‘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.
49 thoughts on “Old Habits Die Hard”
I am sorry to see someone who I respected posting this.
“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” is a wilful mischaracterisation of the public health policy being followed, as wel.
“Further, strange as it may seem, Charedim attach the same significance to prayer with a minyan that Reform Jews do to BLM marches.” is just offensive nonsense.
If you live in the UK you have a secular and religious duty to obey the secular law and that is the end of the story so far as compliance with COVID regulations is concerned.
More generally, the situation is exactly as you say it is not: large parts of the chareidi world have simply gone stark raving bonkers because they will not give up their superficial social habits in order to save life. They have shown themselves to believe in nothing but self-gratification. I don’t know who they pray to in their illegal minyonim, but it certainly isn’t to any God in whom I believe or would ever want to believe.
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With respect, I find it concerning – frightening even – that a man in your position, and one so firmly ensconced within the governing class of this country, would respond with such reflexive derision. Even if my argument is totally incorrect, I would expect some explanation as to why and, surely, any fair reading of my article must include a recognition that I have clearly and unambiguously stated that I believe Charedim must obey the law of the land.
It is also disturbing to me that someone with such influence inside the Jewish community is so insistent on refusing to understand his fellow Jews (assuming that you are gracious enough to extend to them such a designation) and instead seems stubbornly resolved on condemning them as morally worthless.
I haven’t been blessed with your moral certainty, nor do I possess your contempt for those who have different ethical assumptions, but I am fairly sure that the best way to deal with those who have a different point of view is to try to understand where they are coming from, not to write them off as mentally ill. I have my doubts about the wisdom of the new ethical doctrine of respiratory illnesses and one of them is that I fear it will become a tool of the perennial human urge to dress hatred and pride in the robes of righteousness.
Dear R’ Spitzer,
‘… a recognition that I have clearly and unambiguously stated that I believe Charedim must obey the law of the land.’
But that is exactly what you have NOT done !
You suggested that someone who drank a half bottle of wine, and then drove home and crashed and killed a family soon after the drink-drive laws were tightened, should be viewed with sympathy and a ‘look-the-other-way’ approach and forgiven, as the laws were after all ‘new’.
You have made clear that in your opinion, the current Corona law may very well be a complete ass (although you have hedged mightily, and left open a possibility that it is not so).
The effect of what you have actually written is to leave the reader believing that you are a strong Corona skeptic – I don’t think you meant to do this, but you have.
The tone of your writing presses this, even though a legal reading of your words may not.
Just as in spoken speech, where the tone of speech is heard and the actual words ignored if contradictory, here the reading-between-the-lines is much louder than the fine argument you have written.
Are you able to amend the article you wrote, and add an explicit statement that you believe strongly that despite what you have written elsewhere, you believe that Charedim must now obey the Corona laws of the land ?
I am not going to say much here because I doubt that we can sensibly have a constructive discussion in this form. I will make a couple of points in reply to yours, and if you would like to discuss thoroughly please call me and I would very much welcome the opportunity to talk.
Yes, moral certainty and pride and hatred are common companions; the latter two are always to be eschewed, and the first is to be handled with great care and applied rarely. But I think it can and should be applied in condemning without reservation or prevarication those parts of the chareidi communities who appear to have taken leave of their senses when it comes to reacting to a pandemic.
Your attempt at equivocation, while I am sure it was completely well-intentioned, is dangerous if it gives encouragement to those on the edge of a chareidi community who are wondering whether or not they are behaving properly.
Many of the comments on your article here appear to be from people who, like me, have enormous admiration for what you have achieved as a commentator on the Jewish world and by your dedication to the world of education in the face of enormous obstacles; there seems to be a common theme for some here of sadness that on this one you have … (searching for a phrase that says it like it is without seeming to be offensive for the sake of it …) lost the plot, or got out of your depth. I think a simple admission that, for example, your throwaway comment about Reform Jews and Black Lives Matter was ill-judged would go a long way to restoring my faith in your dispassionate wisdom, something we are in much need of today and always.
With good wishes,
The laws of the land find that it is safe and proportionate to shop in garden centers, but unsafe and disproportionate to exercise one’s Article 9 rights in a scientifically identical setting in one’s own garden.
‘”If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.”’
Look here i respect what you are saying as every one is allowed to decide for their self whats right and whats wrong, But its not like we ignore it as if nothing is going (maybe you are not much in shul so you dont notice) there is hand soap all around and most of the people (try their best to) keep soical distance
This was an absolutely terible article, a big fall from your usual high standards, replete with errors and disengenuity, all designed to defend the indefensible.
When I have more time I will post a few examples.
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1. “haredim attach the same significance to prayer with a minyan that Reform Jews do to BLM marches”
The jibe is mean-spirited, but more fundamentally, just a bit of whataboutery. It does not advance the argument.
2. “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%.”
Firstly – wearing a mask, and observing more prominent social distancing while engaged in private payer, is hardly a “radical change of life”.
Secondly – the survival rate in old people is far lower than 99%
Thirdly – they may not need to follow the doctrine from a moral perspective, but certainly from a Halachic one, where one may not even adjust the pillow of a Goseis, and Sofeik Pikuach Nefesh is treated very seriously, one definitely needs to prevent the spread of a disease lethal in old people
The messenger is magical and the message although very eloquently written, is much too drawn out and rather repetitive. Shorter and concise would make it truely reader friendly.
And this is what has become of discourse in 2020. Elegantly crafted elision from the material point. Of course you’ll pretend not to have a view, like you did with Ms Spielman, and like Ms Spielman did with you, but of course you, and she, have a point of view. You just don’t want to take responsibility for it.
