(April 22, 2020 / JNS) With some ultra-Orthodox (haredi) communities in Israel having been under complete lockdown due to the high rate of COVID-19 infections, a major controversy has been raging in Israel over whether the leaders of these communities were initially aware of the dangers of the virus and, if they were, whether they intentionally encouraged their followers to flout the government-imposed lockdown rules.
No matter the details, it has become obvious that with a large portion of Israel’s infected coming from haredi communities such as Bnei Brak and areas of Jerusalem (at least 40 percent of cases—a significant number given that they make up only 12 percent of the population) their leadership has failed them.
The question is if the haredi world in Israel will undergo a change as a result. And if so, in what way?
JNS spoke with three experts on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, and what is clear, they say, is that most haredim are law-abiding citizens and have strictly adhered to the directives published by the government. Also clear is that haredi society places tremendous weight on its uninformed leadership, the “Da’at Torah” (“Da’as Torah” or “Da’as Toyreh”), which is roughly translated as those leaders who are experts in all facets of Jewish law and custom, and have wide-ranging knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud and many commentators.
Whether or not this is likely to change in the future remains to be seen, but the rock-bottom dependency has certainly been rattled.
Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, highlighted three main reasons for the spread of coronavirus among the haredim. The first, he said, is that the spiritual leaders of the community did not heed the warnings regarding the coronavirus threat, especially when the instructions were connected to religious practices, such as studying and praying. In the beginning, when the government first began to advertise the need to practice social distancing, the haredi community was slow to heed the warnings. Many even believed that God would help them.
“People will listen to more voices, pay more attention to science and medicine. People will take more care.”
Gad Yair, associate professor and chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed with Malach. He explained that a main concept in sociology—social capital—involves the functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships.
“The haredi community has a lot of social capital,” he said. “They participate in communal prayer, they have large families, and for every question, they go to a rabbi.”
Yair noted that this high level of social interaction, which in normal times is deemed an advantage and an asset, is now a liability.
“This is the reason it spread,” he said, “but not because they are disobedient. It is just the practices they are accustomed to and which Judaism is built around.”
While Yair vindicated the general haredi public, he laid blame squarely at the doorstep of its leaders, charging them with negligence as they urged their followers to congregate. He said their rhetoric “continued until late and verged on irresponsibility or perhaps something even more criminal than that. They knew. They were speaking about the virus, and many of them were knowledgeable of the risks.”
The second reason that the virus spread throughout these communities, according to Malach, is that it took the state authorities a few weeks until the ministries identified the ultra-Orthodox towns as high-risk areas. This mistake is especially attributed to Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman and Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri, who belong to the community but allegedly did not act forcefully or clearly enough to convince leaders to change their behavior.
According to Yair, it is not just the politicians who are at fault, but also many of the rabbis who were very late in their response.
Yedidia Stern, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS “there is a problem [within the haredi community], but I don’t think Litzman and Deri should be blamed.”
Stern said that there was “a lack of communication between the government and the haredi leaders. People were not aware of the cultural differences and the need to communicate with a more personal approach, explaining this in terms they may understand.”
“They participate in communal prayer, they have large families, and for every question, they go to a rabbi.”
The third reason, according to Malach, pertains to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. The cities in question are the densest areas in Israel. In addition, the daily lifestyle of haredi men includes communal rituals and practices, such as studying and praying together in close proximity.
“In general, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel live in an enclave culture geographically, and also in terms of technology, in the sense that they reject the Internet and television,” said Malach “They did not understand the situation, and they did not trust the authorities regarding religious rituals and customs.”
Stern explained that it is understandable that the haredi community would be slow to respond to this crisis since they don’t “have faith or confidence in what the government says.”
“A large percentage of the community does not have faith in the police or the Knesset,” said Stern. “So when the government orders them to change whatever is dear to them, it’s not easy for them to do.”
Some criticism of the haredi community—and subsequent warnings about its future—has come from within.
‘The centrality of established religion’
Yehoshua Pfeffer, editor-in-chief of Tzarich Iyun, a website that focuses on haredi thought and ideas, suggests the nature of their response to the virus is due to three main principles that partially define that community: suspicion of the state and its institutions, isolationism from non-haredi society and culture, and a strongly institutionalized society.
“The coronavirus crisis has exposed our community’s severe vulnerability,” he said. “While cultural isolationism might be the best antidote to the ills of Western culture, it runs the risk of leading to detachment from reality. … An exaggerated self-confidence, combined with a measure of detachment from reality, can lead to dire consequences.”
Pfeffer points to “the centrality of established religion” as “another major factor that stands at the crux of [haredi] policy and leadership decisions.”
This crisis “must force us to think hard about our social function and how to improve it, for now and for the future.”
A central aspect of this community is its maintenance of religious observance and practice through communal prayer and study. During lockdown, there were groups of haredim who went to great lengths to participate in communal prayer, with each person joining in from their individual balcony. The idea of removing so central an aspect of life was too painful for some.
Thus, as Pfeffer points out, closing haredi institutions and even recommending praying alone represent “radical steps” for their leadership.
