‘Chillul Hashem’, ‘a broken culture’, ‘Desecrating the name of the Lord’, all of these terms and more have been used to describe non-compliance with coronavirus regulations in the worldwide Charedi community. I have so far tried to avoid expressing an opinion on this complex topic, not myself being an expert in epidemiology, public health, economics, law, social policy, mental health or any of the fields that are encompassed by the COVID-19 crisis. However, I have been struck by the sheer volume of incomprehension and even horror expressed by outside observers, especially by other Jews. Is it really true that my community is gripped by a mania similar to the era of Shabatai Tzvi? In this article, I’ll try to flip the script somewhat by broadening the moral and historical focus and looking at the Charedi response, or lack of it, to Corona in the context of a global revolution in moral values, which is happening too fast for most of us even to notice it.
When Coronavirus started to spread from China to the rest of the world, a small number of countries opted for a policy of total virus suppression. Those that did so with sufficient rigour and competence did it successfully, including Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan. The vast majority of governments, however, did not take such an approach, which, anyway, was not recommended by the WHO. The majority global view was that trying to stop a respiratory virus was not a proper goal of government. However, since this virus was new and the general population had no immunity, there was a real danger of everyone catching it at once and overwhelming the health service, leading to a nightmare where the injured and sick would be turned away from the hospital door. It was therefore decided that the sensible course of action was flattening the curve through social distancing to slow, not stop, the spread of the disease.
Around the world, this policy was adopted, starting with moderate measures, typically on a voluntary basis. However, a steady drip drip of news stories came in indicating that the new Coronavirus was much worse than initially thought and the measures became more severe and less voluntary until, eventually it was felt that a mandatory shutdown leaving only essential services open was unavoidable. When the decision came to confine nations to their homes, it was widely feared that it was already too late. Hundreds of thousands in Britain alone would perish, though perhaps hundreds of thousands more could still be saved.
And then it didn’t happen. Let me be clear, COVID-19 is not ‘just the flu’. It has a higher death rate, it spreads more easily and it preys on a population that, for now, has not had time to build up immunity. Once again, for the avoidance of doubt, COVID is real, COVID is new, COVID is dangerous. But the simple fact is that based on the justifications given at the time, the lockdowns were simply not necessary. The health service would not have been overwhelmed, bodies would not have had to be hurled into pits. We know this because it didn’t happen in Sweden or Belarus ,where, for whatever reason,the government resisted the continent-wide rush to lockdown. So all the people who had been denied the right to sit with a dying relative or attend their funeral, the people who had had their cancer screenings cancelled, the millions who had lost their jobs or business had done so on a miscalculation. It is true that some lives were saved by the lockdown, though the correlation between lockdown severity and fatality rates is far from simple, but the lockdowns were not initially justified on that basis.
Once you have crossed certain lines, however, it is very hard to admit that you did so for anything other than the utmost need. Sending armed police to break up a playdate is a big line to cross and lines like these were crossed thousands of times a day for months on end. In order to justify the lockdowns retrospectively and further lockdowns going forward, therefore, a new moral doctrine had to be introduced, one that has become difficult to challenge in public, but which has not gone through the formality of being explicitly stated and debated. I will try to formulate this doctrine as succinctly and fairly as possible:
Each individual has a moral obligation to ensure that his or her body does not become a vector for the transmission of a disease that somewhere down the line of transmission may kill or injure someone, even if this requires significant hardship, restriction of civil liberties, and economic ruin.
At this stage, I need to choose my words very carefully. I do not want to dispute the correctness of this doctrine, I am not, after all, an ethicist or moral philosopher. I only want to state what is unequivocally true, namely that this is a new moral doctrine that almost no-one held as recently as January. Up until then, people viewed respiratory illnesses as a feature of nature scarcely more in our control than the tides. Of course, it is sad that a certain proportion of people die from them every year and we look after the sick as best we can. To suggest that our duty to protect life extends further than wearing a coat when it’s cold or blowing our nose into a tissue was, however, not a feature of our moral universe.
The simple fact is that, until this year, the very same people who are castigating Charedim for their cruelty and callousness were willing to put up with a large number of people dying as an acceptable cost of leading their normal life. Every time you have ever gone to a restaurant, to a wedding, or to the gym during a flu season, you have been willing ‘to murder grandma’ for your own private, unnecessary pleasure. It used to be OK, now it is not.
Now, the mere fact that a doctrine is new does not demonstrate that it is false. There is ample precedent across history for restricting the range of death that we consider acceptable collateral damage. It used to be perfectly normal for respectable upstanding citizens to have a few glasses of wine or beer with dinner and then drive home, now it isn’t. I, along with most people, think that this has been a change for the better. However, I do at least recognise that it was a change and that not everyone who was a bit slow on the uptick was a fundamentally bad person who deserved to be charged with violating the most basic moral values.