Controversially, I entirely agree with your assessment of the hubris, the Canute pretensions of a modern state and modern medical system trying to hold back an old fashioned force of nature. I bluntly don’t think it’s worth it, not on the NICE £30,000 per life year criteria, and I don’t think it’s sustainable, healthy for civic society, and I don’t think it is the business of private citizens to undergo a form of house arrest, or private business owners rudely deemed “inessential” to risk loosing their means of support in order to save the NHS and its staff. If critical care facilities and personnel are overwhelmed materially and psychologically, it is because NHS leaders are insisting on fighting the medical equivalent of the Battle of Britain solely using the pilots, facilities and airplanes in service in 1938. People with a limited amount of medical training must and will become the backbone of the response to a once in a generation event, and yes, people will die, because, yes, there is a generational event ongoing with an unstoppable momentum which will evolve according to a familiar pattern, before waning back into a ubiquitous seasonal disease.
I happily broke the law davenning in the rain, 10 metres from the next mispallel, in Hendon, while wearing a mask this shabbos. And I would happily do so again. The government and the police should be extremely cautious of interfering in religious practices, even in 2020.
But this is eliding the point. It’s not a binary choice – full lockdown or nothing. There are areas in between where more could and should have been done.
Does it really hurt so much to wear a mask (despite the weak evidence on efficacy) in the shops and shuls?
Did you really need to hold a chulent kiddush for a barmitzvah?
Did you really need to get drunk and dance in close contact (with or without a mask) on Simchas Torah? Was that particular minhag really proportionate to the risk you took in spreading a disease with a 20% mortality rate in the over 80s, and a 5% prevalence of respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological and psychological sequelae (“long Covid”)?
Does it really hurt to vaccinate children against MMR? Why is Agguda of America unwilling to support vaccination?
Did you really need to hold an indoors shalom zochor or l’chaim in 2020?
Did you really need to artificially pump up negative test results with stupid campaigns?
Is a communal se’uda shlishis really proportionate at a time when old age homes are shut and people cannot meet their relatives for months? You couldn’t have eaten and learned at home?
Is it a coincidence that Charedi communities are red spots on the map in Israel, London and New York?
No it is not. And it’s not because Charedim are “lockdown sceptics”. That is importing a whole set of values and prejudices which are alien to the Charedi mindset. People in Stamford Hill and Golders Green know that in large part the reason that people in Stamford Hill and Golders Green didn’t keep to rules because people in Stamford Hill and Golders Green are entitled with the inalienable sense that rules don’t apply to them.
There is a glaring deficit, a chissaron. In menschlichkeit, in basic decency, in sensitivity to the wider national community, and most glaringly in literacy and education. None of which can come as a surprise to the author of this blog.
First of all, the vast majority of criticism of Charedim regarding Covid is premised on the assumption that lockdown measures are obviously right and that therefore anyone who disobeys them is thus obviously immoral. My basic point is that the burden of proof lies on those who demand adherence to a new and radical concept of moral obligation. I have stayed formally neutral because it’s not my job to argue a negative.
You, however, are making a different and more subtle point, which is that even if lockdowns are nutty, what Charedim are doing is still wrong. Your examples boil down to points. The first is that you can’t just ignore the law and what everyone else is doing just because you don’t like it. I agree and I said that in the article. The second is that even if Covid doesn’t justify shutting down society, we should respond with some relatively easy measures in response to the higher threat level. I agree and I said so in the article.
Occam’s Razor suggests you just didn’t read the article very carefully before commenting. However, perhaps there is a deeper reason. I suggest that your real motivation is not a balanced lockdown-scepticism-scepticism, but, basically, “why are these savage Charedim embarrassing me with their uncouth disregard for prevailing moral fashions?”. I’ll be honest, I have felt this too, but I worked hard to excise it before writing this article because it clouds the judgment and, because it is an ignoble sentiment that only becomes more ignoble the more you try to dress it up in the language of moral denunciation.
In this case Occam’s Razor is partially correct. I read your reply in full while writing my own, furious, like most of your respondents. Furious at the lack of “noseh b’ol im chavero” attitude on show, and only reached the bits where you acknowledged PR difficulties in the end.
But the issue is not PR. This is not lockdown scepticism, even of the impeccably sourced Spiegelhalter variety. Why was I furious?
Partially everyone is furious these days: for my own part in which I apologise.
And partially the difference between making a reasonable and balanced effort and being offensively flippant while the elderly die is measured in the proliferation of small things. It was the herring at shalishidis, the chulent served at the Barmitzva, the shmuzzing over whisky on simchas torah, that sticks in the craw.
Charedim do not their own health policy, any more than they have a child protection policy or a poverty policy or an education policy. This is just the standard chaotic mess where individual sechel and communal leadership – that is to say, a functioning and resilient society – would have been expected to be.
I am English and converted to Judaism and I also don’t agree with blindly following English law. Many English think in similar ways, not a minority as Mr Spitzer says in his article. Like you I agree that people don’t need to brazenly break the law and have large gatherings. Nevertheless, I was astounded that the UK government shut down schools for 5 months.
I was also shocked by the attitudes of Jews, some have been so self righteous and calling people ‘murderers’ if they do x,y and z. Also, saying stay away from me and my family with your bad attitude. I have argued endlessly with these types. I don’t know of any other religious leaders in other religions who have said that going out during lockdown or without a mask, makes a person a murderer! I am interested in this particular religious view and textual evidence regarding this. I found it very perplexing and actually off putting. It also makes me laugh that all these more well to do people love the fact about staying at home, thinking they are saving the world and living in nice surroundings. Then calling out others when they live in small places and no gardens.
I have suffered for years before COVID 19, so it didn’t make much difference to my life. It was interesting to see all those with dream lives to suddenly have to suffer for once. If anything, my life is slowly improving. Like after the Bubonic plague, the population was depleted and the people who were left became the landowners.
I try not to follow the ‘elites’ in any society as I don’t like them and I am against upper class elitists and their ways. They always makesure that they have nice houses, good jobs, investments in PPE, vaccines, etc. So stuff them and their rules for the plebs.
This article has reversed the quality of all your previous pieces. It is a feeble set of points many of which have no medical basis to defend the indefensible.
Surely the elephant in the room is that the reason the charedi Community have failed to comply is because it does not suit their lifestyle and desire to act as they wish no matter what is going on around them.
