by new moral doctrines and experiments in social engineering, it should be precisely such thinkers and commentators who, with their superior literacy and education, are charged with forming a distinctly Charedi perspective. Such a perspective should, of course, be based on science and incorporate a concern with civic virtue and the need to have peaceful relations with other communities. At the same time, though, it has to look within the tradition to find an authentically Jewish response and subject prevailing moral doctrines to probing questions, rather than using pikuach nefesh (tikkun olam style) as a rubber stamp to convert regulations made by people whose attitude to Charedi beliefs and values ranges from indifferent to hostile into binding Torah obligations.
To stand up in a world where dissent is met with furious allegations of bloodshed or conspiracy theorizing and be the still, small voice is no easy task. But these are the tests out of which leaders are born. In whispers and private conversations, I know that many lockdown advocates have their own doubts. They do not demand full compliance from Charedim, but rather compromise. They understand our keeping schools and shuls open, alongside the maintenance of the sort of social interaction without which human life loses its dignity. What they cannot condone, nor explain, is weddings with hundreds of guests packed into halls, or neglect of even the least costly elements of social distancing. But how are Charedim to know what an intelligent compromise with public health regulations while compatible with their values looks like if those best placed to articulate it are demanding unconditional obedience?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that will not be fully clear for years. The future belongs in many respects to those who have learned its lessons and grasped the nature of the new reality it has precipitated. I believe the Burkeans have miscalculated their response, first by losing touch with fellow Charedim, and second by forgetting exactly the lessons of conservatism upon which they aim to ground their modifications of Charedi life.
A well-trodden path for educated Charedim with dreams of change is to degenerate first into professional critics, and down the line to become ‘house Charedim’, rehashing tropes of a dysfunctional Charedi society for an enrapt audience of secular Jews eager to hear what they already know from the horse’s mouth. The Burkeans promise something different
In order not to undermine their agenda – an agenda which, to reiterate, I fully support – it is necessary to take a step back and reevaluate. There are legitimate issues concerning the reputational damage our collective decision not to comply has done to our community, the impact it has on our ability to coexist with other communities, and how it further undermines our already tenuous respect for the law of the land. There is ample room to discuss how principles like mipnei eiva or kiddush Hashem could and should have been incorporated into our response. But let’s not get carried away. COVID-19 is not and will not be the catalyst for a grassroots awakening in the Charedi community. To the extent that advocates for intelligent, measured change tie their wider agenda to lockdown they will only succeed in discrediting it. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose in attaching years of theory, analysis, and critique to a doomed platform of COVID compliance.
A well-trodden path for educated Charedim with dreams of change is to degenerate first into professional critics, and down the line to become ‘house Charedim’, rehashing tropes of a dysfunctional Charedi society for an enrapt audience of secular Jews eager to hear what they already know from the horse’s mouth. The Burkeans promise something different. But if they are to fulfill that promise their response to COVID must be a learning experience rather than a harbinger of things to come.