Pandemic has revealed intellectual bankruptcy of Charedi leadership

Charedi areas would have been disproportionately effected had Israel used local lockdowns (Via Jewish News)
Charedi areas would have been disproportionately effected had Israel used local lockdowns (Via Jewish News)

There has been so much condemnation of the blatant infringements of pandemic regulations in the Charedi community that it might seem hard to say very much that is new. I am tempted, however, to add my own twopence  worth as I think there is an extra dimension to this issue.

It goes to the nature of Charedi Judaism. This is always understood as the belief that the practice of the Torah is the highest activity of which mankind is capable. Strictly speaking however this is not correct. It is not the practice, but the study of the Torah which is the highest activity, and then not strictly the Torah but the Talmud that is, the sayings of the Rabbis and their predecessors.

In the morning prayers every day, orthodox Jews recite the virtues of charity, visiting the sick dealing with the dead, bringing of peace between man and his neighbour, honouring one’s parents etc but end with the conclusion that the study of the Torah is equal to them all combined.

Talmidei Chachamim, Masters of the Talmud are to be respected above all other men.

It goes further. According to a rabbinic saying the Torah took precedence in time and importance over the creation of the world. God looked into the Torah when he created the world.

Taken to its extreme this leads to the doctrine of Da’as Torah the proposition that someone who understands the whole Talmud understands the whole of human knowledge.

The man who is most often alleged recently to have reached that level, is Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz known by his magnum opus the Chazon Ish. It is his nephew Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who is currently the leading authority of the non-Hassidic Charedim.

He was consulted at the beginning of the pandemic as to whether the Yeshivot should close. He ruled that they should not. It then transpired that he did not actually know that there was a pandemic.

Whilst this demonstrates admirable fidelity to his public pronouncements that the internet was an unclean, diabolical creation it does cast doubt on claims that he has access to the totality of human knowledge.

Amazingly enough, Kanievsky is still being consulted.

Chaim Kanievsky (Wikipedia/Author מוישימי /Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode / Via Jewish News)

The fact that a community can pay any attention at all to someone, whose knowledge of science and current affairs would probably not cover a postage stamp, speaks volumes for their complete lack of respect for, or interest in, science and current affairs.

Their mantra is that science is temporary whereas Torah is eternal.

Scientists say one thing one week and the opposite the next and scientists therefore are held by them in contempt.

Instead we should listen to Rabbis-particularly Kanievsky who now that he has discovered that there is a pandemic has an amulet for sale costing  three thousand Israeli shekels payable, if requested, by instalments, which will protect one against Covid and all other relevant diseases.

But if the pandemic has revealed the intellectual bankruptcy of the Charedi leadership it has also cast an unfortunate light on the community itself.

Charedim are now characterised by a massive sense of entitlement and victimhood.  In Israel relations between them and the secular community are embittered by the fact that young Charedim do not for the most part serve in the army. Secular Israelis see themselves as carrying the risk which Charedim avoid.

Charedim, however, see it quite differently.

Their work in studying Torah is vital for the maintenance and safety of the country; as vital, if not more so, than that of the soldiers in uniform.

As they see it their contribution is unrecognised.

They are unfairly stigmatised as cowards and, though beneficiaries of a government stipend, they even complain that they miss out on the benefits that soldiers enjoy.

With Covid now sweeping Israel, which has the highest rate of infection per capita of almost any country in the world, they flout regulations conscious of their massive political clout.

With Israel so divided over other issues it will be nearly impossible for any group of parties to form a government without the support of the Charedim.

In this country they are fighting a continual battle to prevent the government interfering in their schools to require them to provide their pupils with the rudiments of an education.

Even measures obviously for their own protection are resisted.

There can be no conceivable Halachic objection to requiring a medically qualified person to be present at a circumcision, even if not performing it.

The Charedi community are adamantine in their resistance to this suggestion.

No interference from outside can be permitted.

Charedi districts including Stamford Hill have stratospherically high rates of Covid infection.

This pandemic has, however, also taught us something very different.

Apart from highlighting the great challenges facing mankind, it has shown also the enormous progress we have made.

Plagues have been a feature throughout recorded human history but never has the source of an infection been identified and understood so quickly and never has, hopefully, the cure been found within barely a year.

Modern medicine, it is said, is little more than one hundred and fifty years old. Yet now scientists are literally reading the book of life and telling us that most of the science they are using was discovered in their own life times.

The fact that they change their opinions is a strength not a weakness.

As John Maynard Keynes said, when criticised for disagreeing with his previous opinions; ‘when the evidence changes I change my opinions, what do you do Sir?’

Only people who never acquire new information but rely solely on ancient texts can be confident of never having to change their opinions.

The clear message is; listen to the scientists because they are listening to the evidence.

 

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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