No one in this country can flout the law of the land even if they don’t agree with it. So should we not pay tax because we don’t agree with it? Should we commit assault because we think we were justified?
Sorry Eli – we expected better of you.
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I enjoyed reading your beautifully composed article. Your conclusion hits the nail on the head. Whatever the rights or wrongs, (religiously, socially, morally etc) of this episode, which is still to play out in full, we cannot afford “open petulance and disregard for the law”. It is this that appears to have alienated the non-charedi community.
When Covid related death and illness stare in the face and people still carry on their lives without taking any precautionary measures whatsoever, there cannot be any justification for this “don’t care’ish” and utterly selfish attitude.
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R’ Eli Spitzer,
All the respect you have previously built up has been destroyed with this article.
With three phrases, ‘Sweden’, ‘Belarus’ and ‘only 6 people dying in every 1,000 (99.34%)’ you have built up a pseudo-scientific argument that is fatally flawed, and lethal.
The whole premise of your otherwise well-constructed and well-written article is the proof from these three phrases.
And yet you do not mention ‘New Zealand’, nor ‘Taiwan’, nor ‘South Korea’, etc., all countries where tens of thousands of people have NOT died and are NOT going to die.
Why is that ?
And your quoting a mortality statistic from a BMJ article published in April 2020 (99.34%), when the virus was still new and largely unknown and data scarce, is alarming. Why not use a much better and more current statistical medical source, which are all much, much higher estimates ?
Until Corona, I never understood how the Egel Hazohov could occur immediately after HKB’H’s revelation at Har Sinai. It seemed nonsense – humans could not be so dishonest with themselves so quickly.
But Corona has been a living proof that we can.
Now, I have lived through such a period, going through the Yomim Norayim and seeing so many people singing in Shul together. I am no longer astonished by the Egel Hazohov.
Dovening in a Shul at the moment is clearly Avodah Zorah.
People choose to be ignorant, and clutch at straws claiming since they use ‘hand sanitzer’ and ‘socially distance’ in Shul so they must be OK. But none of these can save you from a chance of Corona, even wearing a mask, if you are in a tent or building for a substantial amount of time with others, and all the more so (hundreds of times more) when singing or chanting are occurring. Even being outdoors with one person loudly chanting or singing has a considerable risk of spread.
Any prayer which is halachicaly forbidden is Avodah Zorah – even when well intentioned – see Nodov and Avihu, and numerous other examples. This is unquestionable.
Now nearly all the people Dovening in Shuls today would not eat a peeled egg left overnight – they would be repulsed by the idea. Because the Gemarah says that it is dangerous.
Even though millions of people today (including some Jews) eat eggs left peeled overnight, without any danger occurring.
And yet these very same people who are so, so machmir about peeled eggs, disregard the same mitzvah when they Doven in Shul – with a much bigger risk of danger, and a sizeable risk of death to others.
We were taught that one minute of life is eternal. That is why we fight so hard in hospitals to keep life going. Those are Torah values. And yet those committing Avodah Zorah through dangerous prayer when HKB’H commanded against it are doing just the opposite. Years of life are being taken away from those dying. If they lived in Taiwan or New Zealand, they would be alive.
This prayer is so clearly real Avodah Zorah, however well intentioned.
We know that prayer releases the same chemicals in the brain as drug addicts release when they take drugs. We have a yearning need to pray.
If prayer is halachicaly forbidden, then it is a test – and we are failing and dying !
Prayer in a Shul today, where there is a significant risk of death to oneself or others, is Avodah Zorah – pure and simple.
And as to whether there is a significant risk of death to yourself or importantly to others, or not, the Gemarah informs us that we ask the doctors. Please go and ask them.
One last point – the Gemarah states that any Government rule passed for the protection of the population has the force of a D’Ryiysa – Dina DeMalchusah Dina.
Another reason why prayer today in a Shul is clearly halachically Avodah Zorah.
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“This prayer is so clearly real Avodah Zorah, however well intentioned.”
Please quote a posek before making such statements.
There are many qualified Rabbanim who clearly hold that prayer in a Shul is not Avodah Zoroh.
You are correct – There are many Poskim who have given a Psak that this is OK.
More so, there are many Poskim who are actively facilitating this behaviour themselves, and that distresses me greatly.
When the Posek-giving Rav himself is singing that haunting familiar beautiful Yom Tov Nigun in Shul on Rosh Hashonah, with many packed with him into a tent joining in, then even though most are wearing masks and are a little (but not a lot) socially distanced, a thinking person could not help wonder how many would eventually die early due to this deeply yearned for experience.
If even one, was it allowed ?
Chezky, have you ever read Nach, and wondered again and again that there were seemingly multiple Neviyim (Prophets) in those days, and again and again we see that often the majority were false prophets that many people followed and listened to, whilst the true minority prophets were disparaged and laughed at.
I am not for a second comparing now with then, as we cannot compare today’s generation with those times when Neviyim were alive.
But have you never wondered how so many of our fathers then could follow the majority false Neviyim – believing they were the genuine article – when there were real true Neviyim available, then being disparaged and mocked at that time ? (even if they were the minority).
I apologise if I appeared to you to be giving a Psak – I absolutely was not. I am allowed to have an opinion based on my knowledge and my own investigation, even if it differs from yours (I hope your version of Yidishkeit allows me that). When I said “This prayer is so clearly real Avodah Zorah” I was expressing my personal opinion as I see it in a reply section to a blog, and not in any way giving a Psak. Sorry if this was not clear. My position is not without support of rabbinical Psak (even if a minority Psak unfortunately).
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I’m in total agreement with most of the comments above – this is pure apologetics. As you state at the beginning of the article, you aren’t really entitled to an opinion on the matter, and nor are any of the rest of the charedi population. In fact, even Boris Johnson who a mere few weeks ago said a second lockdown must be avoided at all costs, resigned himself to a second lockdown. The job of epidemiologists, public health authorities and politicians is to evaluate the risk benefit ratio of any action taken to fight this pandemic based on myriads of factors which we are only slightly privy to based on a few press conferences. And the experts in the matter are clear that without a lockdown we are heading for an overwhelmed health care system, which was the case in Italy during the first wave and in fact was the case in the UK too. It is true there were beds to spare in the hospital, but anyone over the age of 65 was not considered for Intensive Care treatment and so was left to die on the wards due to the sheer numbers of Covid-19 patients.