According to Moshe Farkash, a haredi writer on the same website, “Our priorities need to be straightened out. If, despite the dire warnings of all global authorities and public-health experts, the [haredi] public remained indifferent and flaunted directives, we must urgently address such devastating callousness.”
Farkash said he believes that their “irresponsible conduct … reflects our community’s ultimate failure to properly contend with modernity itself.”
In his opinion, this crisis “must force us to think hard about our social function and how to improve it, for now and for the future.”
‘Suspicious of scientific authority’
Natan Slifkin, a self-described “post-haredi” Jew, explains on his website that while most people in Israel have access to global news, trust in government authority and accept basic concepts of science, those living in such communities lack all three.
“As a relatively isolated community,” he writes, the haredim “are less in tune with the news and mood of the wider world, and their reactions to events lag behind the rest of us. … As a community based around a siege mentality, they are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. And as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. It’s only to be expected that the response to coronavirus would be deficient.”
As Israel contends with the present nightmare, working around the clock to contain the virus and its spread, it is also looking to the day after. Much discussion has centered on how reality will be different in the future. But what of the haredi community and its future? Will there be a fundamental change in the nature of the system and its leadership?
Stern believes that “there is a good chance” that change will take place. “It is a sensitive moment,” he said. “We are facing the first real time in recent history when a large majority of haredim see the state as the real protector of life.”
For years, haredim have largely avoided being drafted into Israel’s military en masse due to their contribution to the state through their Bible study. Over time, some members of its community have come to view the military, law enforcement and secular government with suspicion.
According to Stern, now, the thousands of police and soldiers in the streets protecting the public must have had some impact in influencing the ultra-Orthodox masses.
Stern is calling for a new “social order” between the haredim and the general public in Israel. He believes that the haredi public today needs a “hug” and a renewed “acceptance.”
“Today,” he said, “75 percent of haredim say they are proud to be Israeli. There is a change.”
However, he warned that if the hate speech of other Israelis towards haredim is dominant in the near future, then it might push this sector into the arms of extremists.
‘Not enough to trust their own sources’
According to Malach, the future will bring a number of changes to the haredi community.
The first, he noted, relates to technology. “Until the current crisis, just 50 percent of the community used the Internet, and some of them just at work or just on a weekly basis,” he said. “Updated data shows that in one month it jumped to 60 percent of the population. There was an increase of 200 percent to 600 percent in new connections in March compared to February. Almost half of the consumers report that they view news from regular sources and not just from ultra-Orthodox sites.”
“They realize it is not enough to trust their own sources and need more points of view,” he said. “This is a great change when we talk about the ultra-Orthodox society.”
According to Yair, “more people will now connect [online], listen to more voices and pay more attention to science and medicine. People will take more care.”
The second change that might take place, he continued, is the level of obedience to rabbis.
“The charisma of the rabbis might be viewed as more problematic from now on.”
As Malach noted, the ultra-Orthodox society is a conservative society, and their trust in their spiritual leaders is a basic belief that’s very difficult to change. “In a democracy, usually when the leader fails in handling a situation, he resigns or gets punished by the voter,” he said. “Here, it’s more like a monarchy in that you don’t change the leader.”
“The value and centrality of respecting and obeying rabbis will continue, but more people will decide for themselves regarding personal questions like higher education or using the Internet,” he added.
Likewise, stated Yair, the haredi public “will have to come to terms with their leadership.”
“In Judaism, unlike Catholicism where you have one church, you can change your rabbi if you don’t like him,” he noted. “Judaism allows more flexibility. In Chassidic circles, they have this tendency to have only one rabbi, but this risk may open more routes, especially through the Internet, to hear more voices.”
According to Stern, the haredi public saw their rabbis as having been totally mistaken and risking the lives of the public. “The charisma of the rabbis might be viewed as more problematic from now on,” he said. “Haredim consult their rabbis on personal and national issues, and they see them as some kind of pipeline directly to God. This failed on the most important occasion in front of the camera. Everybody saw it. You can have your narrative and you can explain it, but a large chunk of haredim will now ask themselves, ‘Can we trust [our leaders] on issues not related to the Torah?’ ”
The last change regarding the future is connected to the economy and labor market.
“On the state level, policy makers understand that there is a need for haredim to be part of the state and to participate in the labor market,” said Malach. He noted that “more than 40 percent of the ultra-Orthodox community lives under the poverty line.”
Malach also said he believes the current economic crisis “will limit the ability of the state to support the community.”
In addition, the economic crisis in the United States “will cause a shut down in philanthropic support to some of the yeshivot,” leaving a lot of men with “no choice but to integrate into the labor market.”
However, as unskilled workers during a period of high unemployment, “their chance of landing a job is not very high,” said Malach.
The need to find work might also change the attitude of haredi youth towards secular studies and core curriculum subjects, such as math and English, which many of them do not learn today.
“As we see,” said Malachi, “these extraordinary events threaten the basis of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. We don’t know exactly what will change, but it seems that a lot will.”
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