TEL AVIV — In early October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York ordered schools to close in some areas with large populations of ultra-Orthodox Jews because of coronavirus outbreaks. Some of the schools refused, and the governor threatened as a consequence to withhold state funding.
At about the same time in Israel, a rabbi commanded his followers to open ultra-Orthodox schools, in defiance of government shutdown orders. Israel’s health minister warned these schools that they could face “heavy fines.”
Two countries, two different systems of government — and a similar challenge: how to deal with ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that while having high infection rates also refuse to take the necessary precautions.
Jews and gentiles must be careful not to single out the ultra-Orthodox, who look different and act different from most of us. I will try my best to be cautious. I will also state that I see much to admire in the ultra-Orthodox way of life: the sense of community and mutual responsibility, the emphasis on study, the devotion to tradition. And yet, I also feel an urgent need to advise ultra-Orthodox Jews to adapt to a new reality, one in which ultra-Orthodoxy’s great success — its ability to thrive in a modern world — has become its great challenge.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism today is based on strict adherence to Jewish law, a highly conservative worldview and a rejection of many components of the modern world (from evolutionary science to television), with the aim of erecting a shield against secularization and assimilation. In shorthand, the ultra-Orthodox are called Haredi — based on the Hebrew word for “trembling,” because these Jews tremble before God.
On its own terms, ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel and the United States has been highly successful in achieving its goals. What were those goals? To establish an undisturbed and vibrant community of mitzvot (commandments) and Torah study. Seventy years ago, with the destruction of most ultra-Orthodox communities in Europe in the Holocaust, some assumed that the end of this branch of Judaism was near. However, with stubbornness and sophistication, high birthrates and social cohesion, ultra-Orthodox communities are growing and thriving.
This success hasn’t come without many challenges. The first is economic: Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to be poor by design. They prioritize study over work, and thus rely heavily on philanthropy and public support. The second is civil. Especially in Israel, where Haredi Jews both rely on public funds and still enjoy exemption from military service, there is a general feeling that this community does not pull its weight.
The third challenge is the relationship Haredi communities have with their surroundings. A demographic rise of the Haredi world makes the population both more noticeable and more influential. In a democracy, numbers have meaning, and in Israel and New York, the Haredi are a highly effective voting bloc. Socially, Haredi neighborhoods and towns tend to be less than hospitable to outsiders, and as the neighborhoods expand, clashes with neighbors are common. So these communities are gradually becoming harder to ignore. And the pandemic might be the ultimate demonstration of the emerging problem. In Jerusalem and New York, where these Jews live in great and fast-growing numbers, a puzzled public begins to feel these communities have become too independent.
Haredi Jews have large families and live in densely populated areas. This enhances their model of togetherness and separateness. It also makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. By and large, like many closed communities, Haredi Jews are suspicious of outside institutions. (Some of this is born of a long history of persecution.) When outsiders demanded they shut down schools or cancel weddings or stop attending their synagogues, many of the leaders were thinking that such a decree could come only from people who do not understand the importance of these practices. They refused to comply. To these characteristics we must add Haredis’ suspicion of science (a feature of modernity) and their general stiff-necked mentality — the essence of resisting the temptations of a changing outer world.
So it is not surprising that a sudden demand to change their community’s behavior was met by many Haredi Jews — and, notably, by many important Haredi leaders — with suspicion and open revolt. Some of them refuse to wear masks; some evade testing. Others send their children to school even when it is prohibited or attend mass funerals, where they clash with the police in New York and Jerusalem. Many attend crowded synagogues. No wonder that the rate of infections in ultra-Orthodox communities has skyrocketed.
Haredi Jews are well practiced in defying the larger society in which they live, and defiance is the tool they pulled out when new pandemic rules were dictated. They did it by using political clout and harsh rhetoric, arguing that the authorities were being discriminatory. Of course, they have every right to use political clout to make their case. It is also reasonable to assume that in some cases Haredi Jews are being singled out. (The fact that they are easily identifiable because of their distinctive clothing makes it almost inevitable.)
And yet it is time for Haredi leaders to realize that their model of isolation from the larger public is becoming archaic. Not because it failed, but because it succeeded.
The Haredi model in Israel and the West over the past century was meant to keep a threatened enclave from being wiped out by a cultural tsunami. It was tolerated as such by a generally indifferent public in relatively tolerant countries, and in Israel, where Jewish sentimentality added another layer of commitment of the state to the survival of the Haredi world. In short, it was designed for a weak group attempting to prevent decline. But as a model for a strong and thriving community it is flawed and dangerous.
The thriving of the Haredi world in recent decades was made possible by an ability to be different, without being threatening; to reject the influence of the outside world, without being disruptive. Indeed, the disobedience of a weak minority can be tolerated. But the disobedience of a strong community — particularly one that could affect the health of the larger public — is more difficult to defend.
Few things prompt hatred, fear and vengefulness like a pandemic. What we have witnessed in recent months is dangerous, first and foremost for the future of the ultra-Orthodox world. If Israelis completely lose patience with the Haredi lifestyle, the consequences for the community could be drastic. If Americans become hostile to the community, the consequences could be even graver. Anti-Semitism, already on the rise, feeds on fear and suspicion.
So Haredi Jews are playing with fire. That is because they are not truly that powerful. Not if the world turns against them.
No wonder that those of us who see value and beauty in the Haredi world — those of us who watch with admiration their prioritization of compassion over personal success, who identify with their prioritization of study over wealth and who respect their resistance to assimilation look at recent events with a growing sense of apprehension.
Shmuel Rosner (@rosnersdomain) is a contributing Opinion writer, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and the author, most recently, of “#IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution.”
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