The gemara is very clear that when dever bo lo’ir you need to lock down, and we learnt this the hard way in the first wave with 40,000 deaths (plus all those who weren’t tested) and a huge proportion in the Jewish community. Our elderly relatives who we purport to venerate are being left to suffer through either being shielded or infected.
Frankly, charedi Jews are a considerable contributing factor for the current lockdown and you personify the issue by down-playing the need for it yourself and writing with more authority than you actually possess.
It is perfectly easy to run a shul and beis hamedrash in a Covid-19 friendly way, as many shuls in Hendon did during the summer. Alas that privilege has been stripped from our community by the fools in the shuls further to the right than the Dayan’s.
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I think your comment perfectly demonstrates the new moral radicalism that I was trying to gently deflate in my article. In my humble opinion, the fact that government policy has changed so dramatically in the past few weeks demonstrates not the scientific certainty of the lockdown doctrine, but rather the chaotic nature of the new orthodoxy, and the role played in it by hysterical moral hectoring. I, speaking as the citizen of a democracy, do not want to live in a world where drastic alterations to daily life are made by a small clique of academics whose calculations we are ‘only slightly privy to’ and in response to which we ‘are not entitled’ to have an opinion.
Your attempt to synthesise the new moral doctrine with Judaism, I’m afraid, falls flat on its face. The Mishnah (Ta’anis 3:4) states that the definition of a plague is three men dying, one each on consecutive days, in a city of 500. The Rishonim states that this excludes women, children, the elderly and everyone except healthy military-age males. I invite you to run the figures for yourself, and you will find that nowhere in the world has COVID even come within an order of magnitude of meeting the Talmudic definition of דבר. Moreover, the gemara does not advocate a ‘lockdown’, it demands that all economic activity stop so that people can pack themselves into the town square (unmasked) and fast! Try finding a public health authority that advocates that! The Gemara in Bava Kama talks about individuals not leaving the house but clearly to protect themselves, not others. (Note, I am not saying that we should simply read off our response to COVID from the gemara in a fundamentalist fashion, but it is necessary to refute these wildly dishonest “Jewish” arguments for lockdown as and when they are brought up.)
Which unelected scientists and doctors should control basic freedoms of assembly, religion, and freedom of movement? The same advisors who sanctioned the Chelmsford Festival when the Italian Army were trucking corpses through the streets of Lombardy? The geniuses who discouraged mask wearing in April? Those bright sparks who cleared out infectious patients from the hospitals into the old age homes? The wise men and women who sparked a mini spike with their latest lockdown? The know it alls who are still discouraging the elderly and vulnerable from wearing N95 masks? The visionaries who predicted 4,000 deaths a day two weeks ago?
I’m not blaming the doctors for rejecting steroids therapies; for treating intubation as an AGP and running away from patients in cardiac arrest; for encouraging people to wash their hands raw for fear of largely none existent fomites; for mismanaging hydration and blood clotting in April. It was counter intuitive and they couldn’t be expected to know more than what they did know about managing novel coronavirus 2019 – that is to say, diddly squat.
What I do blame many, many doctors for is failing is where they are still failing: lacking humility. The same GP who was found in April spouting state propaganda against masks uncritically in the WhatsApp groups is now unabashedly and without explanation propagandising profusely in the opposite direction. Another acute care consultant fancies himself as an ineffable epidemiologist, and scoffs at the idea that numerate rubes might have legitimate questions about the quality of the evidence supporting their internment without trial.
We may have clapped for the NHS in April but not many are still clapping now, and that’s no criticism of the dedicated and wonderful nurses and HCAs who have actually been on the front lines with desperately ill patients.
Doctors don’t seem to have got it so I will spell it out for them: the public is increasingly of the opinion that further ‘care’ of the lockdown variety is brutal, unethical, and futile, and have begun increasingly withdrawing their compliance and consent.
The Science (TM) is, properly understood, often nuanced, equivocal, and inconclusive. It does not and cannot balance health, economic, moral, sociological and legal factors. We elect politicians to make the kind of unscientific, intuitive decisions based on fragmentary and sometimes contradictory evidence that often need making in the Real World (TM).
Talking of politicians, we are blessed not just with a genuinely world beating incompetent in number 10, but around him a coterie of oleaginous, politicised scientific advisors, desperately scrambling to rescue the reputation they lost in March at the expense of scientific rigour in November.
None of which excuses the “poresh atzmon min hatzibur” fecklessness on show tonight in a shtiebel near you.
There is no new concept of moral obligation when its comes to the public health. What has changed is that before the middle of the 19th century, the greatest scientists were in general God fearing as were most educated men, in the later half of the 19th century, post Darwin less so and by the 20th century rarely so.
In 2020, society expects its chief epidemiologists to be secular and rationalist. In other words to be atheists or at least agnostic. Society would find it as shocking for a chief epidemiologist to declare himself as committed to Christianity as Edward Jenner was back in 1800 as polite late nineteenth century society were shocked when scientists declared themselves to be agnostics. Professor Ferguson and Sweden’s Dr Tegnell may disagree on the science but one thing they do share is no interest in religion.
When it comes to government policy, ‘following the science’ mean ignoring those who reject science i.e. the religious. I realise I am being very blunt but that is the how it is. British Society is secular and sees religion as irrelevant if not harmful when it comes to public health. Saying that the state should be wary of interfering in religious practice even at the expense of public health means as little to the general public as saying that the state should be wary in interfering in the public’s enjoyment of sport or theatre even at the expense of public health
It’s all very well attacking unelected scientists for not providing immediate answers but they never claimed to be able to do that. They have however after a heroic effort triumphed in that vaccines are on the way.
