I’m bringing you an interview I decided to conduct with a dear friend of mine, an ex-Gur Hasid, hoping that in the midst of the latest events such as the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Ultra-Orthodox community and the conduction of Litzman from Gur Hasidut, it can shed some light on the pattern of thinking within the Gur community, and give a little window to the inside of Gur Hasidut.
A little background (feel free to skip ahead to the interview):
The Rabbis don’t care about their own public, and in two weeks, we are going to see the outcome of this, as people start dying like flies
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a dear friend of mine who’s an ex-Gur Hasid. It was the evening of Purim festivities and feasts, the Corona restrictions were in the midst of being issued. A political fight arose between Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s minister of health and a Gur Hasid, and prime-minister Netanyahu, about whether or not to allow Purim celebrations, which Litzman obviously viewed as a religious obligation, superior to any health or safety restriction. That night, like many other people in Israel, neither my friend nor myself went out to celebrate, and my friend was outraged and furious. “They’re all going out to celebrate. All of them. It drives me insane” I remember him saying, referring to the Ultra-Orthodox community. “The Rabbis don’t care about their own public, and in two weeks, we are going to see the outcome of this, as people start dying like flies, not before they’ve spread the virus to who knows how many others. It kills me that there is absolutely nothing I can do, and their leaders who’re the only ones who can save them and others, won’t do a thing”.
We talked about it a bit more and then went on to the next subject. After all, as he said, there was nothing we could do at that point besides hope for the best. The best didn’t arrive, but my friend’s dark and realistic prediction definitely did. The biggest outbreak of the pandemic is in Bnei-Brak and Jerusalem and among the Ultra-Orthodox population. Furthermore, the minister of health who’s a Gur-Hasid himself, was diagnosed with Coronavirus, but not before he spent time in government meetings with the prime minister and other members of the government, and is now suspected to have violated the restrictions of his own office, to attend religious prayers and rituals, no less. What a bloody mess. Literally.
“My side of the country”, meaning Jews who’re not Ultra-Orthodox, is raging. So am I. I was going to write an angry piece about my views of the matter, but realized quite quickly this won’t do much good besides perhaps slightly relieving my anger. Instead, I thought, it’d be interesting to understand what is the discourse in the Gur public. After all, there is a 10% Ultra-Orthodox population in Israel today, and Gur is a healthy chunk of it. I called my brilliant and sharp friend and asked him if he’ll grant me an interview. He was happy to do it, hoping it’ll shed some light on the matter and allow us, “the others”, a better understanding of the Gur Hasidut, which he also refers to as “The Cult”:
Tell Me a Little bit about yourself
I was born to a Gur Hasidic family, very religious, very observant, and went through the system, school, yeshiva, the whole shebang. I “left” mentally a lot earlier than I left physically. I also left Gur before I left religion. I did not believe in the Gur Rabbi at a relatively young age. I didn’t buy it. I never excelled in innocence and didn’t believe the Rabbi can read into my thoughts like the rest of my friends did. I got married and divorced in the system. I have a kid in the system. I kept religious for a very long time even after I got out of Gur.
What is your religious status today?
Absolutely not religious. I’m an atheist through and through. Give me science, proof, evidence.
What is your relationship with your family and the Gur Hasidut these days?
I worked very hard to keep the relationship with my close family who’s still there, even when it required me to bend over backward to do so, so I’m still engaged more or less in the daily matters of the community. My parents and siblings are still talking to me, but never on anything that isn’t a part of “their world”. I make sure to dress accordingly when I’m visiting, to not hurt their feelings or their status in the eyes of their public. In gatherings with my extended family and in their public spaces I follow very strict codes of behavior.
I wish we could do this interview in audio or video. Will you ever consider that?
Never. Even with my voice changed and my picture blurred, I will never risk revealing myself in a way that will cause harm and pain to my remaining family, which is still very much religious and in the system.
What is the place of Litzman as a Gur Hasid as a representative of the general Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox community? Can you please separate or differentiate the Gur Hasidut and explain the place of it amongst the others? Also, what role Litzman plays in this game as minister of health?
