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The Yom Kippur of the ultra-Orthodox

The tragic results of bad initial advice from leading rabbis is a wake up call to Haredi Jews to start making their own decisions
A man prays at the almost empty Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 7, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A man prays at the almost empty Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 7, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

For the ultra-Orthodox, the very notion of a great rabbi making a mistake is unthinkable. What we’ve seen over the past month, is not about one rabbi getting it wrong. A long list of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, in Israel and abroad, initially refused to comply with the government directive to shut down yeshivot, synagogues, and ritual baths.

At a rare moment in history, two sources of authority clashed head-on regarding a question of life and death for everyone: one source of authority, external to the ultra-Orthodox community, is the government and the scientific knowledge that mankind has acquired, which ordered the suspension of communal religious life until the crisis passes. The other source of authority, internal to the community, is the great rabbis, with their belief that “everything is in the hands of Heaven,” who called for stepping up Torah study and prayer to overcome the crisis.

For two long weeks, the “internal” voice triumphed over the “external,” and the contagion spread unchecked in ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods. For the ultra-Orthodox, obedience to the rabbis comes instinctively and takes precedence over any rational arguments. For others, this conduct demonstrates a scandalous lack of responsibility, incomprehensible, and unforgivable. Like the Pied Piper, the ultra-Orthodox sages led their community to the brink of catastrophe.

But before getting into any discussion on this issue, we must be courageous; we must have the courage to feel compassion for the ultra-Orthodox, identify with their suffering and make every effort to help them in any way possible. Their failures may take a heavy toll on all of us, if, due to their conduct, the number of patients in critical condition exceeds the number of ventilators available in the country. Nevertheless, the rabbis’ tragic mistake cannot justify the current assault on the entire ultra-Orthodox community by the mass media, social media, and on the street. A million of our sisters and brothers are facing a difficult moment and we must not stand idly by.

What is it like to be in Bnei Brak right now? Imagine ten people crowded into an apartment – which means about seven square meters for each. The boys who were sent home from their yeshivot are sleeping on mattresses piled up in the living room – and there is a good chance that they brought the virus back with them. In another universe – that is in the adjacent town – they would have gone into quarantine. But in Bnei Brak, such isolation is an impossible luxury. You can’t leave the house, but staying inside is dangerous.

Money is tight – even in normal times, many are close to the poverty line – and the household budget is on the verge of crashing. The wife and mother, who has a job working with computers and is the family’s main breadwinner, cannot work remotely because there is no computer or internet connection in the home. Looking ahead, we can assume that the ultra-Orthodox will be the last to receive new job offers when the economy starts to recover from the coronavirus. In addition, philanthropic support for kollel students and their families will dwindle because wealthy donors’ financial resources will be cut back by the capital market crisis and the deep recession in the entire western world. Looming in the background is the specter of mass food insecurity. Worst of all, every cough in the crowded flats triggers the fear that the family has joined the one-third of Bnei Brak that is infected.

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Sudden tragedies create a timeout from the daily routine allowing critical examination of our lives. Kohelet, the wisest of men, understood this quite well when writing that “it is better to go to a house of mourning, than to a party” because, in the face of tragedy, “the living should be soul-searching” – and taking a long, hard look at themselves. All of us should heed this advice, believers and atheists alike; but especially the ultra-Orthodox. Their faith doesn’t permit them to see COVID-19 as just an illness. They must ask themselves what opportunity or challenge the deadly virus brings with it; or, in religious terms – what must they do to atone for and repent their behavior.

What is needed is a new social contract between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of us. A recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute highlighted the deep mistrust that the ultra-Orthodox as a group feel for the institutions of the Israeli state: they do not trust or have only little trust in the police (78%); the Knesset (80%); and the Supreme Court (94%). So it is clear why so many (but not all) of them initially turned a deaf ear to the lifesaving instructions issued by the government.

The ultra-Orthodox live in a sort of a split reality: they are proud to be Israelis (73%) and believe that, for an ultra-Orthodox Jew, Israel is the very best place to live (77%); but they are hard pressed to translate this into a genuine partnership with the rest of Israeli society and contribute their share to national defense (less than a third of their young men serve in the IDF), enter the labor market (only half of the men are gainfully employed), and pay taxes (less than half of the average).

Contrary to the message of the current hateful propaganda, they are not motivated by an urge for exploitation or parasitism; rather, the situation is a byproduct of their choice to erect cultural walls to protect their identity. What the current tragedy shows, however, is that they must find a new equilibrium between preserving their ultra-Orthodox way of life and embracing solidarity with their fellow-citizens and the state. The new social contract is needed not only for the country, but also, and in particular, for ultra-Orthodox men and women who wish to live and prosper.

Second, members of the ultra-Orthodox community must assume responsibility for their own lives, and not cast it onto the shoulders of their spiritual leaders. Those who live holy lives and study Torah night and day can serve as role models as religious leaders and provide guidance in the spiritual and religious realm, but not more than that. The great Torah scholars enjoy an immense halo effect in the community, embodied in the concept of da’at Torah – namely that, by virtue of their Torah scholarship and saintly lives, the most eminent rabbis are qualified to have the last word on all subjects.

As long as this approach is applied only to personal matters, from choosing a spouse to business affairs, it is only the believer who faces a risk. But the ultra-Orthodox seek to impose this on the national collective as well. According to the survey cited above, many of them believe that rabbis should be consulted on decisions on foreign relations and national security (49%), and on economic and social affairs (46%). But just as I would never ask an esteemed author to make financial decisions for me, and would be very cautious about placing a decision on security matters in the hands of a Nobel laureate in chemistry, the opinion of Torah scholars should be sought only in matters of their specific expertise.

Will the tragic blunder by the leading rabbis with regard to the national health emergency move the ultra-Orthodox majority over to the rational path of making their own decisions and accepting individual responsibility? The wake-up call resounding in the streets of Bnei Brak could not be louder.

The coronavirus crisis can be seen as a kind of Yom Kippur for the ultra-Orthodox community. In the moving Unetaneh Tokef prayer recited on the High Holidays, we ask: “Who will live and who will die? … Who will die by earthquake and who by plague?” This Passover, the ultra-Orthodox need to ask themselves who will live and who will die – who by plague and who by a rabbinic decree?

Yedidia Stern is a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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