Jim Shalom
Jim Shalom

The problem with how some ultra-Orthodox factions approach COVID

Several ultra-Orthodox factions have adamantly refused to cooperate with COVID prevention protocols. Many have refused to wear masks and have continued to meet at close quarters in study groups and congregate massively for celebrations and funerals, in direct contravention of government policy. This has been the case not only in Israel, but also in New York, and, presumably, it is the main reason why COVID infection and death rates are significantly higher among these recalcitrant groups. This month, though they represent only 12 percent of the population, the ultra-Orthodox accounted for one-quarter of new COVID cases. Indeed, several esteemed rabbis have died of COVID.

These groups disregard COVID precautions because it seems, they are firmly convinced that their religious beliefs and pious routine should take precedence over protecting themselves against the disease.

If that is indeed their assertion, I find their argument specious. Firstly, most members of the religiously observant Jewish community, including many ultra-Orthodox groups, do, in fact, adhere to COVID protocols. Are they less devout? Secondly, in Judaism, the sanctity of life (pikuach nefesh) takes precedence over almost all other religious injunctions. COVID precautions are not sacrilegious. It is not as if, for example, Jews were being asked to desecrate the Sabbath or eat non-kosher food. While some restrictions, such as forbidding large numbers of congregants to pray together in synagogues disrupt the religious routine, mask-wearing and social distancing, while inconvenient, do not. External exigencies change religious routines: if we were at war, and missiles were being fired on synagogues, one would presume that rabbinical leaders would cancel services and direct their congregants to seek safety.

Nor has the religious community been singled out. To minimize viral spread, all sectors of Israeli society have been expected to cooperate, from commercial and educational services to politicians and athletes. The disruptive and damaging consequences of COVID affect us all, not just the devout.

If not because of religious conviction, why, then, have these factions been so resistant to cooperation? I posit that there are two reasons, both serious.

  1. A total disregard for modern (secular) science: this is not simply a matter of disagreement. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews repudiate science, believing that their religious beliefs alone are valid. For them, science is “fake news,” and must be rejected outright.  Among believers who do follow the media, the facts and statistics presented therein are often considered bogus. In the alternative universe of the ultra-Orthodox, COVID is a punishment for immoral behavior. Therefore, in their view, rather than invoking infection control behavior, the way to deal with COVID is to be more observant and adhere even more strongly to their religious tenets. Had they in some measure accepted medical explanations for viral spread and danger, we would have seen at least some attempts at cooperation where it did not compromise their ritual routines.
  2. Lack of accountability: Back in the days of the Second Temple, there was a Sanhedrin — an assembly of elders who were responsible for resolving disputes. Today, in contrast, there are Hasidic courts, each of which has its own Rebbe, who is regarded as possessing exclusive authority. These Rebbes are invariably pious men who lead an austere spiritual life devoid of excess. However, as supreme authorities, they are held to account by no one (on earth) for their decrees.

For example, as far as I can tell, while there have been muted comments by followers whose loved ones have died, no one has challenged any of these leaders with questions such as: “Are you aware that your congregants are at risk of dying unnecessarily because of your decree opposing COVID protocols?”

We have observed other recent cases in which religious leaders have not been held accountable for their actions. The predatory sexual behavior of hundreds of Catholic priests is an extreme example. For decades, these priests preyed on vulnerable children and women in their flocks, and neither they nor their superiors were brought to book. Only when secular society, the police and the courts intervened did the change come about. While the behavior of the priests is very different from that of the Rebbes, they share the common denominator of institutional lack of accountability.

Lack of institutional accountability is not limited to religion. Aberrant behavior of this kind can appear almost anywhere: police officers get away with repeated inappropriate violence, politicians exploit their power, Hollywood moguls abuse their privilege. The list is long.

Poor judgment and negligence within the medical world are sometimes covered up too. As one who works within the medical system, I know that maintaining effective accountability can be challenging. For example, it is hard to “rat on” a colleague, even if you furiously disagree with and disapprove of their behavior. In such organizations, there seems to be a natural tendency to conceal excesses, abuse and other inappropriate conduct from the world “outside.” Physicians protect physicians, police protect police, and so on.  If, however, accountability standards are too high, people will simply refuse to cooperate. And if the accountability process is over-judgmental and/or humiliating and unduly punitive, why should even a well-intentioned person comply willingly? Moreover, it is not always easy to draw the line between mildly abnormal behavior and aberrant behavior. On the other hand, unaddressed minor aberrations or errors can eventually lead to increasingly divergent and unaccountable conduct. Therefore, as difficult though it is to walk the tightrope of requiring accountability while not demanding it excessively, its pursuit should not be abandoned.

Where authority is unassailable, human nature being what it is, even the best-intentioned authoritative figure can eventually falter and lose direction; and if the system within which they operate protects them from accountability, in due course that system itself will degenerate. We see this repeatedly in tyrannical regimes where, as the leader becomes impervious to censure, those around him become tainted, and lack of accountability becomes the norm.

While it is true that the wayward Rebbes have indulged in no excesses, they have probably exercised poor and dangerous judgment, with significant medical repercussions. Furthermore, their followers are behaving in the same manner thereby multiplying the danger of viral spread. Had such things happened in a secular context, these religious leaders could be challenged in court. An independent body with the authority to conclude, if necessary, that their decisions were irresponsible could act as an honest broker; that is how a checks-and-balances system operates. If we possessed an independent Sanhedrin-like forum today, these Rebbes could be obliged, at least, to set forth their arguments and be held accountable by their peers. Had such an event taken place, lives could have been saved.

As things stand now, unlike the Catholic priests who had to submit to the authority of the courts, the ultra-Orthodox possess such a well-entrenched power base that secular institutions such as the government, the police and the courts are unable or unwilling even to take them to the task. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox members of government refuse to reprove this behavior further weakens the efficacy of government interventions. Thus, for example, the police did little to prevent large assemblies of the ultra-Orthodox, nor did it arrest or fine those Rebbes who called upon their congregants to disobey government injunctions.

I would venture to speculate that the organizers of hazardous massive funeral processions deliberately went ahead because they knew that, no matter how much the virus might spread as a result, the government would not be able to handle the public backlash consequent upon massive arrests of religious people attending a funeral.  They correctly assumed that the police would not disruptively intervene.

It is not as if accountability were not part of Jewish tradition. It is. In the Bible, for example, in Samuel I, 12:3, Samuel, who is old and dying, comes before the Israelites and proffers an account and review of his behavior as a prophet and leader of his people. His listeners respond by concurring that his conduct was exemplary.

In the past, the Jewish tradition has not repudiated science. The medieval scholar Maimonides, for example, is one of Judaism’s most famous and respected religious scholars.  He was also a leading physician and the court physician to the Sultan Saladin.  In parallel to his devout beliefs and religious writings, he took an Aristotelianism scientific approach to the practice of Medicine.

Samuel-like voluntary or routine accountability are not part of the routine of these religious factions. The long-vanished Sanhedrin, with its checks and balances, has been relegated to the past. A Maimonides-like approach integrating medical science and a spiritual belief system has been rejected.  It is now up to these religious communities themselves to do an in-house check to minimize future preventable deaths within and outside their flock; otherwise, the numbers of unnecessary ill and dead people will mount up.

To quote Lord Acton: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with an interest in end-of-life care. He resides in Galilee.
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