Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

So, if the Torah says “Choose Life” – Why are the Haredim courting death?

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“For this to be said of the people of London, that during the whole time of the pestilence the churches of meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the people decline coming out to the public worship of God….” (Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, at 157.                  

Four times more Israeli Haredim over the age of 65 died of CoVid-19 compared to the rest of the country. In some Haredi districts the percent positive rate reached 45% (even as the rest of the country hovered at 10%) at points during the outbreak. That means almost one in two people were infected. This has not stopped thousands of them from congregating – mostly without masks- at funerals of their leaders- who also died of CoVid19. Nor has this has dampened their massive weddings or stopped the opening of schools – all in violation not only of government orders – but of common sense in epidemic prevention.

Now it seems they are receiving anti-vax  robocalls in which “listeners are implored, using fake statistics, not to go and vaccinate, claiming that those who do are at risk of falling ill or dying, stoking an already high anti-vax sentiment in this community.” Interestingly, the hue and cry from some of the Haredi leaders is not directed at curtailing minyanim- but to closing schools. The fear that the bachurim, so used to regimented learning, will be seduced by the outside world and go astray, or get themselves into trouble isn’t something to be ignored.

But this does little to explain the thronging of the thousands at the funerals of leaders who died from the disease. Or the wedding dances. Or the violence with police.

While some attribute Haredi conduct to ignorance- not being internet-connected or newspaper literate- many of their own leaders are admonishing them to follow the rules, Indeed most Haredi Grand Rabbis are in favor of vaccination – yet as the statistics for the 2018-2019 measles epidemics demonstrate that those voices have not translated into communal practice.

The behavior seems incomprehensible – but to address it – at least without violence or coercion demands comprehension.

Vaccine-Resistance in Haredi-Land: The Power is in the Women

I have been mulling on the matter for some time. The vaccination issue particularly perplexed me- because the words of the Rabbayim were being ignored. Haredi neighborhoods in Israel registered twice as many measles cases in the last epidemic compared to one a decade earlier – signifying increased vaccine resistance. In the US the figures in Haredi communities were worse. So, what happened in the interim? Answer: The rise of the anti-vax movement and the proliferation of anti-vax material targeted to Haredi communities.

After much research, I’ve tracked much of the instigation of the 2018-2019 measles anti-vax behavior in the Haredi neighborhoods of Rockland, Williamsburg, and Borough Park to a leaflet put out by an anti-vax group called PEACH- based in Borough Park and masterminded by a local Haredi woman. Shockingly, the measles epidemic that afflicted Haredi communities in London was traced to that very same group. (1) In fact, they also have two outlets in Israel where they disseminate their literature – and this may have impacted increasing vaccine resistance in Haredi neighborhoods in Israel. Interestingly, the Tel Aviv Anti-Vax conference, which I attended, in Nov. of 2019, attracted over 1000 attendees- mostly non-Haredi- but the Haredi that did attend were women. In Rockland, too,  an anti-vax conference hosted by another group attracting nearly a thousand people had far more women than men- as pictures attest. (2)).

My suspicion here is that in the Haredi culture, the women are the prime arbiters of what happens in the home- including whether the children should be vaccinated. It is the one area where they have power-  power that in fact might be said to supplant that of the Rebbe, and a  power they are not willing to abdicate. The anti-vax groups, which count among their leaders at other Haredim, are quick to seize on this and target their message to this scientifically unlearned, vulnerable – yet powerful — cohort.

So, that’s my hypothesis of increased vaccine resistance in this community- even in the face of the vast majority of Halachic arbiters deeming it essential, the women rule the roost and many have been co-opted.

The Mass Congregation and Ensuing Contagion

But what about the funerals, the weddings, and the demonstrations with the police in the context of CoVid19? That, to me, was totally incomprehensible. Incomprehensible, until this past Shabbat, when I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written about the Bubonic Plague epidemic that infested London in 1664-1665, more than 350 years ago.  Alas, the more things change – the more things stay the same. Defoe’s version is fictionalized, although it is said to be extremely accurate.  Most everyone who had money – or sense – fled London early in the plague. Those with less money, but still with sense, left later, but still left. By and large two groups of people were impervious to the danger, stayed, didn’t isolate, and continued in their goings and doings: the religious and the poor. (Or perhaps these were one commingled group, the devoutly poor- it’s hard to say).

Precautionary behavior was advised to those that remained, Defoe notes.

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor They went on with the usual impetuousity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. (Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, at 158).                         

The motivation of the outrageous conduct of the poor was the need to seek sustenance, to find work -else without work they might as well perish anyway. By this need, they defined their purpose in life.

Perhaps the motive of the Haredim in putting themselves in harm’s way is not livelihood- but the refrain “I must trust God to that” sounds invitingly similar and triggers the question of what else is similar in these scenarios?  What is it that defines the Haredi?

What else, but being part of their sect, for instance?  For those who put devotion to the Rebbe ahead of obligation to the family (and many do) – their own individual lives are but a dot in a poppy-seed filling- a single roe in caviar – a grain of sand in a beach – one more individual clone or one less would not matter. It is obeisance to the Rebbe which gives their lives meaning – and without the Rebbe, what purpose do they serve? With such a mindset is easier to fathom why they conduct themselves in this fashion.

Being part of this collective, this Borg, is the defining trademark of these people– hence the need for self-affirming congregational activity: be it weddings or funerals or group riots against the police. Without the collective, the individual is nothing. Without the minyan, individual prayer is diluted. If one doesn’t wear a mask – then none wear a mask. Individuality is discouraged – even ostracized. If the Borg goes out to the funeral procession, the individual members must adhere and cohere. This is group-think at its ‘best’.

The sad truth is that this behavior not only affects the Haredi population, but it impacts on national health. Studies indicated that one-fifth of deaths in the second wave, and one-third of deaths during the first week of January were due to massive hospital overcrowding.

The Haredi group-think mentality problem will transcend this epidemic- it will apply to communal decisions about allowing military or national service, about educating males, about bringing women to the fore. The feudal mentality is baked into the system – such that even solutions that comport with the strict laws will not be acceptable if they tamper with the system.

Just one example as a test case: The superior importance of Torah learning is deemed the reason the Haredi men shall not serve in the military. Surely Torah teaching should be even more venerated. Of what objection could a national service program be where the young yeshiva bachurim are sent into old age homes or youth hostels for the disabled or a program established where they visit with elderly pensioners to teach Torah -bringing companionship and care -and Torah to lonely? This should be a no-brainer. Would it fly?  I doubt it. But why not? Because it disrupts the collective as it is now ordered.

We need to look at the Haredi issue – not as isolated behaviors such as avoiding the military- but as a sociological problem affecting their lives- and those of the rest of us.

  • Barbara Pfeffer Billauer, Addressing Anti-Vax FEAR Speech With Mandated Public Health Education, SSRN.com 3698586, Sept. 24, 2020.
  • Barbara Pfeffer Billauer, Religious Freedom v. Compelled Vaccination: A Case-Study of the 2018-2019 Measles Pandemic, SSRN.com. 3775590, 29, 2021.
About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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