Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Iyun”: Deliberations > Coronavirus: The Charedi Response

Coronavirus: The Charedi Response

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Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer Editor-in-Chief, "Tzarich Iyun"

The corona crisis struck Charedi society unprepared. The lack of an unambiguous response on the part of Charedi leadership has severely magnified the dimensions of the calamity. Alongside tragedy and grief, the high proportion of Charedi victims has been a cause of friction and animosity between Charedi and non-Charedi society in Israel. But what are principles underlying the Charedi approach, which has exposed a vulnerability that can no longer be ignored? A first analysis.

Nissan 5780; April 2020

The coronavirus crisis is a fast-moving target on which to write. Today (29.3.2020), we in Israel were greeted by news that coronavirus is spreading in Charedi concentrations at a particularly alarming rate (nine-fold in four days in Bnei Brak),[1] that the Interior Minister sent special forces into Mea She’arim, and that residents of (secular) Ramat Gan have asked the local major to build a wall (or protective fence of some sort) separating them from (Charedi) Bnei Brak.[2] Later in the day news outlets informed us that half those hospitalized with corona in Israel are Charedi.[3] All this didn’t stop four hundred Charedi men from attending the crowded funeral of Rabbi Zvi Shenkar (who identified with the generally noncompliant Peleg Ha-Yerushalmi faction),[4] to the great resentment of many Israelis, Charedi or otherwise. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Just a little more than a week ago (Wednesday 18.3.2020, 22nd Adar 5780), under somewhat different circumstances, both Haredi and non-Haredi news outlets publicized a statement of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky instructing his followers to keep Torah educational institutions open despite the explicit instructions of Israel’s Health Ministry.[5] This followed Rav Chaim’s initial directive (13.3.2020), together with Rav Gershon Edelstein, to keep schools open notwithstanding government regulations, and a later statement (16.3.2020) to continue doing so, albeit in smaller classes. Today (29.3.2020), Rabbi Kanievsky ruled that those who are incompliant with government regulations have the status of rodef, and that all must daven at home.[6] No less. Naturally, the talk of the day is whether he meant this for Bnei Brak alone or for all of Israel.[7]

As can be expected, these much-publicized rabbinic statements, which hitherto—until the last few days, when the gravity of the situation finally sunk in—refrained from unequivocally adopting government directives (to put it exceedingly mildly), have not been well received outside of the Haredi society. There is little point in citing these critiques verbatim, and suffice it to note common catchphrases such as “crazy fanaticism,” “total lack of responsibility,” “we will die with them,” and of course repeated mention of the immediate need for police or army enforcement of government regulations in Haredi areas. And it will probably get still worse. The aforementioned demands from residents of Ramat Gan for a protective fence from their Charedi neighbors is only the tip of a very large and menacing iceberg.

In the present article I wish to explain the thinking that underlies the response of the Haredi rabbinic leadership. Though there were several exceptions to the rule (the Rebbe of Karlin-Stolin is a modest yet prominent example), the directives above are certainly representative of mainstream Charedi leadership. Clearly, they require much elucidation. I will not attempt a defense of the Charedi position; unlike some friends of mine, I do not understand the appeal of Charedi advocacy. Rather, the purpose of this article is to suggest a conceptual infrastructure that will assist in understanding the approach of Charedi rabbinic leaders, which also reflects deeply on the popular Charedi sentiment. The focus is internal-Charedi rather than external to the community. It asks the question of how we—we who care deeply about rabbinic opinion—can relate to proclamations that seem so difficult, and how this might be helpful for the future.

Some will argue that while people are ill and even dying (Heaven forbid), while many suffer from financial instability and others face the prospect of spending Seder Night alone, this is not the time for such analysis. Yet, I feel that the questions being asked on the Charedi response are too great to be ignored; they demand a coherent response, even at this difficult time. Yes, the corona smoke is yet to disperse—but perhaps this makes the analysis more urgent still.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed our community’s grave vulnerability; without identifying the cause we won’t be able to rectify the weakness.

