Cruel calculations

The behavior of at least some of the ultra-Orthodox in recent weeks makes absolutely no sense. What was the Belzer rabbi thinking when he gathered thousands of his followers for a wedding, in blatant violation of the rules, and at a time when the Angel of Death is waltzing through his community and taking many Hasidim away with him? How heartbreaking it is to see a Belz teenager sitting shiva all alone, because his father, grandfather, and uncle have all succumbed to the coronavirus. They, and many others, might well still be with us had the rabbi decided to fight the virus. And how did thousands of Hasidim have the nerve to crowd together at the funeral of the Pittsburgher rebbe, who died of COVID-19? Don’t they understand that — as a result — some of them will soon join him?

The bulk of the ultra-Orthodox leadership does not engage in COVID-denial and is meticulous about adhering to the precept of preserving human life (pikuach nefesh). These rabbis are not motivated by some desire to conquer the state or reject its sovereignty. But unfortunately, they find themselves having to make a tragic choice between a rock and a hard place: the physical threat of contagion, or the spiritual threat posed by the battle against the pandemic. As they see it, it is better to run the risk of the physical hazard in order to minimize the spiritual danger.

The cold calculation driving the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox communities goes like this: They face a lesser physical risk than the population at large since roughly two-thirds are under the age of 30, and among young people, symptoms tend to be milder. And so, they catch the virus from fellow yeshiva students, whether unwillingly or sometimes even by choice, so that they can quickly return to their routine lives despite the pandemic, and develop herd immunity among the community (although it has yet to be proven effective). At the same time, there is also a practical issue: if the yeshivas are shut down, their students will have to return to their crowded homes — with an average of 7 square meters of living space per family member — where quarantine is quite impossible — and potentially expose their vulnerable parents to the virus. We’re going to be infected no matter what, runs the argument, so it is better for this to happen within the yeshiva study hall and dormitory, far away from the older folks back home.

 In the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, the looming spiritual threat is far more serious. Ultra-Orthodox life is rooted in the community. There is no way in the world to preserve the unique and intensive way of life — both material and spiritual — expected of individuals, without the bear hug of the community — public prayers three times a day, poring over the Talmud in the study hall from morning till night, thronging around the venerable rabbi who is their source of religious energy, life cycle events from circumcisions to funerals. The demand that young ultra-Orthodox men segregate themselves from the very community that embraces them and handles them with kid gloves, until at some time unknown — when a vaccine is available — is perceived as an educational catastrophe, a one-way path from which many would not return. The ultra-Orthodox are afraid of losing the next generation.

Countries go to war to defend their national interests, even though they know they will pay a heavy price in human life. The same applies here: In the war to preserve the ultra-Orthodox way of life, there will be victims — but relatively few, given the age distribution in the community; and these victims are the price that must be paid to ensure victory in the most critically significant campaign, to safeguard and fortify ultra-Orthodox identity.

Nevertheless, this approach must be forcefully and unequivocally rejected, on three grounds — fairness, effectiveness, and health. First of all, the ultra-Orthodox do not live in an autonomous bubble; they are an integral part of Israeli society, in which ostensibly, all share responsibility for all. The path chosen by the ultra-Orthodox is egotistical and self-centered, because it inflicts harm on others. The large number of COVID patients among the ultra-Orthodox sector places a heavy burden on Israel’s hospitals, which are being stretched to the limit. Should an elderly secular woman have to pay the price of maintaining ultra-Orthodox identity? Can we justify dealing a blow to the country’s economy in order to promote ultra-Orthodox interests?

Second, the ultra-Orthodox are woefully underestimating the enormity of the current wave of hate speech directed against them by the population at large. The anger provoked by their avoidance of military service and milking of the public purse will seem like nothing, compared to the volcano that will erupt as a result of the current crisis (and I can only hope to be proven wrong about this). The ultra-Orthodox sector’s cruel arithmetic may collide with a no less cruel arithmetic among the majority, which will use its power — full force — against them. In this sense, current conduct of the ultra-Orthodox is short-sighted, even from a pragmatic perspective. Third, from a medical point of view, evidence is piling up indicating that COVID-19 can have a significant long-term impact even on young persons who remain asymptomatic, affecting internal organs, fertility, and cognition. How dare the rabbis gamble with their followers’ health?

If Israeli leadership was addressing the pandemic crisis in a professional way it would have lent an ear to the special problems faced by the ultra-Orthodox and found a solution, in the form of rules of behavior adapted to their way of life — but strictly enforced and intolerant of any deviation from them; for example, by means of budget cuts for yeshivas and institutions that flout the regulations. But the government, with negligence that can only be defined as criminal, has not done this. Why? Because the response to the pandemic has been turned into a political issue. There is no doubt that the future commission of inquiry which will inevitably be set up will conduct a serious investigation of this situation. But meanwhile, Israel is now one of the reddest countries in the world.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.