The Haredi Orthodox may be a minority group among Jews but its significance exceeds its numerical size for several reasons: its high birthrate, profound degree of engagement in Jewish life, unsurpassed Jewish literacy, and strong and stable relationship to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people.12 At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis exposed weaknesses in the community’s structure and practices.13 The reason a separate section in this report is devoted to the Haredi community, in Israel and elsewhere in the world, is that they have been harmed by the pandemic at far higher rates than other communities, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Among other reasons, it was apparent that the community had difficulty in adapting to the rules of conduct required during the pandemic. Educational institutions and synagogues (mainly, but not only, in the Haredi community) shuttered late, which permitted massive infection among members of the community. Leaders, among them prominent rabbis, were slow to recognize the necessity to act according to the directives of the civil authorities. The result was a harsh blow to health (with many lives lost) and to their way of life – and also to the community’s image in the eyes of Jews and non-Jews.14
This state of affairs demands that the community and its leadership reorganize, as many of them admitted after the fact (notable in this was Aryeh Deri in an interview with the newspaper, Kikar HaShabbat).15 It also demands that the other Jewish institutions and leaders – the Israeli government and organizations in the Diaspora – reevaluate the networks of connection between the non-Orthodox and Haredi worlds. Below are several aspects that should be examined in light of the pandemic’s impact on the Haredi community:
Haredi Relations with Civic Leadership
The Haredi community excels in managing social policy that delineates clear boundaries of conduct and community life-style, their preservation and their enforcement. The community is also adept in exercising power, particularly political-electoral power, to secure budgets and other benefits. This management has withstood claims that it contradicts the demographic, economic and security realities of the modern world. What the Haredim were asked to do in the face of the coronavirus was to forgo practices that represented a significant part of their collective identity. They were not asked to disregard Halacha, which makes it clear that saving a life supersedes all other mitzvot. And indeed, once it sank in that this was a matter of saving lives, the top rabbis called for strict compliance with government instructions. The problem was the time it took before community leaders understood that this was a case of saving life. Until that point, most assumed that the instructions were yet another assault on their collective identity and reacted as they usually do in their struggle to preserve this identity.
A central and important tenet of the Haredi-Orthodox world is separateness from the secular world. This goes to the essence of the group’s educational and communal philosophy and enables Haredi Jewry to rear their children to continue along the path of the previous generation. The health crisis exposed the difficulty of discerning the urgent need to lower the fences separating the Haredi world from the secular authorities, and to accept, under exigent circumstances, directives from officials whose priorities are totally different from those of the Haredi leadership. The difficulty in making such a sharp transition is understood. When the secular state leadership orders the yeshivot closed, the group’s leaders are suspicious – with some justification – that the yeshivot are not as important to the secular as they are to the rabbinical leadership. This suspicion leads to the assumption that the order was issued lightly, with little appreciation of its consequences, and should not to be heeded without time for additional consideration. Under pandemic conditions, this extra time led to a serious infection crisis with a high incidence of disease and death.
Given the outcomes, we can state that relations between the Haredi-rabbinical leadership and the secular authorities need to be adapted to allow for rapid identification of crises that require sharp reprioritization and the suspension, at least for a while, of the inherent distrust between the Haredim and the non-Haredi world. The most suitable candidates for institutionalizing these adaptations are the Haredi sector’s representatives who are part of the secular government (even if they don’t always accept its ideological priorities) and enjoy the trust of the Haredi community, which is not accustomed to suspicion-free dialogue with secular institutions. These public representatives have a duty to find a way to rapidly implement emergency procedures in their community, including persuading the rabbis and spiritual leaders to act quickly according to the directives they have received. The secular government’s institutions (mainly in Israel, though there are parallels in Diaspora community institutions) would do well if they too found a way to establish a format for emergency communications with a Haredi world that is relatively isolated from them. This is true in the technical sense (how to communicate with a population that largely doesn’t use televisions or smart phones) but even more so in the substantive sense (how to foster relationships of trust in times of emergency without the need for an adjustment period).
Orthodox Halacha is not shaped in policy institutes or organizational institutions, but rather through an ongoing multi-voice process of rabbinical discourse. This discourse has its own rules and does not readily respond to outside pressures. That said, there is no doubt that those who run the discourse desire to maintain its relevance to the conditions in which Jews actually live. In the reality that has coalesced in recent months, these conditions include the coronavirus pandemic and its requisite “social distancing” – a means that constantly interferes with a way of life shaped by Halachic routine. From prayer minyanim to the learning community, from the extended family gathered for the Seder, to the congregation required for a funeral or shiva. The Orthodox community’s Halachic and social practices were severely disrupted by the demand for social distancing and require measures anchored not only in the epidemiological discourse but also in the Halacha.
As discussed, the Halachic discourse requires safeguarding human life. But it is not always clear what precisely this entails – in which areas or for how long. As of this writing, it is uncertain when and how the crisis will end, though we should take into account the possibility that it will require lifestyle changes for a long time, perhaps permanently. It falls to the rabbis and community leaders to develop tools for dealing with changing life conditions. So it is with regard to the rules of prayer and gathering, of purity and family life, and every other element that may be required to strike a new balance between keeping Halacha as it has taken shape until now and the necessity to protect life.
The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in two outcomes vis-a-vis the image of the Haredim and Jews in general. First, relations between Haredi and non-Haredi Jews – relations that were already fraught with escalating tensions over various issues (pluralism, religion and state, attitudes toward modernity, IDF service, etc.). JPPI’s annual Pluralism Index surveys attitudes toward different population groups in Israel. The Haredim consistently rank at the bottom of the ladder with respect to their “contribution to the country” (it isn’t that they don’t contribute but that other Israelis perceive them as not doing so). This year, their ranking was similarly low. In fact, in the weighted responses of Jews and non-Jews, the Haredi community, on average, ranked lowest of all groups measured in terms of contributions to the country. Moreover, this year is was clear that Israel’s secular population believes the Haredim enjoy preferential treatment over other groups. These and other data testify to the fact that attitudes toward Haredim took an even more negative turn during the current crisis.
On another level, the Haredi community’s comportment during the COVID-19 crisis has reflected on Jews in general. Conspicuous in their dress and ways, and easily identifiable as a Jewish group, the Haredi community’s conduct has ramifications for non-Haredi Jews. This fact was thrown into sharp relief when Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, criticized the behavior of “the Jewish community” following a Haredi funeral that broke the rules. His rebuke met with a sharp response from Jewish figures and organizations, Haredi and non-Haredi, which impelled the mayor to clarify his statement. It was hard, however, to shake off the impression already left: when a group whose Jewishness stands out breaks the rules, its actions affect attitudes toward Jews in general. This, of course, leads to further alienation between Jews and other Jews, but is also liable to lead to an erosion of the image of all Jews.