Others will argue that there is no place for examination of rabbinic decisions and proclamations. The argument for unquestioning compliance with rabbinic directives is often buttressed with the well-known maxim of following the Sanhedrin even if they tell us “that right is left and that left is right.” I find this argument totally misplaced. Leaving aside the question of compliance, which is not the issue I wish to address, it is of course important to understand, or at least seek to instructions of rabbinic leaders. The holiness of the Torah does not prevent us from investing huge energies in studying and analyzing its dicta, and directives of rabbinic luminaries are surely no more inexplicable. This is all the truer for circumstances of confusion and confoundment as those of today, alongside a diversity of rabbinic opinion that has left many—communities, families and individuals—quite bewildered as to how to act.

A shorter response might also suffice: The coronavirus crisis has exposed our community’s severe vulnerability; without identifying the cause we won’t be able to work toward rectifying the weakness, whether for the present or for the future. For this purpose, this article provides no more than an initial response. A fuller analysis, alongside an encompassing and detailed appraisal of facts on the ground, will be required to consider the way ahead. But we must begin from somewhere.

In seeking to clarify the matter, I will analyze two very different sets of rabbinic instructions that were issued at more or less the same time last week, one by the rabbinic leaders of Modi’in Illit, a Charedi city situated midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the other by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, rabbi of the religious-Zionist Har Beracha settlement and Rosh Yeshiva of a yeshiva bearing the same name. Though there are some exceptions,[8] I found these two sets of directives to be generally representative, for the specific moment, of Charedi and non-Haredi rabbinic authorities. In order to explain the difference between the two sets of guidelines, I will suggest two basic lines of thought, one of them simpler and more intuitive, and the other somewhat deeper and possessing broader ramifications. As something of a by-product of the analysis, I will conclude with an insight of my own concerning the profound religious responsibility that rests on our shoulders at this time.

 

Conflicting Rabbinic Directives

On Wednesday of last week, 22.3.2020, the rabbinic leadership of Modi’in Illit—a group that comprises eight rabbis, some senior and some less—was called upon to offer its guidance concerning a range of religious matters affected by the continuing spread of coronavirus. In a letter addressed to those living in the city, they explained that the decisions were taken after a lengthy meeting with the relevant rabbis, the major, and several medical experts.[9]

The decisions taken were as follows. Concerning prayer gatherings, prayers were to be held in “limited groups” alone, and that minyanim should be split between different areas of a synagogue compound. Concerning ma’ariv, the evening prayer, the document stated that there is no need to attend Shul services, and that quorums can gather at entrances to buildings, or in other well-ventilated locations. Those aged seventy and up were instructed to entirely refrain from coming to shul. Concerning Torah institutions—Yeshiva, Kollel, and Cheider institutions (the latter was not made explicit)—the rabbinic directive was to “comply unequivocally with regulations” and to “split students into small groups.” Concerning Mikvah for men, the document stated that those who usually attend the Mikvah can rely on the halachic leniency of “nine kavin” (taking a shower, basically), and those who anyway wish to visit the Mikvah “should hurry in and out, refrain from gathering in groups of more than ten, and refrain from chatter with one another.”

Reading this document reminded me of a similar document I had seen just a few hours earlier, which supplied a list of directives signed by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leading rabbinic figure in the religious-Zionist community, and author of the acclaimed Peninei Halacha series.[10] In his directives, Rabbi Melamed wrote that “it is correct to be scrupulous and daven all one’s prayers alone, and this my own custom.” Those who nonetheless choose to attend communal services are required to “keep a distance of at least two meters from others and use soap or disinfectant to cleanse the area around his seat.” Those above the age of sixty must entirely refrain from coming to Shul, and “one must not visit them, aside from urgent needs.” Rabbi Melamed was asked why he refrained from forbidding communal prayer outright, and responded that this is related to the value of personal liberty, and to the fact that “if people are not cautious concerning visiting public parks and the like, it would not be appropriate to entirely forbid attending shul prayers.”

