Religious groups tend to value gatherings, mostly for worship but also for social purposes; they are a crucial part of a full religious life. Our world of social distancing has presented challenges to every religion. In the State of Israel, where I live, COVID has profoundly affected religious Jews, and by extension, the whole society.
Like other aspects of our lives, many Jewish religious ceremonies and experiences have moved to the computer. Jewish-content lectures and study groups are always an important facet of Jewish life, and were sometimes available online before the pandemic began. Since then, there has actually been a blessed proliferation of Jewish study opportunities on platforms like Zoom and YouTube. I have enjoyed teaching classes where participants from California to Jerusalem meet virtually, but in real time, to learn and discuss Jewish texts.
Some Jewish denominations have moved prayer services to the internet, with varying degrees of success. But for Orthodox Jews, the pandemic has presented unique challenges. Communal prayer is considered an important mitzvah (religious obligation), and Orthodox Judaism insists that a minyan (prayer quorum) consist of at least ten men in the same location. An internet connection does not suffice. Some few Jewish prayers may be said without the presence of a minyan and so an internet-based gathering for these is possible – but only on the less significant days of the Jewish calendar. On the Jewish Sabbath and on significant holidays such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) or Passover, Orthodox Jews do not use any electric devices, including computers, cellphones and televisions.
Jewish families the world over generally gather on the eve of Passover for the most significant multigenerational family celebration – the Passover seder. Passover 2020 occurred during the strictest lockdown in Israel and in many other countries. Orthodox grandparents and grandchildren did not celebrate the seder together, either physically or virtually. On Passover in 2021 there were more gatherings for multigenerational celebrations, but still far fewer than in most years.
In Israel and in many other countries, for months on end strict rules limited the size of weddings to a handful of guests. Of course, this restriction adversely affected everyone who wanted to get married. But Orthodox Jews see marriage as a religious obligation, and along with other traditional religious people, Orthodox couples do not live together before marriage. Delaying a wedding until after the pandemic is over is clearly less attractive to them! Here in Israel, many Orthodox Jews got married in weddings that conformed to the restrictions – outdoors, in the presence of just a few relatives and often no friends.
The Orthodox Jewish community is not a unified whole. Modern Orthodox Jews are involved in and positively inclined to the literature, culture, values and thought of the country in which they live. Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel, Canada and the United States complied with COVID regulations at least as well as the general community. Modern Orthodox rabbinical organizations like the Rabbinical Council of America and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (both based in the United States) and Tzohar and Beit Hillel (both based in Israel) spoke out loudly and frequently about the religious duty of social distancing.
For the last few months, Orthodox Jews in Israel have been praying outdoors in small groups – socially distanced, wearing masks, signing up in advance to limit crowd size. (In April, as COVID numbers were going down consistently, the government relaxed some of these rules for vaccinated adults.) For the last half year, I have attended outdoor services near my home in Jerusalem virtually every day in temperatures ranging from 3 to 33 degrees Celsius. Of course, this is impossible for Orthodox Jews in countries like Canada for many months of the year.
Haredi Jews – generally translated as ultra-Orthodox or fervently Orthodox – take a more insular approach. They tend to be more suspicious of governments and of any experts, including scientists, relying rather on their own leading rabbis. In haredi circles, there is no generally accepted national or international rabbinical leadership group. Important decisions are made by communal rabbis, or by the heads of the various rabbinical schools, none of whom commands the respect of all haredim (plural of haredi). So it’s difficult to generalize about what haredim feel about almost any issue.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, while some haredim took COVID restrictions seriously and others did not, in general compliance has been significantly lower in haredi communities than in other sectors of Israeli society. Haredi mortality and morbidity from COVID have been higher, and haredi rates of vaccination fall significantly below those of the rest of the country’s Jews.
The relationship of haredim to the laws of the State of Israel has always been complex. In 1950, just after the State was established, a haredi cabinet minister, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir-Levin, put it baldly: “If we face the choice of transgressing the laws of Moses or the laws of the state, we will violate the laws of the state, not those of Moses.” A position like this is not surprising; it is hardly limited to haredim or even to Jews. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the title character says to her uncle, King Creon, “I did not think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes given us by the gods.”
The problem of religion and state becomes more complex when haredim are active participants in the government that is legislating the restrictions, as they are here in Israel. Haredi cabinet ministers, almost all of them ordained rabbis, publicly support the laws that the State promulgates, while other haredi religious leaders urge defiance of those laws that restrict their religious freedom.
But why don’t all haredi leaders realize that COVID regulations are for their own benefit and for the benefit of society at large? Perhaps because they hear and understand the fractious public discourse about how best to deal with this pandemic.