The world view is very tribal and splits the world into dichotomies. It’s always us vs. them. The good against the bad. The Jews are good, the non-Jews are bad, and on it goes as long as you keep splitting. Religious Jews – good, secular Jews – bad. Ultra-orthodox Jews are better than just orthodox. Among the Ultra-orthodox the Hasidim are good and the Litvaks not so much. Between the Hasidim, the Polish ones are good and the non-Polish are not as much, and amongst the Polish – Gur Hasidut is the absolute best. The jewel in the crown. They truly believe they are better than everybody else. It is an absolute cult mentality. There isn’t a better way to worship G-d than the Gur way, and our guys are truly viewed as the purest and holiest. Gur doesn’t see itself as part of the Ultra-Orthodox community. Gur, as far as they’re concerned, are on a level of their own. No one else is equal to them. They wouldn’t marry outside Gur because everyone else is beneath them.
Litzman is a Gur Hasid in an Ashkenazi Religious party called “Yahadut HaTorah” and…
Litzman is in no party whatsoever. Litzman answers to one man only. The Gur Rabbi.
But the party itself is a unification between the Litvaks and the Hasidim, and a Gur Hasid is leading it. Can you explain to me what this means in the Orthodox world?
The Litvaks and the rest have no choice. Gur is the largest coherent Hasidut that exists at the moment that will follow the Rabbi through fire and water. They have a lot of people who function as a unified army. Whatever the Rabbi says, they’ll do. The numbers and obedience give them vast political power. The Litvaks aren’t as united, and they’re aware that the Gur Hasidut is more powerful and so they accept Litzman as a leader, realizing this is where the power lies at the moment. Litzman does not serve the community. Litzman does not serve the people. He serves one man. That man supposedly has the interest of the community at heart, but nonetheless, Litzman answers to Yaakov Arie Alter aka the Gur Rebbe and that is it. Period.
How can you be sure of that?
Any Gur Hasid worth his salt from the age of 12 and up will be able to tell you that. That’s not a secret. He is known as “Shlucha De’Rabanan”, he doesn’t serve us, he’s the Rabbi’s representative and whatever the Rabbi tells him, he does. The reason Litzman survived so long in the internal politics of Gur is because he’s a “yes-man”. As a person he might have been a fine parliamentarian, but as things actually go, he doesn’t act as a true agent to the people.
Can you give me your take on the Corona virus situation in the Ultra-Orthodox? Can you describe to me what you see happening in the Hasidic community as someone with a unique inside-outside point of view?
The general gist is “the Torah and God will protect us”, anything external is unnecessary. The outcome isn’t directly related to deeds. There are no consequences as long as you do what you need to do. Because of that, in the beginning they didn’t take it seriously, at least until people started dropping like flies, and even now, some of them don’t take it seriously enough. I foresaw the numbers simply because I’m out of the system and I’m a reasonable man of numbers and data. All it took was to look at the numbers and realize that once there was one sick person among us, there was no way to stop the spread without enforcing severe restrictions. That’s how we got to the situation we have today. On that note, I’d like to say that the health system in Israel is doing magnificent work dealing with this condition.
My biggest problem with Litzman as minister of health is that he didn’t go to every leading Rabbis of the Hasidim – The Gur Rabbi, the Belzer Rabi, the Vizhnitzer Rabbi, and the Yeshiva leaders of the Litvaks, and explain to them how serious the issue is and have them backing his decrees. He knows very well how to find them before every election cycle. He should have done the same as soon as he learned of the pandemic. If the signatures of the Rabbis were on the restrictions from the ministry of health and then posted in the Ultra-Orthodox community, so many lives would have been saved. My grandfather himself attended a Tora lesson in which the instructor was sick and still showed up to class. Many caught it from him. Litzman could have saved lives but he didn’t.
A great example for the power the Gur Rabbi has over his community is the smoking rate in Gur. The percentage of smokers is extremely low, only because the Gur Rabbi said that everyone should quit smoking. There is no enforcement. All he had to do was say it, and everyone quit.
So basically, you’re saying that if the Gur Rabbi would have said “Follow the restrictions of The Ministry of Health”, they all would?
