Opinion |

Coronavirus, the Greatest Challenge to ultra-Orthodox Jewish Life Since the Holocaust

Torah no longer saves from death. The coronavirus has dealt an unimaginable blow to the rabbinical authority - and worldview - that ultra-Orthodox Jews previously regarded as infallible and eternal

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks through Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood as Israeli police enforce coronavirus restrictions. March 31, 2020
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks through Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood as Israeli police enforce coronavirus restrictions. March 31, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

One of the most frustrating things about reporting on the ultra-Orthodox community as a journalist is that very early on in your beat, you realize that nearly all the Haredim you get to talk to in the daily coverage are not really representative of the community.

You talk to the politicians, the makherim and the askanim [fixers], to the spokesmen and journalists, the businessmen and even some of the rabbis, but no matter from which sub-set of ultra-Orthodoxy they come, they belong to the tiny group with connections to the outside world.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

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The Haredim you interact with have offices, cars and smartphones which are actually connected to the internet and feature WhatsApp, they know the media lingo, and make a lot more money than the average income in their community. Usually, their rabbis have allowed them to have an outside existence because they serve their community either through their work, or by making money, a significant portion of which is then tithed back. Just by dint of having these connections with outsiders, they are different.

And as hard as you try to go out on to the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak and any other of the ultra-Orthodox townships, and just meet and talk with "ordinary" Haredim, few of them are willing to open up with a journalist, unless they themselves are aspiring to one of those outward-looking positions in life, or are baalei t’shuva ["returnees" to religion] who know other worlds from their pre-Haredi existence.

It also means that you very rarely get to speak to ultra-Orthodox women, with the exception of the tiny group of female Haredim who have been allowed to pursue a profession outside the community.

And you almost never get to see the inside of a "real" Haredi home. Not that your ultra-Orthodox contacts won’t host you, they’re eager to have you over, for an entire Shabbat if you like. Theirs is a proselytizing cult. Only your contacts live in the small number of "nicer" Haredi neighborhoods, can afford larger apartments with the creature comforts that their "outside" income buys and they socialize with those like them.

The one time you do get the chance to peek inside a "real" Haredi home is when one of your contacts is sitting shiva (the seven days of mourning) for a parent or sibling who unlike them, was a "normal" Haredi.

I’ll never forget my first visit, 21 years ago. It was the shiva for a mother of a Haredi publicist in Batei Ungarin, one of the oldest tenement blocks in Mea Shearim, built around the end of the 19th century.

It’s easy to describe the tiny apartment, hiding behind a door on an open walkway. A narrow corridor ending in a bathroom, with doors leading off to the kitchen, a living-room - which also doubled as the parents’ bedroom at night, and two other bedrooms - one for boys, the other for girls, stacked with bunk-beds and trundle beds, each capable of holding six in a few square meters.

Fourteen souls had lived at times in this apartment which had been built solely for one purpose, to house Jews who would study Torah in the Holy Land on behalf of their brothers in exile. Batei Ungarin was named for the ultra-Orthodox communities back in Hungary, which had both funded the building and paid the stipends for the men in Jerusalem’s old Yishuv, who spent their lifetime studying Torah.

Magen David Adom ambulance staff wearing full protective kit against coronavirus leaving a home in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood. 31 March 2020 Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

130 years since Batei Ungarin’s foundation, most Haredim (but not all, by any account) in Israel live in slightly larger apartments, and thanks to modern medicine, have much larger families. Families which are now, according to the health ministry’s statistics are much more at risk of infection from coronavirus than other Israelis.

The overcrowding of the Haredi neighborhoods and townships (Bnei Brak is Israel’s most crowded city with 27,000 residents on average in one square kilometer) combines with two other factors to make the ultra-Orthodox community the most vulnerable.

A lack of access to information due to the rabbis’ prohibition of television, radio, secular newspapers, internet and any mobile phones which can use messaging apps can be fatal as when a pandemic advances quickly. And then there’s the deep suspicion towards any outside interference by the government or "experts" in the community lives and questioning of the rabbis’ leadership.

