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Louis Finkelman tentatively proposes two or three factors to explain why the haredi community treats the COVID-19 pandemic as irrelevant to their lives.

As fervently observant Jews, the haredi Jewish community holds fidelity to Halachah (Jewish Law) as its central tenet. This attitude has often inspired me and other Jews across the whole spectrum of observance. All segments of the haredi community take pride in that fidelity.

And yet a significant segment of the haredi community treats the COVID-19 pandemic as irrelevant to their lives. They do not wear masks; they do not practice distancing; they congregate in large groups at schools, religious services, weddings and, poignantly, funerals.

This behavior constitutes a mystery and calls for analysis.

The great codes of Judaism all require us to preserve health. Dangerous situations require us to take protective action — pikuah nefesh — even when doing so overrides nearly all other demands of Jewish law. An observant Jew must telephone the doctor on Shabbat, ride to the hospital on Yom Tov, eat on Yom Kippur to protect someone who is in danger or even possibly in danger. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly poses as great a danger to haredi Jews as to others.

Yet when epidemiologists warn that we need to practice distancing, to wear masks and to avoid large indoor gatherings, this segment of the haredi community carries on, ignoring the dangers, not taking protective actions.

Furthermore, city and state governments and, in some countries, the national governments, have mandated protective actions, and significant haredi populations have flouted those laws, regulations or recommendations. Jewish Law generally requires us to respect civil laws, especially when disrespect could lead onlookers to disdain us. Yet this segment of the haredi community seems unbothered by the image it projects to the environment.

That disobedience constitutes a mystery. I tentatively propose two or three factors to explain this mysterious phenomenon.

One factor, worldwide: haredi society sees itself as an insular community, with fidelity to its own mores, more-or-less unchanged through the centuries. In each country where it has flourished, haredi Jews have followed the traditions of their ancestors and the rulings of the rabbinic leaders, while scarcely paying attention to whatever government rules.

In principle, haredi Jews say, governments come and go, but haredi society continues unchanged. Haredi society carries on even under hostile governments, which demand that we change our age-old practices. Thus, when a government agency demands that we alter our way of life, especially our religious observances, we stoically disregard their demands.

The governor of Michigan or the health minister of Israel, like the czar of Russia, cannot get us to change where we recite our prayers.

Another factor, specifically in the U.S.: A segment of the haredi community — and segments of other Jewish groups — have become deeply committed to the Republican party. And the Republican party has embraced a dismissive attitude toward the pandemic.

A conservative commentator who has broken with the Republican party, David Frum, derisively characterizes this attitude: “The coronavirus is a much-overhyped problem. It’s not that dangerous and will soon burn itself out. States should reopen their economies as rapidly as possible and accept the ensuing casualties as a cost worth paying — and certainly a better trade-off than saving every last life by shutting down state economies. Masking is useless and theatrical, if not outright counterproductive.”

Some American haredi circles thus pride themselves on stoically ignoring the pandemic in fidelity to the Republican consensus. The United States has not taken consistent measures to control the coronavirus, and the United States endures more deaths per capita than most other countries, but the Republicans have ready explanations.

So, too, some haredi communities have resisted measures to control the coronavirus, and haredi communities have become centers of infection, in Israel, in New York and Michigan, but haredi spokespeople have ready explanations. The price for flouting regulations does not figure into these explanations for Republicans or for their haredi acolytes.

After further reflection, I propose a third factor: The tendency in many haredi circles to insist on a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible and even of Midrashic elaborations of the Bible.

As a matter of faith, if a classical source presents an event, in whatever poetic language, then one must assert that event happened exactly that way. People who study geology or astronomy or biology or other fields of knowledge come to conclusions about the age of the Earth or the age of the stars or about the evolution of the species, or even about the position of the Earth in the solar system, and some haredi Jews dismiss expert examinations of the evidence with a wave of the hand.

Some haredi Jews rely on sophistic works of apology to defend their literalist beliefs, but I think most simply reject experts without considering evidence.

This might seem like a harmless predilection, but it has consequences. Simply rejecting expertise about matters of theoretical significance can lead to rejecting expertise about matters of day-to-day importance. Get used to dismissing cosmologists and geologists, and you might have no trouble dismissing epidemiologists just as easily.

Have I missed a better explanation for this mystery?

10 COMMENTS

  1. “Haredi communities have become centers of infection, in Israel, in New York and Michigan”

    To include Michigan is nothing short of libelous against the haredi Jews with whom the writer clearly has an axe to grind. The 48075 and 48076 zip codes had some the highest infection rates in the state, but the Orthodox population there did not have any higher of an infection rate and in fact a far lower hospitalization rate than most other groups. The schools and synagogues comprising the Orthodox were extraordinarily quick to shut down, and you will not see anyone unmasked in any store frequented by the Orthodox in Michigan.

  2. A number of things.

    1. There is no television in probably 95% of black hat homes, and to be honest this really is hysteria that is pushed by the media. (I agree 100% with David Frum.)

    2. You might also consider that experience has led us to this conclusion. we have not had masks at our Shul for many months, and there have been exactly zero new infections.