The method used by the Israeli government to fight COVID – repeated lengthy lockdowns, strict rules about the number of people who can gather indoors or even outdoors – has not been universally accepted. Sweden took a very different approach, as did many American states. Many people in Israel have loudly criticized the government for measures that have harmed the economy in the attempt to stop COVID from spreading. A paralyzed economy has serious long-lasting effects and can even lead to loss of life, just as COVID can.
Like governments all over the world, the Israeli government attempted to do cost-benefit analysis and strike a balance between the extreme of totally closing down the country and the opposite extreme of just letting COVID run its course. The compromise it arrived at involved looking at all the activities that bring people together and deciding their value or benefit, and then measuring that benefit against the cost or risk involved. But what happens when a subgroup of the population, like the haredim, has a different understanding than the government of the benefit of a particular activity or the cost involved in shutting it down? What if many haredim believe that closing down synagogues also has a high cost, a deleterious effect on society?
During almost all of the strictest periods of lockdown in Israel, political demonstrations were permitted. The government felt that the cost to society of shutting down free speech would be worse than the cost of spreading the virus at outdoor demonstrations. At the same time, Israel had strict rules limiting the number of people who could gather for a prayer service, even outdoors. Yes, on the books the size of demonstrations was also limited. But those restrictions were rarely enforced, perhaps because the government feared being seen as quashing free speech. So from the point of view of haredim for whom communal prayer is at least as crucial as free speech, breaking the law about religious gatherings to gather for prayer, a funeral or a wedding – all events with religious meaning – on some level makes sense. Some very large haredi weddings and funerals that were likely superspreader events took place even during lockdowns in Israel.
In Israel as in other countries, one of the most controversial issues has been the closing of schools (or moving all instruction to Zoom) in an attempt to prevent the spread of infection. When all schools, or some grades in all schools, were closed by law in Israel for many months, some haredi schools remained open. Enforcement against these lawbreaking schools was spotty.
While education is valued by all sectors of society, haredi Jews see education, specifically the study of Torah, as a mitzvah, perhaps the most important religious duty for a Jew. (While “Torah” in its narrow sense refers to the Five Books of Moses, in common Jewish parlance studying Torah means studying any Jewish sacred text.) One (self-appointed) haredi spokesman recently said, “The most important thing in the world is the study of Torah. Without that, there is no point to anything.”
Moving education to a platform like Zoom is not an option for haredi Jews since many haredi rabbis oppose the use of the internet or smartphones seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath. Even if, as anecdotal evidence shows, many haredim do not comply with the decree against using the internet, haredi leaders who oppose internet use are not going to move their schools to an internet platform. Thus, closing haredi schools has a greater cost, since no virtual alternative exists, and involves, from the perspective of the haredim, an infringement of their right and their duty to fulfil the mitzvah of educating their children.
In short, when the government assigned values to various activities and then decided which activities to restrict, many haredim felt their own sacred values were not sufficiently taken into account. Their relatively low compliance is not surprising.
Despite the internal logic of this haredi position, most Israelis agree that the social contract demands that we all follow rules, even when we feel that values important to us are not being respected sufficiently by the government. Long before COVID, large numbers of Israelis resented the refusal of most haredim to serve in the army. From their perspective, the internally consistent position of haredi scofflaws is further evidence of their inconsiderate, irresponsible and dangerous behavior.
Societal tension in Israel was exacerbated also by the presence of haredi political leaders in the government that legislated the restrictions affecting all Israelis while, at the same time, various haredi religious leaders encouraged defiance of those restrictions that they feel limit their religious freedom. On the other hand, from the perspective of many haredim, the frequent references in public discourse to haredi noncompliance with COVID regulations, when some examples of noncompliance could be found in every stratum of Israeli society, were further proof of unreasonable anti-haredi bias.
The same pattern is seen in the vastly different reactions in Israel to the tragic events of April 30, when 44 mostly haredi men and boys died in a stampede on Mount Meron in northern Israel during a celebration of the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba-omer. The haredi community generally sees these losses as the deaths of qedoshim, holy people who died serving God. With its strong fabric of community life and religious values, haredi society may be better equipped than individualist liberal society to cope with untimely deaths, as all individuals are perceived as tiny cogs in God’s vast universe.
Much of the rest of the population sees these deaths as the result of irresponsible behaviour, as 100,000 people gathered at night on a mountain, packed closely together when COVID had not yet been totally eradicated. Commentators in the secular press note that the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu was loath to restrict access to Mount Meron in the very week when the deadline for cobbling together a new coalition – which would be dependent on the support of haredi political parties – was approaching.
As Israel returns to pre-COVID normal, it should assess its losses. Aside from the tragic loss of many lives, and aside from possible damage to the economy, the social fabric has certainly frayed further.
To read more on religion and public health in the age of Covid, click to read Rights and Religion by Gareth Morley.