Both documents offer directives whose purpose is to balance between fulfilling daily religious duties and the public danger of a potentially deadly virus. Yet the equilibrium each one reaches is very different

Both documents offer directives whose purpose is to balance between fulfilling daily religious duties (prayer in Shul, Torah study, immersion in the Mikvah) and the public danger of a potentially deadly virus. Yet the equilibrium each one reaches is very different. While Rabbi Melamed advices his congregation and students to refrain entirely from visiting Shul, and barely permits the practice (just one day later, he signed a joined declaration that stated simply “one must not pray with a minyan”; for Rabbi Kessler of Modi’in it took another twelve days to reach the same conclusion), the rabbis of Modi’in Illit fail to mention this even as a legitimate option. The Modi’in rabbis offer recommendations for individuals who wish to immerse themselves in a Mikvah, while for Rabbi Melamed such a possibility does not even make it into the document. The same is true of Torah institutions: while for Rabbi Melamed it is a foregone conclusion that all Torah institutions have long been closed, for the rabbis of Modi’in Illit not a word is said about closure.

What underlies the difference between these divergent approaches? Both were written by rabbinic figured known for halachic meticulousness, and whose raison d’etre is an unceasing performance of the Divine will. Nonetheless, the balance they reach between daily religious duties and the challenge of staying safe is vastly different. What are the central causes of this difference?

 

A State Within a State

Halacha often takes an individual’s personal mindset into account. For matters of danger to life, the halachic pikuach nefesh, a person’s subjective state of mind can be deeply significant in deciding whether it is permitted for him to violate Shabbos or not. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, thus noted that under identical circumstances, it is possible that for one person it will be permitted to work on Shabbos, while for others it will be forbidden. The halachic decision will depend on the individual’s concern for his life: if concerned, it is permitted (or even obligatory) for him to violate Shabbos in order to save himself, while for somebody else who is unconcerned despite being in the same situation it is forbidden to desecrate Shabbos.

But while the Chazon Ish endorses this approach for private matters, he explains that it cannot be applied to public issues. The example he gives, drawn from a situation he experienced in 1942 Palestine, is turning off city lights on Friday night (after Shabbos has commenced) in anticipation of a potential air raid. In this case, an individual person’s subjective state of mind cannot be decisive, since even a single light can draw in the enemy and result in the city’s complete decimation. For such cases, a public decision must be made on behalf of everyone. If the decision is to turn off the lights, then all individuals must comply—even those who believe the decision is wrong and involves an unnecessary Shabbos desecration.[11]

The matter of dealing with a plague cannot be left to individual, subjective opinion, since the behaviour of any given individual can have a critical effect on the entire public

The same is true for a time of plague, which is likewise a public and communal affair. The matter of dealing with a plague cannot be left to individual, subjective opinion, since the behaviour of any given individual can have a critical effect on the entire public (the case of South Korea’s “Patient 31” comes to mind). For this reason, the streets of Paris are today filled with policemen enforcing the government policy of total shutdown: after the policy was decided upon by the governing body, it became incumbent on all citizens to comply, and the executive branch of government was appointed to enforce regulations. The fact that somebody might believe the policy is misguided does not give him sanction to act differently; like in the case of turning off city lights, such behaviour would undermine public policy seeking to curb the spread of the plague.

All this is fairly straightforward. The key question now becomes: Who gets to decide public policy? Who has the authority to determine the regulations that all must comply with? This question brings the Charedi rabbis of Modi’in Illit and Rabbi Melamed to very different starting positions.

