David Kalb
Rabbi Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center

Haredim and social distancing

Many of us are shocked when we read news stories about some Haredim not following social distancing policies to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. (Haredim is often mistranslated as Ultra-Orthodox, which many Haredim consider a pejorative. The better translation is those who tremble before God.) We see these individuals endangering themselves, their typically-large families, their communities and countless others, and we ask why. How can people who purport to be intensely religious engage in such behavior? Is not Judaism’s central teaching, Pikuach Nefesh, the saving and preservation of human life (Talmud Yoma 84b)?

First let us be clear that many Haredi rabbis and their adherents are in compliance with the rules of social distancing. The Agudath Israel of America, a Haredi umbrella organization, has a rabbinic leadership council known as the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah (Council of great Torah Sages), which comprises the leading Haredim rabbis in America. They issued the following decree: “It is obvious that every person is obligated to obey the instructions of the government and medical professionals. Jewish families must be exceedingly careful not to err in issues which could endanger people, heaven forbid.”

Beyond complying with social distancing rules. There are Haredim who are giving of themselves, to save lives. Thousands of Haredim in the New York area have donated blood plasma,  after recovering from the Coronavirus, which could potentially treat people with Covid-19. Mount Sinai Hospital received more than half of their blood plasma donations from Haredim.

However, it is also fair to say that a number of Haredi schools and synagogues closed later than the majority of institutions in the Jewish community. While this is not a defense of their position, it is important to note that at the time before the closure of their institutions, many businesses and public schools were still open. Furthermore, we were hearing mixed messages from federal, state, and local governments with regard to how to handle the Coronavirus. Even today, we are seeing a lack of a centralized response to this issue.

While social distancing is now being practiced by many in the Haredi community, there are a number who are still not in compliance. To understand this phenomenon, we must first appreciate that the very practices that prevented the Haredim from assimilating and ensured their continuity are in fact endangering them during the Coronavirus pandemic. Haredim tend to limit their use of technology, specifically the internet, and social media. Television is also problematic. Media in general is a challenge for them. They often fear secular society and cooperating with governmental agencies. Beyond fear, they sometimes fail to recognize, or even oppose, secular authorities. (Although, this is not always true; they have been excellent at making connections, at every level of government, to further issues they value.) This has caused a significant number of Haredi Jews to be unaware, or not take seriously, the warnings of public health officials.

Their lives revolve around Tefilah (prayer), which is performed with people standing right next to each other, often in crowded synagogues. Similarly, when engaging in religious study, many Haredim sit in pairs in a large room called a Beit Midrash (House of Learning). Huge communal events are also mainstay of Haredi life.

Why do these experiences continue when their own rabbis have issued a decree against such practices. Is not the word of the Gadolay HaTorah, (an idiom for the great rabbis), absolute for this community? I think four different phenomena are transpiring.

  1. The cultural experience of attending Minyan (a prayer quorum and service), and learning in the Beit Midrash, is strong despite it being in conflict with the Halacha (Jewish Law) of Pikuach Nefesh. Even when their own Rabbis decree compliance with social distancing, some Haredim find it hard to give up this culture. I emphasize the word culture, because Jews who prioritize these events over the saving of lives are not living a life of Halacha, plain and simple. The Talmud in Yoma 84b is very clear that any law can be set aside to save a life. Certainly, they may pray alone and not in a Minyan to save lives. Beyond its Halachic permissibility, the great Chassidic Rebbe, Rav Nachman of Breslov taught in Likutei Moharan, Part II 25:1 that Hitbodedut, a form of secluded, individualized spontaneous prayer, during which one pours out their heart directly to God in their own words, is the highest level of prayer of all. The Stay At Home order creates the perfect setting for Hitbodedut.
  2. Among some in the Haredi community, learning, reciting Psalms and prayer are considered the antidote for problems in the world. Sometimes prayer is favored over practical solutions. Furthermore, Haredim feel that these practices are most effective when performed by a large group. For this reason, some Haredim feel they cannot engage in social distancing. One could say, that they see themselves as “essential workers” when praying, and they see their synagogues as “essential businesses.”
  3. In some cases, Haredi rabbis and/or lay leaders have modified public health rules in the misguided notion that live communal religious study, services and events can continue. For example, they feel that limiting the number of attendants at a gathering, and only permitting younger people, renders these events safe. They are obviously tragically wrong.
  4. There have been some, who have knowingly ignored the health rules, or even preached against them, in the name of religion.

Fire is often a symbol of holiness in Judaism. Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:24 describes God as a fire. However, just as a fire can burn out of control, so can holiness. Sometimes extreme fervor for Judaism and God can lead to wrongful acts that conflict with Halacha and are a Chilul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name). Keeping a synagogue open now is such an act. Furthermore, just because a synagogue building is closed does not mean the synagogue is closed, so long as the synagogue continues its mission. Perhaps, the most important mission of a synagogue now (more important than offering learning and prayer through zoom and Facebook), is teaching the Mitzvah (commandment) of Pikuach Nefesh. When a Synagogue does this it is an essential business.

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Kedoshim opens with the phrase, “You shall be holy” Vayikra (Levitcus) 19:2. How should we achieve holiness in this situation? Vayikra 19:16-19 explain, “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed-I am the LORD. You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall critique your fellow and not bear sin because of them. You shall not take revenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.” We cannot stand by, while people are dying. We must teach the Torah of Pikuach Nefesh. We must do this with no hate for anyone in our heart. If criticism is necessary, then it should be done without being vengeful nor bearing any grudges. Let us love our fellow as we love ourselves.

About the Author
Rabbi David Kalb is the Rabbi of Jewish Learning Center of New York where he is responsible for the creative, educational, spiritual, and programmatic direction of the organization.
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