The Covid hot spots in Brooklyn, Jerusalem and Stamford Hill are not shocking to the public as they are to be expected. As far as the public (including mainstream Jews) are concerned, if the Ultra Orthodox started following the science and being rational, they would cease being Ultra Orthodox.
In fact the scientists have been entirely unscientific. At various times they have presented speculative opinions on mask wearing, modelled deaths, effectiveness of lockdowns, whether to continue track and trace, whether to quarantine travellers, how many metres separation is safe, and even whether sharing a Lulav is advisable, to name but a few areas. The quality of the scientific evidence supporting all these assertions (which remains low in almost all cases) has never been communicated.
I could send you video clips of the deputy CMO, Dr J Harris, confidently and without qualification discouraging the public from wearing masks, informing the public that the UK health system was so superior that tracing could be abandoned, and weighing in on the permissibility of trips to Barnard Castle. I could send you video clips of the CNO presenting ridiculous death figures to the nation which were falsifiable when presented.
All of which were politically convenient, *lacked scientific evidence at the time asserted*, and took the British people for mugs.
The fundamentally human sociology of any hierarchy – scientists or Rabbis – is never as ethereal as their believers make out.
I have a huge amount of respect for you and especially for the fact that ordinarily you don’t tow the charedi line but here you have fallen foul of the classic charedi 3 pronged approach of deny the science, claim conspiracy theories and find Torah sources to prove your agenda. Undoubtedly these are all linked.
With regards to the science, it is true that things haven’t been explained clearly at times, and there have been significant mistakes particularly from the UK bodies. But it is arrogant to brush aside the advice of every public health body in the world and to assume you know better. These people literally train their entire careers for these kinds of incidents. Of course, this doesn’t make them ethicists, and their opinions must be weighed up by the people we elect to make important decisions for us and balanced with the numerous other factors involved in dealing with a crisis. One can’t cry ‘democracy’ during a public health crisis, because your actions have a direct impact on everyone around you.
The conspiracy theories during this crisis have been as rife as expected and normally this involves cherry-picking of statistics as you have done in your article. Still nobody knows the true prevalence, death rate or chronic illness rate of this disease. It appears to be a lower prevalence than we first thought but it is still unclear. What is clear is that it is a highly contagious, deadly disease, particularly in the elderly and vulnerable, and we are learning more and more about the long-term complications it is resulting in.
And Torah: you and I both know that there are gedolei yisroel from across the spectrum of orthodoxy who know far more than us who speak about this pandemic as a dever, invoke the gemoro in BK, and insist that scientific advice is followed. It is wonderful that you have found a source that you can teitch in to deny that here but it doesn’t make it any less of a Jewish value to recognise a pandemic and react accordingly. And no, in this case it isn’t davening in the street, it is following the advice of those who know best and davening at home or in a Covid-friendly minyan when allowed. Again you have a cute explanation of the gemoro in BK to suit your agenda (although that didn’t even really make sense – we are staying home to protect ourselves) but it is highly charedi to work backwards from your decision and avail yourself of religious responsibility on a technicality.
The bottom line is that there are now broadly 2 types of people in the UK – sensible people who recognise and respect the need to continue fighting this pandemic despite their weariness perhaps leading to some laxity in the rules, and those less sensible who dismiss the need and are happy for the vulnerable and the NHS to take the hit. There are many people across the UK in category B, but it doesn’t cause as much of an issue as with charedim. Charedim live in close proximity, convene for tefilo 3 times a day, enjoy a tisch and sholosh seudos, have large lavish weddings of the entire neighbourhood and send all their kids to the same schools. And it is easy to identify them as one group. So it is no surprise that when they don’t respect the rules they create hotspots which get talked about. One would hope that Jews would fall into the sensible category, and bH many do, but too many have shown themselves up in this crisis and it has led to chillul Hashem of epic proportions.
Again I would like to express my admiration towards you and I hope that in future I can better understand your positions.
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Sorry, George, but I don’t know what article you are reading. I haven’t denied science, I haven’t appealed to a conspiracy theory and I haven’t attempted to find Torah sources for mine or anyone else’s agenda. My argument once again is that:
1) Current public health policy is predicated on a moral doctrine according to which people who have little to no risk of dying from a disease must nevertheless drastically alter their life in order to ensure that they don’t pass it on to someone, who might pass it on to someone, who might pass it on to someone else who might die.
2) This moral doctrine was not held by either public health authorities nor the general public as recently as January. This is evidenced both by their initial response to COVID-19 and by their response to seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses every single year.
3)This doctrine, if followed at all consistently, amounts to one of the great social upheavals of history.
4) The most parsimonious reason why some people are not joining in with social distancing is that they do not accept this moral doctrine.
5) The burden of proof, and at the very least the burden of charitable forbearance, lies on those who want to propagate the new doctrine.
Finally, I am not aware of gedolei yisroel who use the gemara in Bava Kama to justify ongoing lockdowns. I do not understand why they would do say that since, first, COVID-19 has never come anywhere close to meeting the halachic definition of a דבר and, secondly, because the gemara in Bava Kama is talking about not leaving the house when doing so poses an imminent threat to your life, and the entire premise of lockdowns is that I must not leave the house even though I am not in danger by doing so. However, if you can refer me to some statements of this sort, I would, of course, be very grateful.
For someone who admits to not 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”, you have a very definitive opinion on what light the Swedish experience can shed on UK lockdown policies (needless to say, one that it disputed by many who do have the relevant expertise). This article is terrible for all the reasons enumerated in the previous comments and more, which is a real shame given your previous contributions.
Quote from one of the scientists interviewed on last night’s BBC documentary (Lockdown 1.0 Following the Science?): “Had lockdown been imposed a week earlier we might have avoided about half the number of deaths”. He may be correct or he may not be, but the assertion that the lockdown has been decisively demonstrated to have been unnecessary by someone without the relevant expertise is just ignorant bluster.
Whilst there is much in Eli Spitzer’s blog that is worth reading and it is worth listening to a reasoned defence of the Charedi community’s response to COVID-19, there are several inaccuracies than need correcting.