    3. The issue for the governor issuing all of these arbitrary and random executive orders is about power and control, and I think that black hat people have a lot of experience with corrupt and capricious governments. And so, they just nonchalantly ignore what should be ignored anyway.

    Count me among them, even though I’m not quite properly Haredi.

  3. i think that the haredi jews are almost exactly the same as the most of the population – including the government officials – the difference is only in priorities. we all take precautions in situations that we don’t think are essential and are more easygoing in what we see as important.
    so the government will allow jam packed tube trains, allow worker to return to offices, allow professional football games to continue etc etc because that is what is important to them. the restrictions continue with things they believe to be less important. so too the haredi community are more easygoing with things that are important to them – shul going, weddings etc.
    to say that they never wear masks is simply libelous. they do on the tube and in shops as is mandated by the government, but they are lenient regarding wearing masks in shul and weddings, just as the government is lenient on workers wearing masks in shops.
    at the end of the day its all a matter of priorities.

  4. For someone writing a paean to the Western scientific method, this article misses precisely that: empirical, scientific evidence that the phenomenon identified is actually real. It is all really just subjective anecdote prone to confirmation bias. But let’s assume it is accurate.

    Personally I think that the issue is partially one of age. Chassidish teens and 20- somethings may behave rather like their secular peers. Of course with a high reproductive rate, Chassish demographics are younger than the rest of the population. Most young people, for reasons of both perceived and objective risk, because of the higher propensity to risk taking, and because of the importance of socialising to this demographic, are keeping the rules less scrupulously on average than most older people.

    I would further posit, without any empirical evidence, that the issue may partially be one of perception. An outsider looking at a dour hat wearing, bespectacled 14 year old Chassidish boy talking animatedly with a friend without a mask may be perceive a much older individual.

    I would posit that everyone has seen individuals from almost every community behave in outrageous and anti-social ways throughout this pandemic. It is possible that non-Charedi Jews are particularly sensitive generally to the actions of their bearded and slightly embarrassing co-religionists, and are unfairly holding Charedi Jews to a standard different to that of the rest of society.

    @Mr Mitchell: My cousin believes he contracted Covid-19 from from a shul where individuals were not wearing masks. It isn’t a joke, and if everyone behaves like it is, the elderly will die.

  5. Whilst the Haredi community do take issues of health very seriously it is due to the conflicting analysis and inconsistencies in the international forum that trust has been lost with the Goverments and local authorities.
    I concur with many of the above comments.

  6. Dear Louis Finkelman, I agreed with your 3 points until i read the first 5 comments above, it seems you are wrong, to get the full picture and to really understand the reason, those 5 comments show utter ignorance and disgraceful recklessness, dont forget if any of these feel unwell the first thing they do is run the the doctors they now ignore!

  7. The author makes some unreasonable assumptions and generalizations.

    First, he offers no empirical evidence for the “factors” that he offers.

    Second, he assumes, without evidence, that the Republican Party write large has a “dismissive” attitude regarding the virus. I’ve not found that the case. Many members of both parties have been seen without masks, tested positive, developed symptoms, and even died from the the virus.

    Finally, he states “some” Haredim are dismissive about things like science and medicine. Not only does “some” clash with he previous generalizations and thus not establish a significant “factor”. But he ignores how Haredim are grateful to both Hashem and to science and medicine for treating victims of illness and trauma. He also doesn’t account for the ability to reconcile Torah and science through things like Einsteins Theory of Relativity.

    It’s disappointing, especially at this time of the year to read a Jew indicting his fellow Jews in such a manner, without evidence, and with prejudices that are inappropriate.

  8. All I can say is that just having passed through Mea Sherim and Geula 2 weeks ago, the overwhelming majority of Haredim were in fact wearing face coverings in public. As I understand it the statistics in Israel tend to show most infection within 3 groups, secular teens and young adults, Haredim and Israeli Arabs. perhaps the author would like to guess why there are problems with the other 2 groups. The other telling statistics is that infections tends to spread within the same households. There are also other puzzles to the infection rates, in Israel the high recent rates have not led to the same pro rata increase in hospitalization, serious cases or deaths. I suspect the same will hold in the UK hopefully as well.

  9. The concept of social distancing is so alien to the Haredi way of life, if you can’t come together you are destroying the fabric of their society, they would not know what to do with themselves. Society’s current obsession with “me” has not reached the Haredi world which is actually a good thing.

  10. I find it interesting that while we see pictures, videos, and hear from friends about shuls that do not practice the guidelines intended to protect us from contracting and spreading Covid-19, that people defend them. No, it is not the entirety of the haredi community, nor is it only the haredim, but there are far too many in Israel and the U.S., including metro-Detroit who do not follow guidelines. Yes, the whole thing makes our lives less comfortable, is disruptive, limits our abilities to practice as we normally would. But I too follow halacha (Jewish law) and my rabbis who tell me that saving life is an imperative, and that I should follow guidelines of social distancing and wearing a mask (and regular hand washing). The problems discussed may not apply to all in the haredi community, but far too many fail to follow the guidelines.

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