As a loyal citizen, (he) [Rabbi Melamed] sees the instructions and regulations of Israel’s official bodies as fully binding; he would balk at the very idea of setting himself and his community aside from the rest of Israel

Rabbi Melamed, who self-defines as national-Charedi—Charedi in a cultural and halachic sense, but national in the sense of civic duty and religious identification with the State of Israel—wholeheartedly recognizes the authority vested in Israel’s official institutions. His religious convictions, alongside his simple citizenship of the State of Israel, bring him to champion a deep civic responsibility, alongside his rabbinic responsibility for the upkeep of halacha. As a loyal citizen, he sees the instructions and regulations of Israel’s official bodies as fully binding; he would balk at the very idea of setting himself and his community aside from the rest of Israel. Thus, when Israeli schools were shut due to the coronavirus threat, it was obvious that this will include schools that follow his leadership. This does not necessarily mean that Rabbi Melamed agreed with the policy; it only meant that he saw himself duty-bound to follow the decision made by the official governing body.

By contrast with this mindset, Charedi rabbis—to make a generalization that has some exceptions—do not recognize the authority vested in Israel’s official bodies, certainly not in the fundamental sense of the word. Yes, it is usually correct and expedient to follow State laws and regulations; as the Mishnah teaches us, “if not for fear of authorities, people would swallow each other alive.”[12] But this is a far cry from the kind of civic loyalty and national responsibility that animates Rabbi Melamed.

Much of Charedi society sees itself as a kind of “state within a state”—the Charedi State operating within the State of Israel. Although the “Charedi State” depends on Israel for its funding, its infrastructures, and its basic services, in the Charedi mindset it also retains a large degree of independence, and its primary responsibilities are for its own communal self-interest rather than for the broader national interest. With the general exception of actual wartime, a “them-and-us” ideology prevails that places Charedi communities and individuals outside the jurisdiction—in theory, and occasionally in practice—of official State mechanisms. Now and again, Charedi publications even sound the occasional call for establishing a Charedi autonomy.[13] While ludicrous is an understatement for this proposal, it exemplifies the abovementioned Charedi attitude.

With the general exception of actual wartime, a “them-and-us” ideology prevails that places Charedi communities and individuals outside the jurisdiction—in theory, and occasionally in practice—of official State mechanisms

This underlying mindset is reflected in the grating (to say the least) wording of the question, put to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky by his grandson at the very onset of the coronavirus saga: “The State wants to shut the Chadorim (elementary Torah institutions for boys).” Here is my loose and somewhat embellished translation: “Our independent Torah education system is under attack by the State of Israel, which is using the pretext of coronavirus to close our dearest institutions.” The response—“Heaven forbid”—was of course only natural. In matters of religious affairs Charedi society must maintain absolute autonomy, and the only appropriate response is thus a flat refusal to comply with government “decrees”—the word “decrees” is used in Charedi parlance to underscore an alienation from Israel’s government, whether in matters of army service (“the draft decree”) or in purely economic issues (“economic decrees”). The values of the “Charedi state” are different to those of Israel, such that—so the thinking goes—only we can decide if this is really a “plague” and whether it justifies closing Torah institutions. Torah academies, after all, are fundamentally different from cinemas and pubs, and the type of considerations we consider are therefore fundamentally different. For the “Charedi State,” only the internal Charedi leadership can decide whether to turn off the lights.

As time went by, Charedi leadership of course came on board, as it began to grasp the gravity of the situation and slowly changed its tune. Yet, the opening position remained relevant, and is reflected in the different directives of Rabbi Melamed and the Charedi rabbis of Modi’in Illit. For Rabbi Melamed, compliance with government regulations is a given. This is the basic “letter of the law,” and it leaves room for going “beyond the letter of the law” in altogether refraining from Shul attendance. By contrast, for the Charedi leadership the matter of compliance with government regulations it a matter of choice, of going “beyond the letter of the law” (which is why many institutions remained open in defiance of regulations). Suffice it then that we comply with regulations—on our own terms, and after consultation with our own medical experts—and do what we can to maintain social distancing in a Shul setting. Going beyond the regulations, at the cost of communal prayer, would be an extreme that upsets the balance between religious obligation and safety precautions.