And that, for me, is the nub. If you believe that The Expanding Circle of mankind’s moral sentiments is having another welcome expansion, by all means, argue your case. Let us hear no more, however, of the ludicrous fiction that Charedim, by not signing on to this moral great leap forward, have gone mad. Let us hear no more superficial comparisons to very different measures taken historically in response to leprosy or cholera. Let us hear no more cries of pikuach nefesh as if it is a magic incantation that, without further argument, justifies any conceivable intrusions into normal daily life. Shutting down the ordinary functioning of society to stop the spread of respiratory illnesses may be a great leap forward for humanity, but it is not a bedrock value of historical Judaism. Please, can we stop being surprised that a traditionalist religious community has not signed up to a revolutionary moral doctrine no-one had heard of last year?
I could here point out, as others have, the greater difficulties that Charedim face during lockdown. They have larger families and (in Israel at least) little room to keep them, their ordinary lifestyle is more communal, they can’t just watch Netflix all day. It’s also true that Charedim have a different scale of values to those around them and so accord the same status to prayer with a minyan that others accord only to nail salons. All that is true, but it misses the point. While Charedim were slow off the mark during the first wave of lockdowns, the vast majority of them by Pesach were keeping it no less strictly than the general population because they were genuinely terrified by the prospect of a landscape strewn with corpses. But now they are not scared, just like the vast majority of people are not scared, and they do not accept the doctrine that they are morally obligated to radically change their life in order to control the spread of a respiratory disease with a survival rate of 99.34%. If that shocks and appalls you then fine, but try to remember that not too long ago you believed the exact same thing.
All the deep-dives and think-pieces purporting to discover underlying psychological, spiritual, and political motives for the lack of Charedi social distancing are quite superfluous. Once we regain our sense of perspective, the reason Charedim aren’t complying with the new normal proves to be straightforward enough: they don’t want to and they don’t see any good reason why they should. I want to emphasise that this is an explanation, not an excuse, for two reasons. First of all, I repeat that I am not passing judgement on whether the new global doctrine about combating respiratory illness is correct. It is quite possible that it is a change like the abolition of slavery that, while generating no shortage of upheaval in the short term, will come to be seen as so obvious that no decent person thinks to regret it. In this case, Charedim are on the wrong side of history in a very serious way.
There is, however, a second reason why I believe that the Charedi community’s response is wrong even if annual social distancing proves not to be a great moral revolution, but one of humanity’s many false starts. We need to realise that we don’t live in an autonomous zone in Eastern Europe, nor are we tiny communities that everyone else is happy to ignore. We have massive kehilos in global financial centers like London and New York, and, in Israel, represent a significant and growing proportion of the population. The democratic system allows us to express our views, as it does of the significant minority of non-Jews who also believe in some form of lockdown scepticism. What this system does not allow is for us simply to run our own health policy. Even if letting the virus run its course while trying to protect the vulnerable is the right policy, we can’t just do it on our own, let the hospitals cope with it, and not expect to generate huge animosity.
For too long, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can have all the benefits of self-rule, with all the lack of responsibility of golus at the same time. So far the answer to ‘what are the goyim/chilonim going to do about it?’ has always been ‘nothing much’, but this won’t be the answer for ever.
When this is all over, the world faces a series of difficult conversations. I have entertained the possibility that the new doctrine will become well established and that opposition to it will in the future be seen as bizarre, even perverse. However, the opposite is also possible. In the 1920s, eugenics was considered by decent, respectable people to be an indispensable tool of public health; only reactionary stick in the muds and religious fanatics disagreed. Sometimes backwards obscurantists get the last laugh. More likely, though, we will decide that some measures were worth it and some weren’t. I suspect that wearing face masks on public transport during winter will seem as routine in the future as it does in many Asian countries already. By contrast, I think we will look back on the fact that the general population was placed under house arrest for months as a sort of bad dream. Those who are flinging holy jeremiads at the Charedi community should prepare themselves for the possibility that when the dust settles, lockdown scepticism will look more right than wrong.
Those of us within the Charedi community, though, will have to face a perhaps even more difficult conversation: how are we actually going to act in the future as citizens of large and growing minorities in democratic countries? Because if one thing seems certain it is that if our relationship with authority continues to be characterised by this kind of open petulance and disregard for the law, we will soon enough get our comeuppance. We may be right, we may be wrong, but either way we are certainly not being smart.