“The simple fact is that based on the justifications given at the time, the lockdowns were simply not necessary.” This is not a fact. It is an opinion and one that many would not agree with. It is a problem faced whenever one does something to try to prevent something terrible from happening – if it is successful people will say it was not necessary. One might say “Shul security is not necessary because there has never been a massacre in a shul in England”. The second part of that statement is a fact, but the whole sentence is not. We will never know whether it is only thanks to the security that has been in place that there has been no massacre. Similarly, people think “measles vaccination is not necessary because it has been years since large numbers of people died from measles”. Here we know with some certainty that in the absence of vaccination thousands would have died from measles over the last 20 years.
The fact is that many hospitals in England were not coping. Intensive care units were completely full with patients with COVID-19. All non-emergency surgery was cancelled to concentrate on treating those with COVID-19. The number of people dying each day was nearly double what it was before COVID-19 struck. One can argue about the nature of the lockdown and I certainly don’t think the government got it all right, but I don’t accept as fact that without something major like lockdown the death toll in April would not have been substantially greater.
“The health service would not have been overwhelmed, bodies would not have had to be hurled into pits.” Many hospitals were overwhelmed. I know that at one point there was indeed a backlog of bodies waiting to be buried at one Jewish cemetery in London. On April 10th, the BBC reported that mass graves were used in New York. The video shows dozens of coffins in a large trench with more being brought by fork-lift truck.
“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.” This is clearly untrue. I doubt if there was a single instance of armed policy breaking up a play date in the UK. Certainly, there were not thousands of such incidents each day. Police may have broken up illegal weddings on a few occasions. But I know of far more illegal gatherings that took place without incident than of gatherings that were asked to disperse. A visit by police to a shop or a shul to check that they are managing okay with social distancing does not constitute crossing a line in my book.
“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.“ I am no expert, but I don’t think this is correct. Rav Moshe Feinstein famously prohibited smoking around others as the smoke was considered a mazik to them. His prohibition against smoking in the bet hamidrash applies if there is even one person who objects. Considering Moshe Feinstein did not realise how dangerous smoking was (and so did not ban it all together), it is clear that he considers that there is a halachik imperative to be considerate and to protect the lives of others. And yet I hear stories of kodesh teachers at Jewish schools ignoring requests to wear masks or to keep their distance from more elderly staff who are anxious due to their vulnerability to COVID-19. These people are made especially uncomfortable knowing that the Rav in question not only prays in an illegal minyan every morning but also has recently been to a large wedding complete with dancing and visitors from Antwerp and Manchester.
“Let us hear no more superficial comparisons to very different measures taken historically in response to leprosy or cholera.” Why not? During a cholera outbreak in 1831, Rabbi Akiva Eger restricted the number of people praying together to 15. He was particularly keen to avoid a large crowd gathering in a small space. Why is that a superficial comparison? Why are so few charedi rabbis today standing up and encouraging their communities to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings?
“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.” Why is it okay for hatzola to work on shabbat? Why is it okay for shomrim to drive around on shabbat? The story is told of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik instructing his son to turn on a light on shabbat to help a sick patient. When asked how he could be so lenient, he replied that he was not makil on shabbat but machmir on pikuach nefesh.
Why does this matter? You may say that it is just Eli Spitzer’s engaging writing style. He is entitled to exaggerate a little to make a point. I say Jews who write blogs need to choose their words more carefully. Particularly so if they are involved in education or are a well-respected community leader. Such individuals have a moral duty to teach the truth and to be careful to be precise in their language. Children are impressionable. Teachers have a responsibility to help them to distinguish fact from fiction.
We Jews love to argue. We love to pick holes in things. We love to find loopholes. That is all fine, but if the axioms from which we argue are faulty then the conclusions we reach will be invalid. I have heard it argued that “because A is permitted it makes no sense that B is prohibited and, for that reason, I have no intention of paying attention to prohibition B”. But what happens if A is not permitted? Someone heard that A was permitted, but that came from a sloppy article or from someone who was mistaken. Playing loose with the truth can have dire consequences for society.
Dear Covid Yid,
Thanks for your comment. As I’m sure you appreciate, I couldn’t fully explain every single point without making the article too long. Nor can I do so here. However, I will answer one of them.
R’ Akiva Eiger’s rulings about cholera are irrelevant for two reasons. First, before modern rehydration therapy, cholera had a case fatality of over 50% and affected people of all ages. When people were confined to quarantine it was for their own protection, not others. A disease of the severity of Covid in that age was basically background noise. If the Rabbis then had the same standards as Rabbis today, shuls would have been shut for the entirety of the 19th century,
Secondly, cholera is not a respiratory illness and so human-to-human transmission is much harder. Quarantine has always been considered inappropriate for respiratory illnesses because the degree of distancing required is just so big. Before Covid there is only one example in human history of using social distancing to combat a respiratory disease, namely the Spanish flu. Again, the comparison is instructive. The Spanish flu was 10 times as deadly as Covid-19 and it affected young people particularly badly. Further, the measures then employed were much less severe. Their lockdowns looked like our easing-up periods. During the Hong Kong flu (1-4 million dead) and the 1957-8 flu (1 million dead), no-one mandated any form of social distancing at all. No-one called you a murderer or denied the existence of your God because you went to shul.
The simple reality is that what we are being asked to do involves a dramatic upgrade in our moral sensitivity to disease. Maybe that’s a good thing: we’re able to do more, so we do more. What concerns me, however, is that the reformers insist on maintaining that this is just an obvious application of pikuach nefesh and haranguing people who haven’t kept up as reprobates.
Eli – You’re eliding the distinction between basic precautions, such as mask wearing and avoiding hours-long crowded events, especially those with singing and dancing (such as a mitzvah tantz), with society-wide lockdowns. Avoiding the former is a no-brainer, and wearing a mask simply is simply not that severe an imposition, such that those who refuse to do have earned their condemnation ביושר.