At its extremities, the Charedi approach can reach the truly absurd. As a representative of the (now notorious) Lithuanian Peleg Ha-Yerushalmi rallied, “They will not close our Shuls; this is how the Russian decrees began!”[14] But at the center, it represents an innate suspicion of official authorities and mechanisms that began well before the State was established, and is in fact a weakened version of the parallel approach to Eastern European authorities before WWII.

There is nothing absurd about suspicion per se; yet, much like all principles, it must be exercised with caution. The expansion and heightened political power of Israel’s Charedi society seems to have led some to believe that they really do live in a “state within a state.” But Charedi society and leadership do not actually possess their own state, and neither are they up to running one. In times of crisis this would be good to remember.

 

Institutionalized Religion

The relationship with State of Israel and its relevant institutions is a factor in the different rabbinic positions, yet not a sufficient one. The Charedi approach is more deeply rooted than its ambivalent relationship with the State, and moreover, the gravity of the issue at hand indicates that more stands behind Charedi attitudes than the (albeit important) political question of “who calls the shots.”

Last Wednesday (25.3.2020), health minister Yaakov Litzman (a Gerer Chassid and head of the Charedi Agudas Yisrael party) petitioned Prime Minister Netanyahu to exclude shuls from Israel’s planned shutdown.[15] The move was widely (and predictably) scoffed: Shuls are a well-known source of infection, and the situation whereby the health minister himself petitions to exclude shuls from his own directives borders on the absurd. Now, as health minister, Litzman is himself the person calling the shots; he is both the poritz and the Moshke at once. His preference for communal prayer over his own office’s safety directives raises issues beyond the matter of community politics.

Another major factor that stands at the crux of Charedi policy and leadership decisions is a feature of religious practice especially prominent in Charedi society: the centrality of established religion. In Charedi society, religious practice takes on a distinctly collective nature. A deep part of Charedi identity is the belonging to a collective, and the willingness to sacrifice part of one’s personal identity on the altar of the group. The expectation of group loyalty is especially prominent during election time, when we will often hear statements such as “a Charedi person is […] first and foremost somebody who has accepted upon himself the absolute authority of Charedi rabbinic leadership.”[16] But beyond politics, the collective nature of Charedi society has deep sociological and religious implications.

These implications include such phenomena as a uniform dress code, rigid educational frameworks, mass demonstrations against perceived threats to the collective, significant power wielded by official newspapers, and so on. In the realm of religion, the collective element of Charedi society is represented by a strong orientation toward established and institutionalized religious practice. Institutions such as the synagogue, the yeshiva and the kollel, and in Chassidic communities the shtibel and the tisch, are religious foundations of society. In the Charedi vision they virtually define religious practice. The centrality of communal religious institutions is further strengthened by an inherent distrust of the individual, who is perceived (based on rich experience alongside solid reason) as frail and eminently vulnerable vis-à-vis the dangers of Western culture. This mindset underlies the isolationism that Charedi society so cherishes, which seeks to shelter individuals from the ideas, the culture, and the general spirit of non-Charedi society. And the basic tool for the protection of the individual is the communal sanctuary of religious and communal institutions.

This explains why for the majority of the Charedi rabbinic leadership, the option of davening alone, in the solitude of the private home, was not raised until it was finally enforced by government. The task of rabbinic (alongside political—see above concerning Litzman’s efforts) leadership is broadly perceived as the reinforcement and constant development of these institutions and their protection from outside influence and potential (perceived) contamination. The closure of these institutions, the more so when demand to do so comes from secular authorities whose influence Charedi society seeks to prevent, is therefore perceived as a deep threat to the essence of Charedi life, and the decree of closure is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. Yes, the mainstream remains distant from the craziness spewed by extremists who “would die rather than close our synagogues,”[17] but the fundamental mindset is common to all: closing institutions, and even recommending davening alone, is a radical step for Charedi leadership. Even in the face of coronavirus, we should not be surprised to find a plethora of statements that refrain from “going all the way” in compliance. Total closure ultimately relies on police enforcement.

For Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, by contrast, religion is a more personalized, less institutionalized affair than for the Charedi rabbinic leadership. In his own words, he states that he chose to refrain from prohibiting Shul attendance outright because of the value of personal liberty—which he sees as a deeply religious value. This is representative of religious-Zionist society as a whole, which underscores the institutional protection of the individual far less than Charedi society, and which gives far more liberty and choice to its members. There are many influences that brought about this position, but central among them is Rabbi Kook, whose writings underscore the importance of the authentic (and autonomous) self:

I am in the midst of the exile” (Yechezkel 1:1). The inner, essential “I” does not appear by itself, but rather in relation to our holiness and purity.  It appears in relation to the amount of supernal power that, with the pure light of an elevated illumination, burns within us. […] Thus does the world continue, sinking into the destruction of every “I”—of the individual and of the whole. Learned educators come and focus on the superficial.  They too remove their consciousness from the “I,” adding straw to the fire, giving vinegar to the thirsty, and fattening minds and hearts with everything that is external to them. And the “I” gets progressively forgotten. And when there is no “I,” there is no “He,” and how much more is there no “You.”[18]

Reflective of this attitude, Religious Zionist society is characterized by a range of phenomena that are largely foreign to Charedi life. These include a broad spectrum of religious practice among different communities and individuals, a high degree of tolerance toward conflicting religious and theological opinion, a lack of centralized rabbinic authority, the phenomenon of the “formerly frum” (datlashim, who are somehow included on the spectrum of religiosity), a preparedness to live among the non-religious including attending their institutions and consuming parts of their culture, the neo-Chassidic movement that underscores individuality and authenticity, a respect for secular scholarship alongside Torah knowledge—and far more besides. It is also reflected in halachic orientation.

For Rabbi Melamed, davening at home, and later the closure of Shuls, is anything but a decree against religion. It is religion itself that forces him to daven at home, in deference to the obligation to guard one’s health and the health of others. Davening with a minyan is an important virtue, which is noted in halacha; yet it bows its head before the potential danger of a deadly virus. For Rabbi Melamed, asking people to pray from their homes is a regretful but not traumatic decision. For the rabbis of Modi’in Illit, the picture is altogether different. Davening in Shul is religion itself.

 

Conclusion

In facing up to the threats of modernity, the Charedi approach of maximal isolationism—an approach that emphasizes the place of the collective rather than the individual, and which also informs the “state within a state” construct elucidated above—has a track record to boast of. It has proven itself in molding a society that has largely withstood the moral and religious onslaught of the West over time—an impressive feat in itself. It has developed large communities imbued with commitment to Torah and Torah values, and it has fostered a society (or multiple societies) prepared for impressive sacrifice for the sake of living a Torah life. Today, when Shuls are actually closed, it is touching (and somehow reassuring) to see the pain and anguish that Charedi rabbis and laymen alike experience at not being able to daven in Shul, with a minyan.

And yet, these achievements have not come without failings. While cultural isolationism might be the best antidote to the ills of Western culture, it runs the risk of leading to detachment from reality. This risk is amplified by a strong collective spirit, certainly when characterized by the sense of moral superiority that pervades Charedi society. An exaggerated self-confidence, combined with a measure of detachment from reality, can lead to dire consequences. Today, we continue to mark these consequences among the extremist factions, for whom the overarching “them and us” mentality will continue to dominate policy, no matter what the reality in the field. But the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the severity of the challenges for us all.[19]

There are other factors that have influenced the difficulty of Charedi society in handling coronavirus. As an ultraconservative and religiously institutionalized society, compliance with far-reaching regulations was always going to be tough. In addition, large portions of Charedi communities are unexposed to news updates (aside from through Charedi newspapers), resulting in a relative lack of awareness that could only make things worse. This state of affairs is further compounded by large families, densely populated areas, and close-knit communities, for whom the ability to isolate is that much harder and the risk of infection that much higher.

