As we approach this week’s story about Abraham’s immediate compliance with God’s command that he provide his son as a burnt offering, we would do well to contemplate a large group of Jews who, in their own minds at least, are following God’s commands in a way that seems to us so dangerous as to be irrational.
Much ink has been spilled over the last several months by Jews proclaiming their inability to understand the haredi response to COVID-19 restrictions imposed in the United States and Israel. That failure to understand is a failure on our part (and by “our,” I include myself, the Modern Orthodox community in which I live, and anybody else who isn’t a haredi Jew.) Here are the essential points that those of us who are not haredim should acknowledge:
Haredim don’t hate science or disbelieve in science. They go to hospitals when they’re sick, as anyone who’s ever been to a hospital in New York or in Jerusalem can attest. They use computers and cell phones—not in the same way as the rest of us, by they do use them; they don’t pretend that such things do not exist. They don’t generally want to become scientists because they believe that for a man, studying Torah is more important than learning biology or how to code, and that the highest use of a woman’s time is to make and fill a home. But that’s not the same as not believing that there is such a thing as science.
They know what an infectious disease is. The knowledge that there is such a thing as an infectious disease is not a chiddish (“innovation”); it’s not something discovered in the last 100 years. In the Middle Ages, people knew that the plague and various other highly communicable diseases were spread by close contact, and plenty of Jews faced with such threats took precautions to minimize such contact. Haredim are not failing to comply with government edict about social distancing because they believe in magical thinking.
They do, however, actually believe in prayer. Many of us who are not haredim claim to believe in prayer, too, so we should not lightly dismiss this, no matter what our private doubts may be about its efficacy. More seriously, the Jewish canon teaches us explicitly and repeatedly that national calamity is a function of our moral lapse. The entire book of Jeremiah says that. The entire tractate of Taanit deals with the problems of drought and illness and death, why they come when they do, and what effect can be had on God’s decision to send such things by prayer or fasting (hence, the name of the tractate—a taanit is a “fast”). We sophisticates may roll our eyes about this, but it’s a serious issue. Those of us who pray regularly—or pray at all, or even go to synagogue where other people are praying and we just sing along—all have an obligation to take this seriously.
Haredim are hostile to governments. That’s not because they’re fools who are under the misimpression that they still live in Poland in the 17th century, and who don’t realize that the Poland of the 17th century was a malevolent place, while the United States or Israel of now is not malevolent. It’s because they don’t want to be governed by a secular government at all. They think it’s akin to idol worship, which our canon calls not “idol worship” but Avodah Zarah, perhaps most accurately translated as “service to, or submission to, something strange—i.e., to something other than God.” That explains why the haredi world had such a hard time wrapping its head around the establishment of the State of Israel when that establishment was carried out (as far as most of us know) other than by the command of God and without the establishment of a government that is itself bound by the Torah.
Our siddur puts this sentiment into our mouths multiple times every day; those of us who are not haredim, and who see nothing wrong with obeying the edicts of a secular government or even participating in the formulation of those edits, do so in the teeth of these words. I refer here not only to such general formulations as the warning in Psalm 146 not to trust princes. I refer to the words in the Amidah that we are supposed to say three times a day: “Return our judges to us, and rule over us, You, God, all by yourself.” “We have no king but You,” we say, not just when we recite Avinu Malkeinu, but six Maariv prayers a week (at least if we’re outside of the Land of Israel).
The Jewish canon teaches explicitly and repeatedly that national calamity is a function of our moral lapse. The entire book of Jeremiah says that.
The difference is that the haredim actually believe this. Hence their antipathy to governments—any governments, even governments run by Jews (Jews who don’t actually believe this). They have that antipathy towards secular governments not because they don’t know what century they’re living in or because they don’t realize that Western governments do not, and are not, likely to conduct pogroms. They have that opinion about secular governments because those governments are not following the Torah and not animated by or even sensitive to the value system according to which haredim build their lives. They do obey their rebbeim in the same way that Jews generally obeyed the Council of the Four Lands, which governed the internal affairs of Eastern European Jewry for about 200 years. It’s not “authority,” per se, that they reject. It’s authority other than that of God.
Neither are haredim indifferent to the harm their conduct causes other people. We know this because they lead insular lives spent almost entirely within their own community—and that means that the vast majority of people affected, and infected, by their COVID rule-breaking are other haredim. One would have to be stupid not to know that their conduct will have this immense effect on their own community, on their own aged parents and teachers. They’re not stupid; they know this. It is a cost they choose to bear because they think they are commanded to live the way they live—for men to study all day and to daven in a minyan; for Jews to have lots of children, to make three Shabbos seudos (“meals”) every week, to dance before brides and to accompany the dead. If you believe you are commanded to do something by God, then you do it. As Queen Esther said when she realized that she really did have to go confront King Ahasuerus: “If I lose my life doing what’s required of me, then I lose my life.”
The Talmud in Eruvin tells the story of Rabbi Akiva sitting in prison, where he was visited each day by one of his students, who would bring him water and bread. One day the Roman guard decided the student had brought too much water and made the student pour some of it out. Only a little was left. When the student presented his teacher with the water and bread, Rabbi Akiva used the water to wash his hands and then ate the bread. The student was shocked: You need the water, he said to his teacher; why didn’t you drink it? Rabbi Akiva answered that the Torah commanded him to use the water to wash before he ate bread. He lived to fulfill the Torah’s commands. Whether he died on a particular day of thirst because he hadn’t drunk the water, or on another day somewhat later because he had, was less important than whether he did what the Torah (i.e., God) told him to do.
Those of us who aren’t haredim claim to value very highly the duty to respect “the other”—to respect the way other people think even if it’s not our way. We should bear that in mind when we think about our haredi brothers and sisters insisting on going to shul, making weddings and attending funerals, and keeping their yeshivahs open.
Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer and a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.