In this essay, I’d like to present some initial, somewhat incomplete thoughts concerning the Corona pandemic and its aftermath. These observations are tentative and provisional, not definitive and conclusive. Thus, no final conclusions should be drawn from them. Nor are these reflections exhaustive; I may have left out many other crucial issues due to my inadequacy, severe lack of time, and the supreme sense of urgency to address this topic. At a later date, I hope to articulate my thoughts more comprehensively and incorporate them within the larger framework of my Contemplative Autobiography.
The Upcoming Post Corona Crisis
For the past few months, I’ve been writing my Contemplative Autobiography, in which I discuss my complex re-engagement with Judaism, which in many ways is radically different from my earlier simplistic understanding of the Jewish Tradition. I attempt to explain why I decided to continue to live an observant life while still struggling to re-discover a source of genuine faith. However, I need to temporarily digress from this topic and focus on another issue related to my search for religious meaning.
The reason for this interruption is the severity of the current coronavirus pandemic, which affects us all. This pandemic has managed to destabilize the world in unprecedented ways, and could lead to devastating consequences for humanity, far beyond the actual illness itself.
We cannot afford to lose sight of both the local and global dimensions of the pandemic. On a local level, here in Israel we are facing serious challenges, such as the escalating tensions between certain religious and non-religious factions, which are continually at each other’s throats. We are also confronted by the ongoing — and scandalous — refusal of certain segments of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community to observe the governmental regulations to battle COVID-19. This is not confined to the religious community; we see the same failures on the part of some high-ranking secular ministers, public figures, as well as regular citizens
I wonder whether this phenomenon is not just an unfortunate behavior pattern, but a symptom of a much deeper underlying problem. Might it be that there is a spiritual malaise lurking behind this behavior? Might the current demonstrations of discontent, the public venting of personal frustration, stem from a subconscious awareness of a deep spiritual and existential void gnawing away at our souls?
I believe that we must approach the pandemic from a global perspective, far beyond the Jewish community itself. A bird’s-eye-view of the world at large reveals a world that is increasingly violent, unbalanced, and unstable. More and more people seem to be deranged, which is always a sign of severe unhappiness, animosity, jealousy and so on. This has gone hand in hand with an increase in domestic violence, which has risen to peak levels since the coronavirus outbreak.
It is not COVID-19 itself that is the cause of all this; after all, humankind has had to deal with many catastrophes in the past. Only this time, the pandemic affects us on a truly global scale. The effects of globalization on international travel, technology, and the economy have contributed to the creation of a plague of unprecedented proportions. This makes people all over the world highly anxious and generates a feeling of hopelessness. Such situations often lead to disruption and violence.
Trouble in our midst
I must admit that I am shocked by the behavior of many ultra-Orthodox Jews — particularly in Israel and Brooklyn — among whom I have many friends, who are creating a huge Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, by refusing to abide by the safety regulations, and are initiating violent protests instead. They are not only making a bad name for Judaism but are, in fact, causing many fellow Jews and non-Jews to despise Judaism.
I am also aware that many secular Israelis regularly violate governmental regulations at demonstrations and on other occasions, which also extremely disturbing, irresponsible, and unforgivable.
But I must admit that what really gives me sleepless nights is the fact that there are many ultra-Orthodox Jews who seem to have forgotten what Judaism is all about. These are the very people who represent Judaism, including my Judaism, in the eyes of the world. Should they not be the ones to take the lead in demonstrating exemplary behavior, instead of doing the exact opposite? Have they forgotten their own mission? Have they forgotten the words of Moshe Rabbenu just before his death: “Observe them (the mitzvot) faithfully for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say: ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”…. and “what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I (Moshe) set before you this day.” (Devarim 4:6,8).
Have these Jews exchanged Judaism for some other ideology, even while outwardly looking like Orthodox Jews? Have they turned Bilaam’s statement, “They are a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9) into a theological credo of isolationism and indifference to others? What is certain is that their behavior triggers a reciprocal attitude among the nations of the world to despise the Jews in turn, and to separate and isolate them from the rest of humanity and treat them like second class citizens. Wouldn’t this mean that they have turned Bilaam’s words on their head, converting his blessing into a curse? Don’t these words exhort us to be paragons of moral virtue, rather than, God forbid, the opposite?
What is behind all this?
One possibility is that they have lost their belief in the kind of Judaism they practice, and feel that it no longer provides them with the spiritual sustenance they crave. Are they trying to escape their inner discontent and the spiritual vacuum of their souls by projecting their dissatisfaction onto their surroundings and sowing discord? Are they turning their internal frustration with their own existential emptiness outward, in the form of external aggression?
Many Chareidi leaders justify their approach by maintaining that spiritual wellbeing takes precedence over physical health. But might there be more to it: Are they refusing to obey government regulations that restrict synagogue services and religious gatherings out of fear that the straying souls in their midst will veer off the path of Judaism altogether? If so, this indicates that these leaders seem to believe that Judaism does not have the power to inspire these people, and that only isolation and social pressure will keep these people connected to Judaism. This would be tantamount to an admission that the educational methods deployed in their schools and Yeshivot have totally failed. What kind of Judaism have they been teaching? And how are they justifying the fact that they are prepared to risk the lives of their flock, when Judaism explicitly teaches that this is strictly forbidden?
I want to emphasis that what I have said here applies to a large percentage of the ultra-Orthodox population, but definitely not all. Many other ultra-Orthodox Jews do follow the regulations and behave in ways that are a wonderful example of what it means to be a genuine religious Jew. And that is undoubtedly due to the fact that they are aware what Judaism is really teaching. But is this despite the Jewish education they have received or because of it?
A global religious void?
The foregoing reflections may also be relevant to people of other faiths. Perhaps we are facing a global spiritual pandemic in which religious people are yearning for a higher purpose but do not seem to receive the kind of education that would offer them a sense of meaning and direction in life, especially during these very trying times.
The same may be true of secular communities, whether Jewish or non-Jewish . Their ideologies (or lack thereof) have propelled them into a spiritual crisis reinforced by a lack of existential meaning. Homo sapiens are meaning-seeking creatures, something that separates them from the animal world. Inevitably, when people are deprived of meaning, they become unhappy, and may even become a danger to themselves, as confirmed by many psychologists.
If this is true, then many religious and the non-religious people are suffering from the same problem: a lack of a deeper existential meaning to their lives. Some people hide from this problem behind a wall of religious behaviorism; others behind a wall of secular behaviorism. In both cases, they are disillusioned with their lives. In this regard, they are fundamentally no different from each other. Perhaps this explains their misbehavior in extreme cases such as the current pandemic.
What we need to do is to analyze this problem carefully and to suggest a new way which will help people to overcome this most serious spiritual dilemma. I will do that in my next essay.
With thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their comments and editorial assistance.