Why do so many strictly-Orthodox Jews flout the Covid restrictions?

It is, argues Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin, all about their world view

January 26, 2021 12:32

Why do many Chassidic sects, and some parts of Lithuanian Charedi communities, flout the restrictions that are imposed to counter the Covid pandemic? 

Many simply dismiss these people as "insane" or "evil." But it's important to understand the dynamics of why it happens.

For some, as astounding as it may seem to us, they genuinely see no connection between flouting the restrictions and people dying from Covid. They have a worldview which has little room for modern science and much room for conspiracy theories and superstitious thinking. Even if they accept that Covid is something more than just a severe flu, they have not internalised how it can be countered with masks and social distancing.

Yet there is a much bigger obstacle involved. Aside from vaccines, which only recently arrived and are a whole separate discussion, the main way to fight Covid is to avoid large indoor gatherings. But large indoor gatherings are fundamental to Charedi and especially Chassidic communities to a degree that the rest of us cannot even begin to grasp. 

The yeshivos and the shuls are the primary focus of people's lives and keep them in the safety of religious frameworks and away from the threats of the street, the internet and so on. Enormous weddings are not traditional but they have taken on tremendous importance in Chassidic communities. And in a community where people have large families in crowded apartments without Netflix, keeping children in cheder and yeshiva is not just an educational priority, it's what stands in the way of insanity.

Thus, the strategies for fighting Covid would exact an enormous toll on the Charedi way of life. And if there is one thing that Charedim are good at - much better than non-Charedi Jews - it is identifying threats to their way of life. To put it another way, someone reported the following statement by a Charedi person: "If we need to stop being Chareidim to beat Covid, what are we fighting the disease for?" No, fighting Covid doesn't really force them to stop being Charedi - but it causes enough of a challenge that it's understandable that they see it that way.

But there's more. For Charedim in general and Chassidim in particular, identifying and fighting against threats to their way of life forms a major part of their identity. They will do it even when there is no particular innate reason because of the benefits that Fighting In The Resistance brings to reinforcing their identity. As a Charedi leader in Israel once said, "If the government tells us to learn Bava Kama, we'll learn Bava Metzia!" 

And so when a pandemic hits, the choices facing Chassidim are as follows. They can cause tremendous harm to their way of life. Or they can once again 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.

What about the sickness and death that they suffer as a result - to a far greater degree than non-Charedim? Some attribute it to fate, to punishment for their sins, to the inscrutable ways of God, not to their neglect in practising social distancing. Others recognise the cause but they see it as an unfortunate but worthwhile price to pay. This may sound absolutely shocking to us but the truth is that every society is willing to sacrifice lives for its greater values, whether wars or fast transportation. 

The more that the outside community and the authorities try to get these Chassidim to comply with regulations, the harder they fight against it. Getting into a fight with non-Charedim and non-Jews about what they are doing further feeds in to their life's meaning. And, as a highly insular community, they are not accustomed to thinking about the harm that they cause beyond their community.

That's why even something as simple and seemingly religiously harmless as wearing masks is a problem for many (though certainly not all) Chassidim. There's a War to Save Yiddishkeit. You don't concede anything to the other side. You davka maintain your way of life in every way against attempts to change it.

It is a very big problem, but it is just one aspect of the wider problem of a rapidly growing community which does not see itself as being part of wider society, with the resultant obligations. 

And as much of a problem as this in the UK and US, it's a vastly bigger problem in Israel. Enforcing legislation regarding Covid restrictions, even if possible to execute, will not solve the larger problem. That will require an enormous change in worldview, and it is a daunting educational challenge.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the director of the Biblical Museum in Natural History near Beit Shemesh, Israel. He explores topics relating to haredi society on his website,

January 26, 2021 12:32

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