Coronavirus and the Haredim

The coronavirus crisis has taken a horrific toll in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community, whose delayed understanding of the magnitude of the virus and the necessity to adhere to the rules led to deaths, illness and suffering that could have been avoided. One thing is very clear: the failures, especially by the leadership, will lead to significant changes within the Haredi community.

The most immediate impact involves how Haredim receive their information. The Bezeq telecommunications company has reported a 40% increase in internet traffic in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods since this crisis has begun. While there are many who, no doubt, are using more internet for shopping, studying and work, for many it’s because they want to hear the real story about corona. Bezeq surveyed the Haredi population and found that 82% report getting their information about the coronavirus via the internet, with just 30% saying that they also receive their information from the rabbis.  The community clearly recognizes that there was an initial failure among the rabbinic leadership, and they want to understand what is happening on their own – both now and in the future.

This brings us to the second transformation that is already taking place in the community: changing the system in which the rabbis make their decisions and where those decisions are being followed blindly without challenge.

The video that shows Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson presenting him with the government’s request for all schools to close has gone viral in the Haredi community. The rabbi’s grandson tells him that “the state wants now that all the Haredi schools shouldn’t have studies until they know what is happening with this plague. Because they say that when many children gather together in the same building and one of them has the virus, then it can spread to the others and that increases the danger. The question is does grandfather think that they have to shut down the Haredi schools because of this.”

Rabbi Kanievsky answers, “God forbid.” The grandson then says, “So I can tell them that they should keep the schools open?” Rabbi Kanievsky nods his head in approval. There was no back and forth trying to understand the nature of the virus or what was the state’s concern. Just a quick back and forth regarding a matter of life and death.

This video, and Rabbi Kanievsky’s announcement just a week later that anyone who does not follow the rules must be turned in to the authorities, has revealed the major flaw in the Haredi system – how the rabbi receives his information before making a decision – and many are rethinking the entire system.

Proof of this development is an episode that happened last week, when a letter signed by Rabbi Kanievsky calling for the reopening of Haredi schools was released to the public. Another Haredi leader, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, jumped in and told the Haredi news outlets not to publish the letter. He has since made contact with Rabbi Kanievsky, and the two issued a statement that they will review the situation together, and that all moves will be coordinated with full safety measures in place.  Rabbi Edelstein has now authored a letter saying that the new semester will not open up as usual and that rabbis should teach their students via the telephone.  The letter was sent to Rabbi Kanievsky to add his signature.  In addition, despite the government allowing prayer services to be held in open areas in small numbers, Rabbi Edelstein has strongly encouraged the status quo – with people remaining on their porches to pray – to remain in place.

One other issue shaking up the Haredi community relates to promises made by its rabbis. During the campaign leading up to the March 2 election, United Torah Judaism released a video in which Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson says to him: “There is this disease that is spreading in the world that they call corona. Many people in the world have died from it, and thousands of people are sick from it. And many people have great fear that it will reach them. So, people are asking: will voting for United Torah Judaism in the election be a protection for them that they won’t become sick from this disease?”

Rabbi Kanievsky nods his head in approval, and this video became part of the UTJ campaign. Many people who voted for the ultra-Orthodox party have died from corona, and hundreds if not thousands have contracted the virus. This has led to large-scale questioning of the guarantees made by the rabbis, who continue to promise that if people donate to specific charities then they will be protected from corona. The community is now challenging the validity of these blessings, to the point where Rabbi Kanievsky’s son had to go on the defensive in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Shabbat. Rabbi Kanievsky’s son explained the mechanism how this blessing works, saying that once the rabbi has issued this promise, then those whom God decrees will receive the virus will be prevented by God from donating to these charities.

When the interviewer pressed him further, pointing out that people who have donated to this charity are sick with corona, the son then gave a long and difficult to follow response that explained how one can lose the merit and protection because of their sins. The fact that a Haredi reporter pressed him on this issue already reveals the degree of questioning that the community is experiencing, and the reply essentially says that the blessing is meaningless.

This has led to significant questioning of a system that values the promises made by the leading rabbis and will have significant residual impact on a culture which places great emphasis on the words of its spiritual leaders.

The final change relates to the more moderate Haredim calling on the general population to be more accepting of them, while working to distance themselves from the extremists in their midst. Trailblazing Haredi leader Rabbi Menachem Bombach, who established a network of Haredi schools that teach general studies, wrote a column for Times of Israel (a Hebrew version also appeared in Ynet) as a response to the strong anti-Haredi rhetoric that filled social media in the wake of the Haredi failures during the crisis. He wrote:

“It’s painful to hear an entire community – a community that is filled with good-hearted people who view preserving human life as the most sacred value – portrayed as the most lowly, despicable people on Earth…The police should come down hard on those “religious” Jews who break the rules as they should for those in all populations.

“My school network includes hundreds of Haredi children – who look no different than any other Haredi child – who are receiving a full education and will become upstanding tax-paying professionals… in Israel. They want to be part of Israel. Please don’t close the door on our children… And let’s always remember that with all the separations and divides between us, when it’s all said and done, we are one people with one unified destiny.”

These calls for unity and reconciliation are coming from many sectors in the Haredi community. The mainstream Haredi community, which recognizes its failures and also values how the IDF and police mobilized to help them during the crisis, seeks peace with the broader population.

And the same goes for trying to silence the extremists.  Just yesterday in Bet Shemesh, a group of around ten extremists marched along the street chanting for the government to open up synagogues. Haredim in large numbers came to their windows and porches shouting them down and screaming at them to go back into their apartments.

I pray that the Haredi community will continue to learn the lessons of these tragic two months – by finding a way to balance its desire to avoid exposure to the negative spiritual influences of the outside world while learning to gain information from outside sources and by continuing to integrate into Israeli society while holding onto the importance it places on Torah study and religious practice.  At the same time, I hope that broader Israel will root out all anti-Haredi rhetoric and work toward greater unity.

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV. He currently serves as Senior Manager - Community Outreach for Honest Reporting.
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