Can I take it as a given that you have never attended a wedding during flu season and are always particular to wear a mask? I assume so because otherwise you are plainly nothing more than avodah-zarah committing, fake Jew who only worships his own self gratification. For shame.
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Chalmer – let me try to put this simply for you. Here we are discussing wearing a mask when (a) it is legally required, (b) it is an almost universally adopted measure and (c) it is intended to protect from a currently deadly disease that will soon be much less deadly given that vaccines are about to be rolled out. For context, consider that by the 12th of October, it had already killed 0.6% of Charedi men aged 65+ in Israel, vs 0.1% of non-Charedi Jewish men of the same age:
That didn’t have to happen. The deaths of R. Dovid Feinstein, the Novominsker Rebbe and countless others are not some practical joke played on us by the goyim. We did it to ourselves.
Sorry, one correction, men aged 70+, not 65+. I should add that Professor Segal is not an anti-Charedi propagandist, and is widely cited in the Charedi media.
Don’t try and wriggle out of it, J. Do you social distance and wear a mask every winter, or are your hands filled with the blood of hundreds of thousands of cold and flu victims ripped from this earth to appease your selfish desires? I don’t know how you can live knowing of all the great Rabbis dead because of you. You must be must be one sick guy, how can you call yourself a Jew?
I believe you are one of those who R’ Eli Spitzer directed his article at.
The article is called ‘Old Habits Die Hard’ and the sad pun on the word ‘die’ is only too apparent.
Corona is NOT flu, and it is NOT a cold.
It is in a different league entirely, and left unchecked, it will kill in the UK millions over time ( hundreds of thousands or millions each year).
Flu and colds do not do this. Flu leads to the death of some thousands each winter, and colds probably less than this.
Flu also has different characteristics to Corona, being more volatile and changeable and less asymptomatic, so measures specifically for Corona are not all suitable for flu.
You are bringing an argument reductio ad absurdum (an absurd argument based on an extreme which is not fitting to be used).
I can prove anything with your logic – you are entitled to your opinion, but you are not allowed to promulgate your opinion without acknowledging its basis in the absurd.
So yes, driving to Shul has a chance of killing someone by running over a pedestrian. But I still drive to Shul, because the chance is so reasonably small that my Chiyuv for Shul overrides the infinitesimally small chance. Your demanding that I stay at home because I just might run someone over is absurd. The scale does not justify it.
So to is your claim that the dangers from flu are of the same magnitude as Corona. The argument is absurd.
Oh, so now you are using conspiracy theories to justify your callous disregard for human life. That’s very Charedi of you. Official figures show 10,000s of people die every year from flu and pneumonia. Every one was a unique world with infinite possibilities, but you didn’t care enough to take even basic precautions. Disgusting. As Leyzer says, you can’t even adjust the pillow of a goseis because it’s sofeik pikuach nefesh, kal v’chomer for the vadai of killing people with your germs. All for your superficial habits! I don’t know what so-called god you pray to in your murder minyan, but it certainly isn’t Daniel Greenberg.
Hi Eli, first of all it take big courage to write about such an emotive subject at this time and you have taken the risk of putting yourself out there as a target for criticism. It is easy to criticize a charedi community watching it from the outside looking in. I believe that ones perspective of how Charedim are living life during Covid times will be experienced differently as an insider compared to that of an outsider. There are likely to be nuances to the insiders experienced that are perhaps not fully grasped by many looking in from outside. (regardless of the subjective rights and wrongs of the situation discussed the blog) The title of your article, ‘Old habits die hard’ is a clue to how you feel about this 19 Century approach of the Stamford Hill Kehillot etc to a 21 Century problem. (my words not yours) Some of the responses have focused on the parts of the article they disagree with and totally ignore your actual suggestions.
I just wanted to go on a slight tangent from Covid to an albeit related subject which is as old as the Jewish people. Jewish unity. We are one people and although it may sound like a lofty ideal for Am Yisrael to be united, how often has it happened when we are actually so? Maybe after the recent major wars in Medinat Yisrael this briefly happened , maybe in times of our greatest sorrow we felt great unity. It has historically never lasted long. We have to find a way to unite. We are one body and one soul. It p…. me off with all the finger pointing that goes on between our different communities about who’s right and who’s wrong. We are all have to take responsibility for our own personal conduct before pointing our fingers at the other side. This is a part of the human condition but ultimately it becomes destructive when we can’t go beyond our blame, suspicion and resentments. (Be they justified or not) There is the phenomenon of the different Jewish communities seeing themselves as possessing the ’emess’, the perfect formula for how to live Yiddishkeit. One group may see themselves as perhaps more superior than the other and visa versa. I am certainly guilty of it myself.
The way forward as a people does require unity rather than a sense of separation. Maintaining a mindfulness, a recognition of the ‘other’ as my Jewish brother or sister, not someone separate from myself. These are ancient Jewish concepts that we practice but it only takes a trigger, and then we a get caught up in our politics, who is right and who is wrong.
It would amazing in a utopian world where say a Jew in Borehamwood and Jew in Stamford Hill identify with one other as their very own personal brother and sister and even more controversially when an orthodox Jew and reform Jew can also find unity in what we do have in common (and believe me there is plenty in common, like the covenant with Hashem at sinai, without the fear of repercussions for doing so) The Jewish people are all the part of the same guf and neshama and when one limb or organ in that body is not working we are going to suffer or be disabled in some way. We as a people need to find a way to drop our egos a bit sometimes, even if we implicitly feel we are in the right and they in the wrong in order to hold out the hand of solidarity to our ‘not’ so separate Jewish brethren who may look different to ourselves. At the end of the day the strength of Yeshurun depends on it.
Finally to go full circle, Eli you are a force for good for the Jewish community and as a member of the Stamford Hill community, you, I am sure would love for them to have a seat at the table with the rest of the UK Jewish community. Stamford Hill Jewry has a lot to offer all of us and I believe this works the other way as well. I think we will all be better off working together and as a result be a better functioning guf.
