Haredim: Do your civic duty

Published in The Jerusalem Post, February 5, 2021.

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When there is a desecration of G-d’s name and danger to public health, one does not shy away from criticism of haredi leaders.

(Note: This is a follow-up on last week’s column, responding to some of the angry haredi reactions I received.)

The funeral of Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, Jan. 31. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90, as published in The Jerusalem Post.)

Last week, I wrote an analysis of injurious haredi (ultra-Orthodox) behaviour regarding national discipline in the current corona crisis. I argued that the main reason for the unwillingness of some haredi leaders to bow to government-mandated coronavirus restrictions is ideological. Haredi leaders need to defy secular Israeli society to enforce haredi separatism, even at the expense of exposure to deadly illness. (“The unbearable lightness of being Yanki,” Jan. 29).

I called for a new deal with haredi world that is based on true solidarity, mutual support, and sacrifice for the broader communal good. “We don’t want the haredi public to suffer nor have it wreak ruin on the rest of us.”

Some haredi relatives and friends saluted me for writing forthrightly about this. Others ripped into me for daring to question to the “infallible decision-making” of haredi leaders – who have, in their view, Daas Torah, some sort of Divine clairvoyance on all matters, spiritual and material. Others accused me of failing to understand haredi values and priorities. Some of the correspondence was quite violent and personally insulting. Here are several samples.

“As my Zeida would say, your opinions are not worth half an onion peel. Your column is drivel, based on all the fake news bandied about regarding Gedolei Yisroel (the Torah giants). You presume to know what they are thinking and presume to know how you could act better and differently. Small, narrow-minded, you are. You did not accurately describe anything that resembles haredi community or ideology. And while you are at it, you knock people you should be afraid to write about.”

“Torah is the only thing that gives Jews the right to live in this holy land. Haredi Jews were here long before secular Jews, who then paved the way for arrival of Zionists who trampled on all that was sacred and dear to the religious community and grabbed the reins of power. Understand: The State of Israel is as legitimate in haredi eyes as the Ottoman Empire or British Mandate was 100 years ago; which is to say, not at all.”

“We are in galut Zioni, Zionist exile. Telling a haredi person that he cannot send his children to yeshiva to study Torah is unacceptable. Haredi society will only cooperate with authorities on a massive level if they feel confident that those making decisions know what they are doing and if they take haredi needs into consideration. And by the way, the haredi public contributes financially more to the State of Israel than it receives.”

To these well-meaning (and less-well-meaning) haredi critics, I respond as follows:

As a Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox Jew, I do not like being in the position of piling-on haredi Jews when they are under assault. I prefer to stand alongside them in support of traditional values. I write out of deep commitment to Orthodoxy, in the face of a secular-imperialist zeitgeist that dominates our times.

But the sensitivity of protagonists in this important public policy debate does not absolve us of seeking truth and calling out the deep flaws that we see on all sides of Israeli society. The failure of haredi communities to come to terms with COVID-19 leading to extraordinary high rates of illness and death – which in turn threatens all parts of Israeli society! – requires soul-searching both internally (in the haredi world) as well as externally (what Israeli authorities and politicians could have done better).

It seems that you (my critics) are of the opinion that “whatever we do is sanctioned by gedolim (senior haredi Torah scholars) so it must be okay.” And you narrowly define gedolim to be the rabbis of your camp that have sanctioned the opening of schools and yeshivas and the holding of mass weddings and funerals (like the 10,000 haredim who attended Rabbi Dovid Soleveitchik’s packed funeral in Jerusalem this week).

This is a grave mistake. Instead of defending dangerous and offensive behavior, you should be highlighting and following the haredi rabbis who have spoken out against mass violations of Health Ministry regulations. This includes Rabbi Osher Weiss, the universally recognized dayan (rabbinical court judge and halachic decisor) in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, the Grand Rabbi of the Karlin Stolin Hassidic dynasty.

The former has written that to infect another person is tantamount to attempted murder. The latter repeatedly has said that some haredim are behaving with “total contempt” for pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law of preserving life above all.

Another wise public figure, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer (founder and editor-in-chief of the fascinating haredi journal called Tzarich Iyun), wrote this week that haredi society is being grossly negligent of its civic duties. Alas and understandably, it learned to neglect civic virtues over the long and devastating exile of Jews from Israel. But now in the sovereign Jewish state, civic virtues are not just earthly requirements but religious duties! Neglect of such civic duties (like locking down synagogues in this crisis) is exacting a very high cost.

And at long last, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the two most senior Ashkenazi, non-hassidic, haredi rabbis in the country, said clearly on Tuesday that anyone who is careless in observing COVID-19 health regulations is a sinner and deserving of punishment. “The principles of caution are a great (religious) obligation.”

So, I ask: Are you not aware of the escalating cost to the haredi community itself, in Israel and America, of the incautious behavior of too many haredi Jews? Aside from rabbis Soloveitchik and Yitzchok Aryeh Scheiner (the Kaminetz yeshiva head, who also died this week), other prominent haredi rabbis have died from COVID-19 including the grand rabbis of the Amshinov, Kozlov, Stanislav and Novominsk hassidic groups in New York, the Pittsburgher rebbe in Israel, and more. More than 25% of the deathly sick in Israeli ICUs now are haredi Jews, and many of the seriously ill children and pregnant women are haredi too.

This is tragic! This should be causing you and leaders of your community to scream gevalt, not to spend your time attacking people within the Torah world (like me), who are trying to rouse their dear haredi brothers from self-inflicted wounds and what is effectively insolence towards the rest of Israeli society.

You accuse me of having no understanding of haredi society. Well, consider this: If a religious Jew who appreciates the Torah studied, and values the good deeds practiced, by haredi society, and who actually does know haredi society well – like me! – nevertheless “doesn’t understand at all” haredi society and gedolim (as you insinuate), think just how much more misunderstanding of haredi society there must be in secular Israeli circles these days.

This sad reality, not my op-ed column, should frighten and upset you. Haredi leadership is causing an enormous Chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, in the eyes of most Israelis. It is truly painful to see how much hatred of haredi society, and even of Judaism itself, has been caused by the apparent distance of haredi leadership from the national war on corona.

As you know, the Talmud teaches that when there is a desecration of G-d’s name, ein cholking kavod la-rav, one does not shy away from criticism because of respect for rabbis. And kal va-chomer, certainly not, in a situation of pikuach nefesh de-rabim when the very lives of the broad public are in danger.

Unlike you, I am not at all confident that Israel’s religious (and political) leaders have been making the wisest decisions. Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to “cry the good cry,” and yes, pray for siyata diShmaya, guidance of the Heavens.

I guess it needs to be stressed that such prayer should take place only in outdoor and very small gatherings, with masks and appropriate distancing, in line with mandatory restrictions set by health authorities of the State of Israel.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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