Fortunately, over time the gravity of the situation has penetrated Charedi communities and leadership. Certainly, once the virus began to take its toll within Charedi society, the community was finally shocked into all-but-total compliance with government regulations. But the delay has taken its toll—firstly and foremostly, in allowing the virus to spread, at tragic cost to life and health; secondly in causing friction and animosity between Charedi and non-Charedi society, which has looked with horror at organized violations of regulations within Charedi society; and thirdly in causing an internal weakening of Charedi leadership.

***

In the present article I have tried to present some of the basic principles that underlie the Charedi response. These principles—suspicion of the State and its institutions, isolationism from non-Haredi society and culture, and a strongly institutionalized society—form part of the story. They are certainly not the whole. But I hope they provide a useful framework for some initial thoughts on the issue and hope they will provide scope for further thought and discussion.

Finally, by way of conclusion, perhaps the collective entry into the homes—collective now on the part of all of us, irrespective of denomination and group identity—can become a source of unity. At home, after all, we all share a certain equality. We shed our respective “group uniforms,” and are divided by who we are rather than by our religious-sociological identities. And at home, deep down, we are all brothers. We are all Jews.

For the first time in a long time, Pesach this year will somehow resemble the original Pesach of Egypt, when each one of the Hebrews sat in his own home, raising a hand (or a doorpost) for Hashem to pick him out and redeem him—together with all his brothers. If only we could only raise our hand, each from his own home, perhaps we too could experience an individual-collective redemption of sorts, just as our ancestors in Egypt. We certainly need it.

 


 

[1] See https://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/1843979/bnei-brak-is-turning-into-italy-almost-every-chareidi-is-infected.html.

[2] See https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/ramat-gan-residents-ask-mayor-to-build-separation-wall-near-haredi-city-622750.

[3] See https://www.mako.co.il/news-israel/2020_q1/Article-c3a328f0d472171027.htm (Hebrew).

[4] See https://www.ynetnews.com/article/BkicV36IU.

[5] See https://www.timesofisrael.com/police-bid-to-convince-rabbi-to-close-yeshivas-as-his-sect-defies-virus-rules/; https://www.kikar.co.il/351046.html; https://www.jdn.co.il/health/1299079/ (Hebrew).

[6] See https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/leader-of-ultra-orthodox-world-calls-for-lone-prayer-due-to-coronavirus-622805.

[7] While some major rabbinic figures in Beitar Illit argued that the directive was limited to Bnei Brak (see https://drive.google.com/open?id=1qgJCAVSB6STxd8pLDgi9x4lUelJX3SJN), a WhatsApp message from Yanky Kanievsky (the cockpit itself) indicates the contrary (see https://drive.google.com/open?id=1M8n-aeTCy3a0rmotzbUx8KvyUCbFSicU).

[8] See, for instance, the guidelines for the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which were exceptional among Charedi neighborhoods for the time: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1_LTGN40sUvKaY9YHm5VNoXizjDsBloln.

[9] See http://kore.co.il/viewArticle/61611.

[10] See https://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/430734.

[11] Pe’er HaDor, Vol. 3, p. 184.

[12] Avos 3:2.

[13] See, for example, https://www.kikar.co.il/%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%93%D7%99%D7%A2-%D7%9C%D7%94%D7%A7%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%90%D7%95%D7%98%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%94-%D7%97%D7%A8%D7%93%D7%99%D7%AA-%D7%9C.html.

[14] He added, for good measure: “We do not want a life in which we will be davening at home, alone. Do you understand? We simply don’t.” See https://www.haaretz.co.il/health/corona/.premium-1.8719344.

[15] See https://news.walla.co.il/item/3348662

[16] See https://www.kikar.co.il/167063.html.

[17] See https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5702030,00.html.