Absolutely. He has absolute control on every aspect of their lives. He is their father figure, they’re leader and second only to God, and I’m not completely sure about that last one.
So the Gur Rabbi has a representative in the government, from this I take that the Gur Hasidut is not completely opposed to the existence of the state of Israel?
The state of Israel is not the enemy but it isn’t a friend either. It’s a situation you have to deal with. As long as it doesn’t persecute us or force us to join the military – we’re happy campers.
Now there is an outbreak of the pandemic among the Ultra-Orthodox population, but for a long time Litzman fought with the prime minister over things like holding the Purim celebrations, congregating in groups of ten for prayer, keeping yeshivas and schools open, keeping mikvah bathhouses open and more. Can you explain to me the calculations of the Gur Rabbi when he prioritizes the observation of mitzvahs over the health restrictions during a world pandemic?
His religion means much more to him than any health regulations, especially when they clash with the normal religious routine. He’s afraid of G-d more than he is of the pandemic. He sees himself as a religious man first and a citizen of this country second. Prayers, as far as he’s concerned, are the thing keeping the world afloat, and studying Tora is the thing that’s keeping the world operating. G-d is keeping the world running on a second to second basis. If, G-d forbid, Jews stopped learning and praying together in a minyan (groups of ten men) – G-d is an angry SOB, and he’s going to kill us all.
Well, now he is “killing us all”. What do they say to that?
They don’t see it this way. G-d has a plan. In Gur you’re not taught to think for yourself. You’re taught to follow your leaders, wherever they may lead you.
Did anyone you know got infected?
In my close environment – my brother’s wife just caught it, so did a dear friend’s mother and a couple of days ago, a dear friend who’s a Gur Hasid passed away from Corona. It was a tragedy. I’m going to miss him terribly. He was a wonderful man.
I am so sorry for your loss.
What’s the current discourse in the community, now when people are starting to get ill and die?
I don’t know much. The Beit-Midrash (Central synagogue in Jerusalem and Gur’s Base of operations) is closed. The Rabbi has isolated himself. As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been any official decree to do anything. The community isn’t bothered by it because they don’t think too much into what the Rabbi should or shouldn’t do. It’s none of their business.
What needs to happen to integrate the Hasidic community into our society?
That’s an impossibility. It’ll never happen.
Because of childhood indoctrination. As long as this goes on, there is no way out. I have given this a lot of thought. I can’t even rescue my own siblings. My sister won’t talk to me about any actual substance that requires thinking – she on her own rejects the conversation with me when it gets anywhere near anything that questions her constructed world view, telling me she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say because I’m considered “flawed” and “rejected” since I left Gur and I think for myself. As long as blind faith will be considered a virtue, there is no real way out.
Do you see any chance for healthy collaboration between Gur and the Israeli society?
No. there will always be individuals who’ll be willing to collaborate, there are plenty of smart people who look outside the frame but still live in its boundaries, but collaboration on a vast scale will never happen because the Gur Rabbi is a single ruler in his own world. He is one of the richest men in this country, and as much as it is nice to get money from the state, he doesn’t need the state to keep his business prospering. The Rabbi himself is worth millions of dollars and that’s without the insane amount of money the community’s establishments run. He can run the system on his own dime in a blink of an eye, but he doesn’t have too. That’s what he has Litzman for. “Why do we keep the guy on the payroll”? Litzman is paid not just with money he gets as minister of health in the government, the community pays him on the other hand with a currency of respect. He represents us. He sits in the government with his Gur jacket and hat, he doesn’t feel excluded when up there. He is representing Gur proudly. Sometimes Litzman manages to manipulate the Rabbi to make him agree to some policies, but many other times, it’s the other way around.
You think that despite Litzman’s friction with the government and the secular system, none of it is rubbing off on him? None of it is penetrating?
The way I see it, Litzman does not move his right hand, if the Rabbi didn’t tell him to do so.
Do you have a message for the Ultra-Orthodox community?
Yes, start thinking for yourselves and start following reliable leaders rather than religious sages.
Thank you for agreeing to do this.