The Unmasked

One of the strengths of the Jewish community is that in times of crisis, “we are one.” We drew on this strength when, for instance, we mobilized to help and save Soviet and Ethiopian Jews. We may not have known them, but in a real sense they were and continue to be our kin.

So it is more than a little unsettling when I see photos of the ultra-Orthodox community refusing to wear masks and social distance when the pandemic has claimed over one million people worldwide.

I’m reminded of an incident one hot August day when I was walking home from Shabbat services with an Orthodox friend. It had rained that morning so I was wearing my raincoat. A convertible with four cigarette-smoking teens sped past us.

Two blocks on, we passed a house with its front bushes engulfed in flames from one of the butts. We couldn’t get to the front door, so I removed my raincoat to suffocate the flames and told my friend to knock on a neighbor’s door to call the fire department. Fifteen minutes later, my coat was a smoke-filled ruin, the fire department had arrived, and the homeowner was thanking us for saving his home.

But my friend scolded me for breaking Shabbat.

“The house was on fire!” I said.

“No, just the bushes. All you had to do was knock on a door and ask them to call the fire department and you would not have desecrated the Shabbat.”

“How could I know it would work? Jewish law requires us to act to save lives – even on Shabbat,” I replied.

“But you didn’t know the life was in danger – and Shabbat was,” came the retort.

About a year ago, I had the honor to meet Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, an organization that rescues minors and abused women from marriages in religious communities. Once a victim herself of ultra-Orthodox abuse, she now brings hope to those who have none.

When she found out I was a liberal (Conservative) rabbi, she offered the following opinion: “The difference between ultra-Orthodox and liberal Jews (and she included Modern Orthodox as “liberal”) is that the ultra-Orthodox live in fear; fear of making a mistake, fear of not doing the mitzvot correctly. They are governed by fear. Liberal Jews look for the joy in Judaism and live for it.”

While all generalizations are false – including this one – there is an element of truth in her words. The ultra-Orthodox are part of the Haredi movement. “Haredi” means “trembling.”

The Haredim “tremble” with awe before G-d (and here I use the spelling preferred by the Haredim) and the mitzvot. But I have come to believe the “trembling” is more out of fear than awe.

My friend was so afraid of violating Shabbat, paralyzed and blind to a bigger picture. I believe in a flexible God, one who allows me to interpret situations and assign priorities based on my knowledge and experience. I don’t believe in a G-d who demands scrupulous, obsessive adherence to and compliance with the minutia of observance. Perhaps the homeowner’s life was not in danger, but I believe in a God who trusts me to worry about Shabbat after I have seen to the safety of life.

So we come to the pandemic and masks in the ultra-Orthodox community. Yes, in the Haredi world, attending a funeral or a wedding is a mitzvah that takes precedence over the civil government mandating a limit on such events. Yes, many in the community do not believe in germ theory and know that if they are afflicted it is because of their sins, not because of a non-discriminating virus and their own obstinance.

But there is more. They are afraid. They are afraid of their G-d. They “know” that they will be struck down for the least infringement. They “know” the pandemic is a test from their G-d.

Yet we know from Fraidy and others like her that there are many in the ultra-Orthodox community who want to wear masks but because of peer pressure and the threat of ostracism cannot. They will be ostracized for a lack of faith, a lack of adherence to cultural norms and assimilating towards the values of a “secular” society.

And worst of all, that community does not believe in a forgiving God; a God who sees them as human prone to human mistakes but able to rise above them and improve, like my God who gave us each other and instructs us to look after our welfare.

In a very real way they are modern day Karaites, living a form of Judaism that we discarded long ago. Karaities branched off from mainstream Judaism over 1,000 years ago and neither side considers the other valid.

Perhaps it is time for us to recognize the consequence of a painful truth – the Ultra Orthodox are stuck in the 17th century and it’s costing lives. Maimonides was right: life takes priority over all Mitzvot.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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