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?