Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen Charles C. Cohen

At one point during the corona pandemic, it was reported that at least 50% of those hospitalized for coronavirus in Israel are from the haredi sector. The death rate here and overseas in the hareid community was also disproportionate. This article is an analysis of the tragic phenomenon.

When the corona epidemic broke out in a greater, more dangerous and disproportionate degree in the haredi community, there were Religious Zionist commentators (and of course non-relligious ones) who quickly rushed to wag a judgmental, paternalistic finger at the haredi community.

Explicitly they criticized the haredi community for being a week-and-a-half too late in practicing closure and social distancing, for not being properly updated by the internet and the public media, for allowing their elderly rabbinic leaders to remain uniformed on the exact, immediate danger that the virus held for their community, and for socially behaving with a herd mentality, not giving room for individual discretion in taking precautionary measures.

Implicitly, between the lines, the Religious Zionist commentators conveyed the message: “The Religious Zionist society is superior."
Implicitly, between the lines, the Religious Zionist commentators conveyed the message: “The Religious Zionist society is superior. Unlike you, we know how to socially navigate in the modern world. Look at the price you are paying for living outside modernity”

On a factual basis, there is truth in this list of failings in the behavior of the haredi community. But the list misses the mark. For the question is not what mistakes the haredi community made, but WHY they made these mistakes. And to do this we must sympathetically understand the DNA of the haredi social fabric.

Thesis: The real cause of the haredi corona tragedy: long term functional (and helpful) social patterns suddenly became dysfunctional (and harmful)

The haredi community has suffered tragedy as it coped with the corona virus because highly functional (helpful) elements of the DNA of its social fabric suddenly became dysfunctional (harmful). Deeply ingrained social norms and practices that are key elements in its social life suddenly became dangerous.

The mistakes listed above (delayed social distancing, lack of media knowledge, lack of individuation, and misinformed rabbinic leadership) were the symptoms, and not the basic cause, of the crisis. When the corona threat struck with no warning, the very conservative haredi community responded by ‘just being itself’ - and this was tragically insufficient. When finding themselves literally at war with an unseen virus, their DNA social patterns ‘betrayed them’ and ‘led them astray’. This pattern of events is, strangely, the classic, Greek literary definition of tragedy.

Especially tragic is the fact that the haredi community is very health conscious, will go to great lengths to find the best doctor for any illness, and has knowledgable persons and unique initiatives that help anyyone in need of healthcare: Ezer Mitzion (and Rav Firer), Magen Lacholeh (Rav Benny Fisher) and Yad Sarah are but a few examples.

Explaining the DNA of the haredi social fabric

The haredi community is almost single-purposely dedicated to building a society whose ‘constitution’ is the commanded Torah way of life. They struggle daily with the formidable question: “how can one build a Torah-based society when surrounded by a postmodern, secular majority whose social values are in tension, if not polar opposition, to,those of the Torah ?”. The strategy they have used to build a Torah society in an antagonistic, secular world consists of the following sociological elements:

1.They have decided to separate themselves physically, socially, culturally and educationally as much as possible from almost all parts of secular society. They have sought to create an alternative society, whenever possible, alongside secular society, even if that means paying the heavy economic price of a lower material standard of living.

2. They use the mitzvot of the Torah to create a society in which one’s individual social identity is primarily focused on, and derived from, his place and interactions within the community’s life, rules and ideology. This means allowing limited space for individual choice and self expression. As my friend jokes, if you wear a blue shirt to beit hamidrash on Friday, and everyone else is in white, the shiduch (matchmaking) rating of your children immediately declines. Another example is that a child who decides to no longer observe most mitzvoth, in most cases, immediately ‘loses his place at the family shabbos table’.

3. Decision making in matters of social policy, development and change is strictly hierarchical (from the exalted torah scholars and on down), non democratic, very much male gender-based, conservative and rigid with regard to social change.

In one sense this haredi strategy of coping with modern secularism has truly succeeded

However disturbing and ‘difficult to swallow’ this sociological descripton of haredi society may sound to the non-haredi reader (including religious Zionists such as myself), in my opinion, it has been extremely successful, contradicting by far the doomsday prediction of secular sociologists. We have to admit this haredi sociological model has succeeded in fulfilling the goals that it set for itself.

In many areas the wayf of life works. Haredi society is rapidly growing. The dropout rate is only 10-15 percent (at least ten per cent less than that of the Religious Zionist community)...
there is a high level of life satisfaction and life longevity...a very high, intense level of Torah study and adherence.
In many areas It Works. Haredi society is rapidly growing. The dropout rate is only 10-15 percent (at least ten per cent less than that of the Religious Zionist community). All empirical research shows that there is a high level of life satisfaction and life longevity, and most important, a very high, intense level of Torah study and adherence.

But when confronted with the corona threat, this social strategy became highly dysfunctional

Proactive coping with the corona virus immediately required two coping behaviors which were the very opposite of the ingrained, conservative patterns of haredi social behavior.

First, the requirement to practice social distancing by remaining at home and completely avoiding communal gatherings (prayer, study in the beit midrash, weddings, funerals) constituted a head-on collision with the way the haredi community lives the vast majority of the hours of its daily life. Until the death toll seriously rose, they were not able to make this sudden u-turn in their social behavior. Given their conservative behavioral norms, they simply could not see themselves living as ‘fish living outside their social aquarium.”

Second, proactive coping required a high level of ‘individuation’, of courageously practicing individual free choice and behaving differently from the rigid social norms of the community, and thus risking stern social sanctions (figuratively to make that deicision to ‘wear a blue shirt to synagogue on Friday’).

The most striking manifestation of the dysfunctional nature in this case of the haredi ‘communal herd mentality’ was that whole families were sick and they refused to alert their neighbors to the mutual danger, and delayed getting proper medical care, because of the fear that their illness would socially stigmatize them and harm their community status. Figuratively speaking, most haredi families were not able to throw off the yoke of community sanctions so they could they could act with alacrity to get the necessary medical help.

Religious Zionists and the haredi community should learn from each others successes and setbacks in coping with modern, secular society

The haredi community forms our natural ally, 'brothers in arms’, in a joint struggle to maintain Torah social life in the midst of a secular, post modern society .

Religious Zionism has chosen a different strategy to cope with challenges of living in a secular society. We have striven to be actively involved in the economic, political and academic sectors of the surrounding secular society, while at the same time trying to maintain a degree of social-family, communal, educational and cultural autonomy that would allow us to live a life of Torah. We have had only partial success in this strategy of trying to dance at two weddings at the same time, to eat our figurative cake and have it remain whole.

So as the haredi strategy for coping with modernity has had its successes and setbacks, so has our strategy had its successes and setbacks.

The point of this article is that we Religious Zionists should not paternalistically sermonize over the haredi problems in coping with the corona crisis. We can learn from their success in making the love and learning of Torah the commanding and binding force in their communal life. And they can learn from us how to live a Torah life with a greater degree of individuation.

Maybe one of the corollaries of the corona crisis is that it is also G-d’s way of telling us we have to be humble about our social certainties

One of the messages that G-d may be sending us with this corona crisis is that we have to adopt a very humble attitude to longstanding social strategies and practices that we never doubted before.

Maybe G-d is telling us that we have to rethink previous social certainties.

Thus we should adopt a humble attitude not only to the tribulations of our haredi brothers, but also adopt a humble attitude towards our Relgious Zionist certainties concerning how we want to cope with the inherent problems of leading a Torah life in a threatening, secular modern society.

The writer, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work and Efrata College.