The dati-haredi divide: The Covid Stress Test

What lies behind those in the haredi community who disregarded the covid guidelines? A socio-religious analysis. Opinion.

Dr. Chaim C.. Cohen ,

אכיפת קורונה במודיעים עלית
אכיפת קורונה במודיעים עלית
צילום: מחאות החרדים הקיצוניים

The ‘stress test’of coping with the covid crisis reveals the core, contrasting social-religious characteristics of the dati (Modern Orthodox/Religiuos Zionist) and haredi communities

The cardiologist orders a stress test when he wants to know how well the heart of his patient is functioning. An employer interviewing a job applicant will make the interview purposefully stressful in order to better understand the potential employee’s personal strengths and weaknesses. The army does the same when wanting to select officers and elite fighting unit soldiers from a larger pool of potential candidates.

In time of stress our core psycho-social coping characteristics become apparent and hence more easily ‘diagnosed’.

Our war of attrition with the tiny covid virus has created a half a year of trauma and stress for all sectors of Israeli society. This period of traumatic coping virus has thus become a tool for revealing, for ‘diagnosing’, the very differing social-religious characteristics of the dati and haredi communities.

Dati covid coping on Yom Kippur-A creative interaction between halakha, individual choice and the demands of a changing social reality

Briefly, the results of our six month covid stress test shows that the dati community has coped with the covid danger with an emphasis on individual responsibility and a friendly attitude to modern science. In contrast, parts of the haredi community have coped with an emphasis on hierarchical collectivism, and a suspicious, conservative attitude to established science. No matter who is right, the differences in coping are obvious.

In fact, the difference in the observance of Yom Kippur of the two communities this year ‘says it all’. The dati community willingly respected medical opinions and governmental directives. They closed synagogues, creatively organized outdoor prayer sites with an emphasis on social distancing, shorter prayer services and changed prayer schedules, with some praying at home. All changes were instituted under rabbinical guidance. Uniformly, masks were worn.

The dati community thus sustained the religious spirituality of the holiday by creating an innovative interaction between the halakha and the dramatically changing social reality of the surrounding modern society.

If I want to be a little audaciously optimistic I could say the dati community added a new dimension to the spirituality of Yom Kippur by these creative adaptations in congregational prayer. An important factor in the success of these adaptations was the dynamic input of the worshiper’s individual sense of choice and responsibility.

Haredi coping on Yom Kippur – A strict reliance on hierarchal rabbinic leadership, and a conservative emphasis on the individual being spiritually ‘nurtured/uplifted’ primarily through the spirituality of his bonding with the surrounding collective

Note: In practice, there were differences in behavior and what this describes is a significant percentage, but definitely not all, of the haredi rabbinic leadership and community.

Basing myself on gleanings from internet sites, significant sectors of the haredi community coped with the covid crisis by strictly falling back into the arms of adherence to tradition. Many, not all, continued to pray in mass, indoor minyans, ‘standing’ in both physical and spiritual intimacy with their religious leaders.

Very simply, much of the rabbinic leadership made a decision that the best way for the haredi community to cope with the covid crisis was not to innovate but to do exactly what they have always done. To use an allegory, an earthquake outside the community should not be allowed to bring about an earthquake inside the community. For a community that strictly relies on collective uniformity to maintain its specific way of life, those rabbinic leaders felt they could not break tradition in coping with covid.

Similarly, some of the hassidic leadership and community refused to sacrifice traditional, indoor, closely packed Beit Hashoveah celebrations in order to follow governmental regulations and try to lessen dangers to public health. Maintaining traditional forms of spiritual collectivism took priority over issues of public safety as defined by the health ministry. At least the priorities of that part of the haredi community are clear.

These different dati –haredi coping responses to covid are very indicative of their different religious coping strategies with the surrounding post modern, secular society

The popular understanding of the difference between dati (Religious Zionist is the proper term in Israel) and haredi religious culture - although the real amd significant difference is in attitude towards Zionism and the State of Israel - is that the dati are ‘haredi lite’ who make a trade off between religious observance and enjoyment of the secular world That is not true at all (see below). However, it is statistically true that the behavioral performance of the mitzvoth of the Shulchan Aruch aound twenty five per cent higher in the haredi community.

But what our covid stress test really shows is that a basic difference between the dati and haredi social-religious culture is the difference of whether to use a strategy of individual responsibility/ individualism , or to use a conservative collectivism, as the main strategy for sustaining and creating religious life in a basically hostile, post modern secular environment.

And these contrasting social-religious strategies are born out of contrasting definitions of religiosity and spirituality.