[18] Orot Ha-Kodesh, Vol. 3, p. 140.

[19] An article documenting men using public garbage bins as alternatives for immersion in the Mikvah is one of the potential consequences of this “disconnect from reality,” though the extreme nature of the phenomenon might lend other explanations. See https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5703520,00.html (Hebrew). This case highlights the influence of the collective mindset on individuals, who religious convictions prevent them from falling into line with regulations, notwithstanding rabbinic directives.

9 thoughts on “Coronavirus: The Charedi Response

  • An extremely well articulated perspective of an immensely confusing situation. The piece leaves open the terrifying reality of isolation coupled with the realistic fear of the loss of all that the Charedi world cherishes as sacred. Perhaps this commentary is the beginning of a dialogue that can foster a more balanced and secure future as we are compelled to greet modernity.

  • The Haredi need fewer 50 year old Yeshiva students and more men who serve in the Israeli military (like real men and patriots). Also working real jobs and paying taxes would help. Get your act together before your laziness and lack of patriotism destroys Israel and lets the river to the sea Islamists take over.

  • ” For the rabbis of Modi’in Illit, the picture is altogether different. Davening in Shul is religion itself. ”
    Maybe that’s the problem. We understand how the idols of our time , science, government , financial institutions, health services according to the Aleinu prayer are being cut down, we have our idols too. I heard a shiur where the Rav brought from the introdcution to Rabbi Sanso Raphael Hirsch’s Horeb , that he would close shuls for at least 100 years. The rationale was the instutions have become the idols , a means instead of an end, our shuls, batei Midrash and schools are closed , maybe instead of serving these institutions we have a chance to re-engage our relationship with Hashem, his Torah and our children from our homes. Also plenty lessons about how decision making should take place and the biggest problem – when the situation is us versus them , the whole problem of Chilul Hashem is no longer an issue. Would it not have been wonderful if the Chareidi community would have been guided to keeping Hashem’s directive to protect life from the outset , instead of being accused of endangering others. Articles like the one from Rabbi Farkash which don’t romanticize Chareidi policy and leadership give us hope

  • “Who is wise, he who sees what will be born?”

    Obviously, Haredi leaders are bereft of widsom

  • I think that the doctrine of Daat Torah is also a major factor in the failure to respond to the current crisis. I summarized the different factors here.
    https://www.facebook.com/asher.altshul/posts/10218662562252670

  • With all due respect your dateline and therefore your facts in your article are not correct, and even though some of your thoughts and insights may be correct, they cannot be deducted from the facts.
    Rav Melameds article was on 17/03, The Modiin one was 19/03. At this time the Government still allowed minyanim of 10. On 19/03 The Rabbeim of Bnei Brak said that one must follow the orders of the Health Ministry. On THE SAME DATE Rav Sternbach of the Eida, Rav Asher Weiss said the same. Also on THE SAME DATE the Rabbinate of Holon said NOT to have minyanim BUT the Rabbinate of Bat Yam said YES to have minyanim according to the Health Ministry. On 20/03 the Rebbe of Karlin said Listen to the Health Ministry. I could bring many other examples. In the end Pikuach Nefesh was the deciding factor for all sides, according to the Halacha and you are correct in saying that public matters override the individual ones.

  • Whether to obey the directives of the state might have been a non-issue if the matter had been understood as following the advice of medical experts.

  • This is a great defense and explanation-but what it fails to account for is not whether it’s us against them or not, but rather whether it’s pikuach nefesh. It was, and why didn’t we as a charedi community take the stringent approach?

  • The “state within a state” essentially wants to govern itself, but would it have enough informed and responsible leaders and followers to make this possible? Let’s imagine that, in this extreme case of COVID-19, the Israeli government had attempted no persuasion, applied no pressure, and left it completely to its own devices. Is there any doubt that the outcome could have been disastrous? The mini-state should thank HaShem that the actual state pushed it in a healthy direction.

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