One of the most highly regarded rabbis in the community said recently that the word “corona” — the first syllable of which means coldness in Hebrew — has “brought a great spiritual coldness into hearts.”
Before we start shivering, let’s clarify: spiritual warmth, or varemkeit, as it is called in Yiddish, is one of the essential components of the Haredi lifestyle, in studying the Torah, and in keeping the commandments. The great rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim, said: The only difference between people is that they are either cold or warm Jews. The ardor, or bren, in performing the commandments, the ever-renewing excitement, the devotion and the joy — this is the glue that binds the one who fulfills the commandments with the holy law, and with all others who perform likewise. The moment these actions turn into a recurring ritual, a technocratic exercise, they lose their taste and are in danger of dissipating.
But this is what the coronavirus has done. It has injected coldness into the entire system. When talk first surfaced about calling off the prayer quorums, I chuckled. I, not one of the fanatics, said to my friends: there’s no way they’ll stop praying in minyans in the synagogues; it just won’t happen. It hasn’t happened since the founding of the state.
But then it did. After a week of trying hard to digest the decree, followed by half a week of outdoor prayer, the daily rituals were then conducted in houses and on balconies. The ritual of skipping out thrice daily to the synagogue was severed! When you pray at home, you can abbreviate the service or skip over the arid passages or not pray at all. When a ritual starts to disintegrate, it keeps on disintegrating and does not stop at a pre-determined point.
Worse yet: the virus leads to isolation and masks, hand washing and social distancing.
Prayers and blessings do not concern it. The rabbis, who at the beginning held firm regarding prayer services and study in yeshiva seminaries and Torah-based grade schools, were forced to retreat in the face of reality and the diagnoses of doctors and scientists.
It is hard to describe the enormity of this change, or rather: the weakness that it has revealed. The belief that the Torah protects and rescues, that prayer can trigger miracles, that the Holy One Blessed Be He protects, in particular, His followers — which is to say, the devoted observers of the Torah and the commandments — did not pass the test of reality.
The failure occurred in a specific time and place and therefore was blatant. In New York, the state morbidity and mortality rates peaked within the Haredi communities. In Bnei Brak, infection rates were higher than elsewhere; same goes for Jerusalem and Elad.
True, logic dictates that this has to do with population density; but feeling and faith are left unsatisfied by this answer. After all, the population density itself is “God’s will,” the large families an essential part of the ideal of increasing tsevaos Hashem, or the legions of God. How, then, is it possible that rather than being a blessing (in Haredi circles it is customary to say: child-blessed families), the crowded home and communities brought sickness and death?
Where are the plague-stopping miracles that we heard so much about in previous generations? Ah, that was in the pre-camera age, people say, or even whisper, and the words seep into the cold hearts. The esteem for science and medicine grows.
And if that isn’t bad enough, there’s the matter of activities. Trying to keep eight or 10 or 12 children engaged without screens and without Zoom classes and smartphones, is a nearly inhuman task. Generally, people within the community live in small apartments; a system that revolves around the fact that the boys or young men sleep in the yeshivahs and the high school girls are out of the house most of the day. At nights, mattresses are spread on the floor or fold-out beds are opened. The presence of entire families in the house at the same time registers as something between difficult and crushing. Nor do we receive the messages to quarantine on our old phones. The desire for a small and smart phone and a large and colorful screen has never been greater.
And what about the statistics, the numbers of infected in Israel and around the world? The different and divergent opinions and forecasts? The medicines that work and the medicines that don’t? It’s hard going without the radio, without access to the internet. One sits at home, without work and without organized study, and waits for the morning paper to reveal the news. The negation of the internet, which is a necessary condition for the survival of the Haredi way of life, is teetering. This is a situation in which the members of the community, who are accustomed to feeling pride in belonging, are now afflicted with feelings of inferiority. Corona begets inferiority, inferiority begets coldness.
Will this coldness settle in the hearts of the faithful or will it pass as the closures and the curfews wane? Are we witness to a process of coldness spreading through the Haredi community, an event that will cause many to turn their backs on religion, and might even affect those who stay within the fold, or will the return to normalcy repair what was altered within the community and breathe new life into it? I don’t know, and nor do the experts.
We’ll live (if we do) and see.