Dati religiosity and spirituality in modern, secular society

Very briefly, and basing my analysis on the writings of Rav Soloveitchik , the dati/modern orthodox/Religious Zionist communities have adopted a cautious, but optimistic strategy, that it is spiritually possible, and in many areas desirable, for the halakhic Jew to be involved and creative in most (but not all) sectors/enterprises of surrounding secular society, as long as this involvement does not force him to violate the halakha.

Most dati religious leaders feel that Torah based involvement in the secular world is a mitzvah and important avenue for building a very real spiritual relationship with G-d and his Torah. Dati religious leaders and educational institutions thus strongly encourage serving in the army, engaging in land settlement and establishing new communities, and working in professions directly addressing areas of social and psychological distress (social work, nursing, medicine). Their rabbis are optimistic that one can develop a real and meaningful spiritual relationship with G-d while serving in the army and practicing community serving professions. These religious leaders accept army service knowing that in certain cases it can lessen religious observance, and attempt to prevent that from happening.

Most significant, the dati community thus sees a Torah based involvement in secular professions as a way to merge individual self actualization with religious spirituality. A core element of dati spirituality, as argued by Rav Soloveitchik, is a pro active respect for individual self creation/actualization. True spiritual self creation/actualization Rav Soloveitchik can only be attained by building a three fold ‘covenantal’, mutual relationship with one’s self, G-d, and significant others in the family and community. This is the ‘formula’ for individual self actualization that Rav Soloveitchik blesses and prescribes for the Torah-true Jew in modern, secular society.

This analysis, I think, best explains, why the dati community found it both incumbent ,and possessed the spiritual openness, to creatively use the halakha in order to conduct prayer and holiday observance in accordance with the government’s effort to combat covid.

Haredi religiosity and spirituality in modern, secular society

The haredi community feels it can best advance their definition of religiosity and spirituality by avoiding pro active involvement in the surrounding secular society and by building highly autonomous, socio-cultural communities. On a ‘superficial level’ we can say this is because the haredi community is ‘afraid’ of involvement in secular society because most elements of secular society are in conflict with the Torah way of life.

While this perspective is probably true as society becomes more and more invasive and permissive, this argument ‘does not do justice’ to understanding the core element of haredi religiosity and spirituality in modern, secular society. Haredi religiosity and spirituality is based not on an individual self actualization in his relationship with G-d and significant others, but on the individual immersing himself, and merging himself with the surrounding haredi collective. More specifically the haredi individual experiences heightened spirituality by continuously bonding with the collective tradition, with the collective community, and with the collective’s spiritual leader.

Without immersing and merging his own spirituality with that of the collective, the haredi individual is like a patient removed from a hospital breathing ventilator. A continuous spiritual bonding with his social collective is what ‘keeps him spiritually alive’. A haredi’s spiritual life is thus extremely dependent on him living in a tight knit , closed, community, and daily moving between work, home, and study and prayer hall. As a sole, distinct, independent individual a haredi person finds it difficult to maintain his spiritual life.

In brief, this ‘dependence’ of the haredi individual on ongoing, spiritual bonding with his social collective is why the act of ‘social distancing’ has become so so difficult for the haredi community to observe.. The need to be continuously bonded and nurtured by a collective spiritual tradition, and guided by a collective spiritual hierarchy is why they found it so hard to creatively innovate in observing the Tishrei holidays despite the health dangers.. They believe that Torah Judaism can only survive in the secular world when the individual is immersed and bonded with a close knit, autonomous hierarchical, spiritual collective.

Conclusion: In non-normal, covid times, that haredi spiritual model would find itself in deep crisis

In normal times, non-covid times I feel that both the dati and haredi spiritual models can be successful and are legitimate strategies for developing a Torah based life in the midst of modern, secular society.

In the traumatic crisis times of covid, the haredi model seems to be more in a healthcrisis, although had they all done what the Religious Zionists did, there probably was no danger of losing ground in Torah observance. Seemingly the conservative, collective spiritual haredi model espoused by those who did not keep the guidelines does not allow for the social flexibility, and allow the degree of individual responsibility, necessary for successfully coping with the very serious, sometimes fatal, covid health threat.

Somewhat crudely we can say that a sizable part of the haredi community gets a grade of 7-8 on developing ‘herd immunity’ regarding the threat of modern secular society over the last seventy years. And looking only at morbidity and realizing there are other causes (crowded homes, for example) those same elements of the haredi community get a failing grade on their collective coping with the present covid crisis.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.