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Ultra-Orthodox Jews Turn to God and the Web, Looking for Answers to Coronavirus Losses

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at a playground next to their homes as synagogues are closed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, April 24, 2020
Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at a playground next to their homes as synagogues are closed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Bnei Brak, April 24, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

“I think our community needs to hold a true cheshbon nefesh [soul-searching reckoning],” said Interior Minister Arye Dery, who is also the leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, with breathtaking candor this weekend. “Because to my regret, 70 percent of the patients in Israel are Haredim – and not just in Haredi towns but in every place in Israel.”

Dery’s admission came during an interview he gave to an ultra-Orthodox website, part of a memorial project for former Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who died last month from the coronavirus.

Police tape enforcing movement restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Belz, Jerusalem, May 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Dery pulled no punches. He acknowledged the level of COVID-19 infection among his own community was disproportionate (about 12 percent of Israelis are ultra-Orthodox) and that it was directly related to mass gatherings on the Jewish holiday of Purim, at weddings and funerals, and in synagogues.

He probably would not have been as frank if he had been talking on a mainstream platform. Instead, he was brutally honest with his audience, urging them not to arrive in their hundreds of thousands at the shrine of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai during this week’s Lag Ba'omer festival. Dery has always fancied himself a spiritual guide to Shas voters, and there is a deep spiritual debate going on within the community: Why has the pandemic hit the Haredim with such ferocity?

Interior Minister Arye Dery getting his temperature taken as part of precautions against the coronavirus, Ben Gurion Airport, February 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

“I hope we will learn ... some lessons for our lives and behavior,” Dery said. “About our race for achievements, the masses and the madness. That has all changed.” And then there was God’s account as well: “God has been graceful to us. With everything that has happened in Israel, in comparison to other countries. Look at the number of deaths in New York and London, and you can understand God’s grace is with us.”

Dery’s deflection is classic Haredi sophistry: If you can’t explain why God has inflicted a terrible punishment on the faithful, make the point that it could have been much worse. But some, like Rabbi Gershon Edelstein – the head of Ponevezh Yeshiva and one of the most influential rabbis of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) stream – have a more nuanced explanation.

“There’s something we have to understand here,” he said in a televised sermon last week. “Here [in Israel], the Haredim have died, in comparison to the general public, at a much higher percentage. Abroad as well, Haredim have died at higher percentage than the rest of the public. What does this mean?”

To answer, Edelstein referred to the concept of tinok she’nishba – literally, a baby taken captive – which is used to describe secular Jews who were born secular and therefore do not know better. In previous generations, ultra-Orthodox rabbis relied on this concept to allow the Haredim to cooperate on various matters with secular Israelis, on the basis that they cannot be blamed for not observing Torah and mitzvot. Edelstein has now applied it to the realm of divine retribution.

“Today, those who have not made teshuvah [repented] are inadvertent sinners, babes taken captive,” he said. “They are not guilty. They did not receive education. ... Their sins are inadvertent. But Haredim – a Haredi who sins is not inadvertent.” Which is why, Edelstein explained, “when there is sin in the public, the midat ha’din [strict divine justice] hits the Haredim more. That’s why.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathering around a bonfire during the Jewish festival of Lag Ba'omer in Mea She'arim, Jerusalem, May 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The 97-year-old is regarded by many in the ultra-Orthodox community as either the most senior of rabbis, or the second-most after 92-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who in recent years has assumed a more prominent public role. However, Kanievsky’s ruling back in late February against closing the yeshivas and synagogues – claiming that “Torah protects and saves” – severely eroded his standing now the disproportionate number of Haredim infected by COVID-19 is beyond doubt.

Edelstein, who originally was in favor of complying with the closure but remained silent once Kanievsky’s ruling was published, has now established himself as the leading voice. Kanievsky, meanwhile, is taking a backseat.

Separation partitions for prayers at the Western Wall, as part of new coronavirus restrictions at the holy site. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Most of the Haredim now firmly follow the social distancing regulations, even adhering to them more strictly than many secular Israelis.

But even with many of the rabbis complying and enforcing the rules, there still remain lingering pockets of resistance. They are mainly in some Hasidic sects, especially those aligned with the small Eda Haredit grouping, which is ideologically opposed to any formal connection with the State of Israel. They have tried to keep synagogues open, even when police have arrived to close them down, and tried to hold mass bonfire-lightings on Lag Ba'omer.

It’s clear by this point that they are a minority – and that the further a Haredi group is detached from the state, the more suspicious they will be of public health guidelines.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Haredi spectrum, the number of those defying the rabbis and going online is growing rapidly. They’re not waiting for answers. The questions of why God chose to do this and why their community has been stricken so grievously will continue to be asked.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall during the coronavirus outbreak, May 6, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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