Checking our anti-Chareidi bias: a coronavirus retrospective

I’m not sure whether it seems like yesterday or ages ago that the video of Rav Chaim Kanievsky was circulated in mid-March encouraging institutions of Torah study to remain open.  I can certainly freshly remember the outrage.  On social media, comments sections to news articles, discussions with friends and colleagues—there was no shortage of people mocking Rav Kanievsky’s instruction to maintain normal yeshiva schedules, and of extrapolating this view as a general reflection of all the perceived faults to be found in Chareidi communities.  Although within the next couple of weeks he, and other Chareidi leaders, seemed to alter this position to be more cautious, this stance taken by him, and adhered to by many of his followers, became a reason to openly express disdain not only for the decision, but for the community as a whole.

According to worldometers.info, how many new daily cases were there on March 16?  85.

Compare this with recent coronavirus-related developments.   On June 12, the Israeli government approved weddings of up to 250 guests, not including event staff.  Schools around the country, with hundreds of children sitting and playing side-by-side, have be open for weeks.

According to worldometers, how many new daily cases were there on June 12?  226.

Aside from a few increasingly marginalized individuals who continue to sound the alarm, coronavirus, as a topic of concern, has moved down the list.  News outlets, which for weeks had coronavirus stories as their leads, have returned to leading with politics, protests, or even the skirmish between China and India in a distant region of the Himalayas.  As I walk around any neighborhood in Israel, my anecdotal count is that around a quarter of the people, at most, wear their masks properly.  Beaches are active, restaurants are serving, gyms are open, and multiple families are sharing Shabbat meals with each other.

The reality is, as noted by a May New York Times opinion piece, many pandemics do not have a medical end, in which they are over because the disease is eradicated (e.g. through a vaccine) or naturally diminish to low enough levels to cease being a threat to most people.  Instead, many pandemics have a social end, meaning that society decides that it prefers to live with the risk of the disease than to engage in extreme and restrictive measures to avoid illness.  It seems, on the whole, that Israeli society—as well as many other societies around the world—has decided that the restrictions are too onerous, and that they are not worth the tradeoffs.  America, too, has decided that the importance of anti-racism protests, political rallies, and other large gatherings supersedes the risk of coronavirus.

Did keeping yeshivos, shuls, and other institutions open in Chareidi neighborhoods increase rates of infection and cost some people their lives? According to the best evidence, the answer is yes.

Does opening up the public, including schools, offices, bars, public transportation, and other public institutions increase the rate of infection and cost some people their lives?  According to the best evidence, the answer is yes.

So where is the outrage?  Where are the media articles posting pictures of virus-restriction violators?  Where is the condemnation of society’s selfishness for wanted their conveniences restored while increasing the chances that others may die?

Maybe part of the answer is that things are different now: we have a slightly better understanding of the disease; we have somewhat better treatment options; our hospitals are better prepared; laws have become more lenient; the economy cannot handle another shutdown; and at least some proportion of the public actively engages in strategies—such as masks and handwashing—that can reduce the pace of the virus’s spread.  But one wonders whether another element at play is that the larger Israeli and American societies simply have a dismissive stance toward Chareidi values and the communities that espouse them.  For most people in our societies, the idea that daily, intensive Torah study is the paramount value, and is only sacrificed for issues of life-and-death, is foreign.  The belief that Torah study is what provides life is dismissed as insincere, primitive, or superstitious, and society feels entitled to negate that belief when it runs against the values of the broader society.

I count myself among those who thought yeshivos should be closed down early, and that the delay to close them down was dangerous and irresponsible.  Indeed, on a personal level, I have yet to return to synagogue since mid-March.  But as current events around the world have brought up conversations about addressing our own prejudices and biases, it may be worth considering whether the intensity of the reaction against the Chareidi community was really one rooted in our best values, and if so, why we may not be having that same reaction now.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, and who writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha. He co-hosts the Mental Health News Roundup, a weekly online program focusing on contemporary news related to mental health issues.
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