Over the past few weeks, Israelis have watched as the country has gone from a staggeringly high coronavirus case number, around 2,000 just a few weeks ago, to a debilitating, raise-the-surrender-flag number of over 6,000 today. Israel now boasts among the highest per-capita rate of infection in the world. Our hospitals are teetering on the brink, medical staff are beyond the brink, and the country’s economy is frozen by lockdown. So, naturally, the big question of the day is…. should we close the synagogues?
It’s almost—no, not almost, it is mind-blowing to think that this is where we are. For weeks, we witnessed the virus rampage through ultra-Orthodox towns and communities. For all those weeks, we watched as said communities have fought tooth and nail to prevent themselves from taking responsibility. Whatever cards ultra-Orthodox leaders had to play, they played them.
And to brilliant effect. Rather than early partial lockdowns on coronavirus czar Gamzu’s “red” cities, we got a way-too-late nationwide one. After all, fair’s fair, right? Rather than delay the opening of yeshivas, we opened them early, two weeks before the rest of the school system. A man’s got to study. Rather than locking down ultra-Orthodox cities and towns where the virus was spreading faster than a Chabad emissary reading the megilah on Purim, we settled for a curfew that started at 10pm, which few people seemed to obey anyways.
Now, Aryeh Deri, bless him, is waging war to ensure any repercussions ultra-Orthodox communities might face on account of the still-rampant spread will be met with similarly harsh and talmudically equivalent consequences for the rest of us. It seems the government has yet to inform its Interior Minister that the rest of us are on lockdown too. (And of course demonstrations during a pandemic are idiotic; but how does that free ultra-Orthodox of their responsibility?)
There’s an unforgettable scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Johnny Depp, playing Hunter Thompson, and Benicio del Toro, playing Thompson’s attorney, Dr. Gonzo, are driving through the desert in a convertible Cadillac, top down. Dr. Gonzo takes from the duo’s drug-stuffed briefcase a pill bottle filled with cocaine and opens it. The highway wind-shear catches the powder, scattering it everywhere. Dr. Gonzo shouts, “Did you see what God did?” Thompson, aghast at the loss of his supply, lets out a cry of anguish before saying, “God didn’t do that. You did.”
In the initial weeks of the virus, you couldn’t help but hearing the metaphysically questionable assertion that the Jews, and certainly the rabbonim, would be free from the scourge of coronavirus. Why? Well, we were protected, of course. In a similar vein, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, a leading rabbinic authority, went on camera to declare that not studying Torah presented a graver threat than the virus. In a news segment a religious Israeli reporter went to a haredi school to ask the headmaster why they were flouting government guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease. The headmaster all but scoffed in his face. (Thankfully the reporter was wearing a mask.)
Lo and behold, the virus did—tragically—affect the haredi community. Suddenly, the virus was no longer proof of ultra-Orthodox righteous inoculation but of its sinful vulnerability. “Look what God did!” was the natural response. Hearing this, I let out an inner Thomspon-esque shriek of my own. In the immortal words of Hunter: “God didn’t do this. You did.”
That’s quite a claim, I know. And let me offer a quick disclaimer: I’m an observant Jew who prays in a synagogue led by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, alongside ultra-Orthodox Jews. I don’t take it lightly. But the facts remain. And in response to those facts, the haredi community has become adept at pointing to all sorts of nice little slips of logic to excuse them. It’s the infrastructure—too many people in too small spaces. It’s the communications—no phones, no TV, no information. It’s a bobe-mayse.
If nothing else at all, Haredim are ingenious at making do with what they have. They don’t play such a critical role in the diamond trade because they’re illiterate do-nothings shivering together in a hovel. They don’t organize 1,000-person-plus weddings by chucking pairs of tin cans tied together by a piece of string from house to house by way of an invitation. They are highly successful, intelligent, determined and sophisticated people living in complex communities.
Moreover, these communities live and die by the Torah—that holy book which teaches us that, above all else, life is sacred. How could not studying Torah be more dangerous than death? Actually, forget that. Who said anyone had to stop studying Torah at all? Why not try Zoom? Why not put the flip-phone on speaker with the chevrutah and study Torah, together but apart? Who said Yom Kippur had to be cancelled just because shul is closed? How many hassidic tales are there of great masters opening their souls to God alone in a forest? Why not us? Why not now?
Let’s pause and take a breath and acknowledge another sad little fact in this tale of woe: There is no doubt that the rest of Israeli society is complicit in this coverup. It always is and always was. For the past 70 years, secular parties have engaged in a wink-wink political bargain: they get ultra-Orthodox mandates in Knesset that allow them to form a government, the ultra-Orthodox get to keep their well-funded fiefdoms, secular Israelis can continue to ineffectually complain about the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox can continue to shrug. Win-win. Except for the broader Israeli public—both secular and religious—which just keeps on losing.
So what are we doing? Where are we going? How much longer do we accept the lies? We are living in the Days of Awe, in so many more ways than one. We are looking not just to God in humility for ours sins, but to one another. Can we truly look each other in the eye and say, “This is the best I could do?” For God’s sake, I hope it’s not.