Today, I am ashamed to be a religious Jew. I see and hear what is happening in the Haredi neighborhoods, the violence that amounts almost to a civil war, the blatant disregard for the lives and health of others, and I wonder what has happened to my religion.
Those who know me know that I am the product of a mixed marriage, that I converted to Judaism at the age of 16, and that I’ve spent much of my life learning and teaching at Haredi yeshivot. I have been part of the Haredi world for most of my life, even while I strongly disagree with much of the Haredi worldview.
And so, it is with great pain that I follow what is happening now. Violent mobs of so-called Haredim bring all of our people into mortal danger by refusing to wear masks and violating the instructions of a government that is trying to save lives. By refusing to close their schools, they put their own students, their families and friends, and the rest of us in danger. When the police try to enforce the regulations they are physically attacked and called Nazis and worse.
And yes, it is true that some policemen have behaved in despicable ways, and that other groups who violate government regulations are not treated as the Haredim are, but is that an excuse to behave as some of the Haredim do?
And this behavior is seen on television by Israelis and by the rest of the world. The Chillul Hashem — the desecration of God’s name — is beyond description.
What am I to say to those who ask me to explain the reckless disregard for life in the Haredi community, especially to people who have heard me extoll the life-affirming virtues of Judaism? Correctly or not, secular Israelis see the Haredim as representatives of authentic Judaism. How am I to convince them that this is not what Judaism stands for?
While I no longer blindly follow the Haredi point of view, I strongly believe that the Haredi way of life has a lot to offer. I’m deeply impressed by the devotion of its adherents and by their readiness to live a life of simplicity, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. I am sometimes envious of them, because I have not yet reached their level of piety. I do not know whether I ever will.
I also know that among the Haredim live some of the greatest of all tzaddikim, remarkable people who show infinite love for all of humankind, and who go out of their way for their fellow human beings. Their institutions of chesed — lovingkindness — for religious and non-religious Jews are remarkable. I have lived in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood for many years and have seen this firsthand.
I have never wavered in defending the rights and merits of this community, even when some of its members have attacked me for my views, or when I have disagreed with some of their policies or halachic rulings. I have always seen this as an unfortunate misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge, or merely the fear for anything new.
However, since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, I have been put in an impossible position. Everything I stand for — and which the Haredi world as I know it stands for — is being violated in ways I would never have imagined. It is as if my whole world is falling apart, as if Judaism has become a farce.
While I know that large proportions of the Haredi world do adhere to the regulations, there is a substantial number of people who violate everything Judaism stands for. Are we not commanded to value life above almost all else? Are we not committed to create a Kiddush Hashem — a sanctification of God’s name — wherever we go? Should the Haredi community not be an example to all human beings — and at least to our own people?
And yes, I too believe that learning Torah is of supreme value and that it may protect us from many things; it has sustained us for thousands of years. But when the Haredi community, which today makes up 12 percent of Israel’s population, constitutes almost 40% of the COVID-19 infections in this country, it is clear that learning Torah is not a protection against disease. It is now obvious that the community most committed to learning Torah is also the one most affected by this deadly illness! This too is a Chillul Hashem, as it brings the Torah into disrepute.
What a shame that the leaders of the secular community are more careful of the lives and wellbeing of the Haredi community than are many of its own leaders! How many more needless deaths will follow this reckless disregard for people’s lives?
It is time to put a stop to this. The Haredi community must rise to the challenge of policing its own members, of educating them to see that they are not the center of the Jewish world, but that they are its most visible members. It is time for Haredi leaders to step forward and lead by example in following health regulations to the letter and insisting that their followers do likewise.
It is time to return the Crown of Torah to its former glory.