Plenty of Charedim are furious at the Covid rulebreakers

Jonathan Freedland explores the roots of the problem


LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: A billboard thank NHS staff in Stamford Hill on the evening of the Jewish holiday of Passover on April 8, 2020 in London, England. The Jewish community is preparing to celebrate Passover amid COVID-19 home isolation and social distancing measures. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

January 28, 2021 15:39

I get defensive when people start badmouthing the ultra-Orthodox. Perhaps we all do if the one doing the badmouthing is not Jewish, but I feel a similar impulse even if the critic is a fellow Jew. Maybe it’s because my mother’s father was himself a Chasid, a follower of the Gerrer rebbe. Perhaps it’s because, for related reasons, my mother often indulged the strictly-Orthodox, overlooking their blind spots, forgiving their failings. Or maybe it’s because I have, buried somewhere deep, that guilt-tinged deference to the Charedim, that vicarious sense that we rely on them to preserve the customs and rules, the dialect and tunes, of our ancestors that, left to us, would have died out long ago.

Whatever the explanation, I hesitate to join those who too readily denounce Charedim for the oddness of their practices, their clannishness, their refusal to fit in — a charge sheet that can sound uncomfortably close to the one levelled at Jews by antisemites.

But it’s getting harder. Last week police broke up a wedding attended by 400 guests, held at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Stamford Hill. The school insists it had no idea its premises were to be used this way, and the organiser now faces a £10,000 fine. Meanwhile, the JC reports this week the scene at a kosher supermarket in the same neighbourhood, watching “hundreds of customers and several staff members entering the premises without wearing protective masks and failing to observe social distancing rules.”

For those who live, as I do, in N16, none of this is too surprising. You only have to walk around to see that, in many if not most places, ultra-Orthodox life goes on as if there were no pandemic. The synagogues, shteibels and yeshivas are open; young men bustle past on their way to morning prayer; the minibuses ferry kids to and from school.

And yet, life is not going on for this community. The death rate remains staggeringly high. I spoke to one elder, a volunteer for a strictly orthodox burial society, haunted by dealing with three Covid deaths in a single night. “And yet,” he said, “people are still blasé.”

Not all of them, of course. Chaya Spitz of the Interlink Foundation told me plenty are furious at the rulebreakers who organised that wedding, adding that it’s unfair to submit the whole Charedi community to “collective punishment” for the actions of a few. As for why so many Charedi kids are still in school, Spitz says remote learning is hardly an option for a Charedi child in a crowded flat with many siblings and no computer. And if a trip to the shops to buy a paper is allowed under the rules, then surely prayer is every bit as “essential.”

Still, this story goes beyond Stamford Hill. It’s repeated in Brooklyn and, most dramatically, in Jerusalm and a string of Israeli cities, which this week were in flames as young Charedi men fought the police rather than succumb to the rules of the coronavirus lockdown. In Bnei Brak, the images were unsettling: a burned-out bus and an Israeli policeman shooting in the air to beat back a maskless Charedi crowd.

How to explain such behaviour, given all that Judaism says about the sanctity of life? Part of it, in Israel especially, is defiance of secular authority, so long as that authority is deemed a threat to, or even a constraint on, the traditional way of life. As Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin explains on page 7, indoor gatherings are seen as a core part of Charedi life. Charedim can either bow to the ban on such gatherings or they can “be heroes who are fighting against the authorities that are trying (for whatever reason) to cause tremendous harm to Yiddishkeit. It’s a no-brainer for them.”

Even if the price is death? It seems that for some, the answer is yes. Those Charedim who recognise the danger of their actions — who are not ignorant of the science, who do not see the plague as divine whim or punishment — are still prepared to carry on living as they’ve always lived, viewing Covid deaths as, in Rabbi Slifkin’s words, “an unfortunate but worthwhile price to pay.”

The clue is in that phrase every Jewish child is supposed to learn at cheder or primary school: pikuach nefesh. It’s translated as “preservation of life”, but the literal meaning is the more telling: preservation of the soul. For many Charedim, that means it is the spiritual condition of every soul that has to be protected above all else, no matter the risks. Anshel Pfeffer put it well when he wrote in Haaretz this week: “No matter how many die, the yeshivas and shuls won’t close. They can’t, because prayer and Torah are life itself.”

Some, like that volunteer who helps bury the dead, are distressed by where such thinking leads. But for many this is the reality. They are dying and they are risking the lives of their neighbours, but they cannot hear the cries of pain or of anger. All they can hear is the sound of their own prayers, raised to the heavens.


Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

January 28, 2021 15:39

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