Who Is Causing the COVID Chillul Hashem in New York City?

Over the past few months and especially the past week, many of us have been watching with dismay as controversy over masks and COVID precautions has erupted within the larger Orthodox Jewish community.  I think many of us who are trying to be careful are upset by the notion that we are being targeted as a group for being responsible for the recent COVID uptick.  It is true that Orthodox communities are in the midst of a COVID uptick.  It is also true that the entire Orthodox community is being grouped together as one large irresponsible group that disregards medical experts and doesn’t see the need to mask or be socially distanced.  In fact, Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio and the New York Times have singled out Orthodox Jewish communities as being partially responsible for the uptick.

Many of our communities are trying to be careful and it is fascinating to watch the different reactions of being lumped together with certain groups of Orthodox Jews who are not masking at all.  Some people are blaming these Orthodox groups, while others are blaming the governor, the mayor and the New York Times for insinuating that our entire community is disregarding the threat of COVID and for creating a double standard when supporting gatherings of protesters over weddings or religious services.

I think that sometimes if we present both sides of an issue, we tend to dilute either side.  If we blame the mayor for unfairly targeting the Orthodox community but letting other groups get a pass when they may want to protest together without social distancing, then perhaps we will let our fellow Orthodox Jews off the hook who aren’t taking COVID seriously by blaming the non-Jews.  On the flip side, if we simply blame our fellow Orthodox Jews who aren’t taking COVID seriously, then perhaps we won’t appreciate the danger of being targeted as a group that may recklessly put others’ lives at risk by politicians and/or the media.  I think, though, that this is an instance when we need to express in the strongest possible terms the dangers of simply disregarding the threat of COVID and the Chillul Hashem that such disregard causes, as well as the dangers of simply blaming an entire group for the misdeeds of a small segment of that group.  Both issues are so critical and we mustn’t dilute either one.

That being said, I think it is instructive for us to understand where this anti-masking approach is coming from in certain Orthodox neighborhoods.  I heard Rav Herschel Schachter explain in a recent “Headlines” podcast that he thinks that in some Orthodox circles where college is discouraged, the rabbinic leaders tell their followers not to go to college because, among other things, the non-Jews don’t really know anything. They say that all of our knowledge, including secular knowledge, comes from Torah.  Of course, this argument flies in the face of the famous Talmudic dictum of “Chochmah bagoyim ta’amin,” that we should believe that there is wisdom among the non-Jews.  However, this argument in some Orthodox circles has led adherents to disregard any wisdom coming from non-Jewish sources as not being credible, including health advisories from the CDC and leading infectious disease experts.  Rav Schachter strongly disagreed with this approach, but it is important to try to understand the basis for why in some Orthodox circles, strictly observant Orthodox Jews are concerned from a health standpoint if a small amount of fish mixes with meat, but they are unconcerned about davening in a shul where none of the worshipers are masked.

Additionally, I wonder if such behavior in some circles comes from an optimistic, but distorted, view of tefillah.  We generally understand that tefillah broadly can serve two purposes.  On the one hand, it is a time for self-reflection, like Rav Hirsch’s comment that the word “mitpallel” means to judge one’s self.  On the other hand, it is an opportunity to perhaps change our fortunes.  If we pray hard enough then God will answer our prayers in the affirmative.  I wonder if some people feel that they have prayed very hard and have done extra mitzvot in the merit of ending this pandemic.  From their perspective, they have done their hishtadlut. They have made sufficient efforts to end this pandemic and now they will have bitachon, faith, that God will protect them.  In response to this, I certainly believe that prayer serves both functions that I outlined above and that prayer has the potential to change my fortunes.  I also believe that we should have faith in God.  At the same time, we also believe that “ain somchin al hanes,” that we do not rely on miracles.  Additionally, we believe “v’nishmartem m’od l’nafshoteichem,” that we must be very careful to safeguard our lives.  Praying to God to end the pandemic and wearing a mask are not mutually exclusive.

I would like to conclude with the hope that the Modern Orthodox community does not make the same mistake that the mayor and the New York Times have made by creating an impression that all Orthodox Jews are the same in equally disregarding the masking and social distancing recommendations of the CDC.  What I mean by that is that we should not say that because some Charedi neighborhoods seem to disregard health and safety precautions, that this is true about all Charedi communities.  In fact, I was at a wedding of a friend about a month ago in a Charedi community (masked and socially distanced) and most of his friends from that community did not attend the wedding out of an abundance of caution because of COVID.  Just as the non-Jewish world should not assume that all Orthodox Jews are reckless when it comes to COVID, Modern Orthodox Jews should not assume the same about all Charedi Jews.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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