But there’s a deeper issue which makes the Haredim particularly exposed. Their deep belief that they can’t be taught anything. There’s nothing new under the sun. That they were always here, learning Torah, and survived despite everything. So don’t tell them about COVID-19 and doctors. They have the best medicine, which science can never improve on. They call it Torah magna u’matlza – Torah protects and saves. But it’s not Torah, it’s the belief in continuity.

Continuity is the biggest ultra-Orthodox myth. Their belief that their way of life is the thousands year-old Jewish tradition, and that all Jews in all time aspired to, until foreign ideas muddled them, was to study Torah their entire lives. Of course, this is an invention.

Israeli police detain ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during scuffles as police enforce a partial lockdown against coronavirus in Jerusalem. March 30, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The Haredi ideology of voluntarily closing their community off from the world is about 200 years old and came about as a reaction to enlightenment and emancipation. The practice of every man studying Torah all day, every day, only exists from the mid-1950s when the concentration of most ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the U.S. allowed them to live while learning, at poverty-level, but to live, in welfare societies.

The creation of the "society of learners," as the late Professor Menachem Friedman called it, was spurred by the trauma of the Holocaust. Many thousands of Orthodox Jews who survived abandoned their faith – some, no doubt, affected by the fact that many of the rabbis had advised them to remain in Europe before the war, and some used their contacts to escape during the war, forsaking their followers. But those who survived with their faith intact, conjured up after the war a mythological memory of "a world of Torah."

At their height, the grand old yeshivas of Eastern Europe never numbered more than a few thousand students, exceptional geniuses and the sons of rabbis and the wealthy. The overwhelming majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews worked for their living. Today’s yeshivas in Israel, with their hundreds of thousands of students of all ages, is not the "rebuilt" Torah world of yore.

They are a new creation which could only have come in to being in a country where the rabbis, through their political representatives, have made a deal with the state to sustain their autonomy, without interference, and to be funded by the Israeli taxpayer. But the Haredi community obviously don’t see it that way – for them, the flourishing of the yeshivas and their ability to live their lives, devoted to study, is heavenly confirmation that the rabbis are right.

Why should they believe otherwise? The Israeli reality has ordered itself according to their belief. Torah is life, and the rabbis are infallible.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man reads a billboard poster on how to sneeze properly and avoid spreading COVID-19. Jerusalem, March 29, 2020Credit: AFP

In 1991, during the Gulf War when Israel last went in to lockdown, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles landed, Haredi mean refused to shave their beards so they could wear the government-issued gas masks. Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, then the most senior "Lithuanian" [non-Hassidic] rabbi, ordered the yeshivas remain open, despite all other schools in Israel closing down. Rabbi Shach promised that the Torah learning would prevent missiles from falling on Bnei Brak.

His prophecy was fulfilled. The missiles hit neighboring Ramat Gan and weren’t carrying chemical warheads anyway, so the gas masks weren’t necessary. Torah saved Bnei Brak. Once again the ethos had proved itself. It held for another 30 years, nearly.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, in many ways the man filling the role of Rabbi Shach today, began the coronavirus crisis three weeks ago in the same way, defying the government’s orders that all schools close down to prevent spreading the virus and insisting that Torah study continue.

On Sunday, after it became clear even to him (or more likely the tight circle feeding him information and speaking for him) that the synagogues and yeshivas have become hubs of contagion and the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Bnei Brak soared, he finally about-faced and ruled that every synagogue must close down and even prayers must be held from now in private at home. It’s hard to imagine a greater blow to rabbinical authority.

Even before the pandemic came along, it was clear that a million-strong community could not continue to exist as a separate autonomy within Israeli society. The deal whereby the rabbis and their political representatives ensured funding in return for votes in the Knesset, also kept hundreds of thousands of young men and women in a benefit-trap, denied of the basic general education and skills necessary for the modern workplace.

There were already multiple signs of the rabbinical authority’s erosion. Thousands of Haredim insisting on academic studies and going to work, despite the rabbis’ wishes and the beginning of a raise in the average age of marriage and dip in birth-rates, as some Haredi women are no longer prepared to be just wombs for the next generation of Torah-learners.

Bnei Brak, "the city of Torah," is no longer protected. Jews who devoted their lives to study are apparently dying in much higher proportions. Torah no longer saves from death. A million men and women who were brought up on the post-war ethos of ultra-Orthodoxy are now facing their greatest challenge since the Holocaust.

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