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I absolutely agree with Daniel Greenberg. What on earth are you talking about with your comments on “a new moral doctrine that almost no-one held as recently as January”?
We are in the middle of a pandemic that has resulted in many deaths, widespread morbidity and economic meltdown. Scientists, physicians and politicians are trying, with varying degrees of success, to deal with this disaster. Some of their measures have turned out to be appropriate and others have not, but these have been, for the most part, put forward in good faith (at least in the UK) despite concerns on competence, which is a different issue.
One thing is for sure – this is nothing whatsoever to do with “moral doctrines”. Any community which ignores public health legislation will pay a major price not only in resulting deaths, which we have already seen, but also in long-term illnesses and disability. Additionally the reputation of the community in wider society will be irreparably damaged. There is simply no debate to be had here and it is extremely disappointing that you have written what is actually a confusing and indeed pointless article.
1) The freedom to practice religion is protected by equalities legislation, and any capricious order made by ministers which has reckless disregard to the impact of the order on this protected characteristic is capable of being challenged by judicial review. If orders are made unlawfully they aren’t binding.
2) What’s with the front cover of your new book? It looks like a graphic ‘Der stormer’ would publish. The accusation of ‘offensive nonsense’ from the author is a little too rich.
3) You were last heard in public whittering in about how nail manicures were essential. That was against the law then.
4) This is the second time you’ve takfired / appikorused other Orthodox Jews (the first time being takfiring Jews who prioritise men over women in allocation of shul space on your blog). It’s bigoted for you to make a political disagreement into a religious one.
It seems possible many only like you when you are against the charedi status quo. Yet perhaps, you’ve got it wrong here? You’re essay just doesn’t sit right with me, for many of the reasons cited above. Surely you understand that many varied reasons can account for different rates in different countries? Your arguments don’t quite have the ring of scientific expertise that I would expect before being willing to challenge all those scientists and experts who have agreed to the lockdown.
I do note that you agree that it is irrelevant whether the lockdown is right or wrong and that the law is the law (and chillul Hashem is perhaps even more important – see Oruch Hashulchan who says that chillul Hashem is even worse when amongst non-Jews, against the prevalent custom I hear or ignoring what non-Jews think of us).
Either way, sorry, but I think you’ve got it wrong here. Of course, I don’t expect you to change your mind, no one can do that anymore. Even with clever little pieces of reverse psychology like that one 🙂
I did not expect this from you Reb Eli, I have countless family members and friends who died from Covid and none from the flu. I my self had Covid and it is not like the flu. The manner in which our community handled Covid is a bizoyin.
The funeral of the late Chief Rabbi was a true kidish hashem and it would be so nice if all charedim would imitate this behaviour.
Of course you can not generalize and say that this was only by chredim and not in the general public, but the charedi community believe that they are better than other humans and live with higher morals than others where did the moral of pikuach nefesh go to?
I was been laughed at for not wanting to shake hands and for trying to social distance by the same people who would disrespect you and me for trimming my beard .
While your advocacy for Charedim is very appreciated, I think in this post you went too far to melamed zechut in a time when they can NOT say ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה
First of all, I am very sorry to hear about the family and friends you have lost. While I have been lucky in not losing family members, I too have people that I cared for and respected who died. I am not in any way saying that COVID-19 is the same the as the flu; I absolutely accept official figures, according to which COVID-19 is significantly more deadly.
However, I have to insist on this point. If you really believe that people are guilty of שפיכת דמים for not social distancing after the end of the first wave (during much of which COVID-19 deaths were not higher than other respiratory diseases), then you must also say that they are guilty of doing it during flu season. When we were first asked to lock down it was to stop a catastrophic collapse of the healthcare system. Some commenters have told me I’m wrong and that really would have happened without lockdown. Even if that’s so, however, there has definitely been “mission creep” and social distancing is now justified on the grounds of saving lives; that’s a new moral obligation that we didn’t believe in last year. We definitely could save 1,000s of lives every winter by social distancing, but we don’t. Maybe, going forward we will, maybe we should, but I don’t think we should be casually throwing around accusations of murder. If you try to prove too much, you prove nothing at all. By all means, though, advocate for greater awareness of hygiene, mask-wearing, handwashing, social distancing, the lot.
Perhaps the difference is that I don’t expect Charedim to always be the most moral people around. I don’t go around thinking I’m better than other people, but at the same time I know that my community are not wicked. Maybe we’re behind the curve on this one. On the other hand, maybe the wider world will emerge so damaged from this experience that our approach won’t look so bad. Either way, though, let’s all try to persuade rather than attack.
Dear R’ Eli Spitzer,
Here unfortunately you have erred again.
It is because you do not understand the nature of a strong exponential sickness like Corona – which you have repeatedly and erroneously equated or compared to normal flu.
Even if you had just two cases of Corona left in a population of 60 million people, those cases would quickly become hundreds of thousands and then millions within a few months, if left unchecked.
You are making a category error when you say that after the first lockdown ended, everything was normal because everything appeared normal. It was not – and Corona was still in circulation, and guess what, since it was left to propagate that is exactly what it did. The next lockdown was inevitable (I said so then with certainty, although a prayer for a miracle that it would not happen – but it did).
The skill set to be a great headmaster or a great social commentator is different from the skill set necessary to be an epidemiologist or a doctor.
Can I suggest that you ask your best Maths teacher in your school to tell you the story of what happens when you put one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, and two on the second, and four on the third, and eight on the fourth, etc.
There is not enough rice not just in this world, but in millions of worlds to fill a single chess board.
Thankyou, I am familiar with the concept of exponential growth, but the case is not exactly as you describe. All illnesses (including Covid and the flu) spread exponentially in theory and none spread perfectly exponentially in practice. You are correct about the distinction between seasonal flu and Covid-19, but you exaggerate the degree of difference. Flu mutates on an annual basis, meaning that each year the population only has partial immunity. On the other hand, there is substantial evidence that partial immunity to Covid-19 already exists from prior exposure to other coronaviruses. There was one flu epidemic in the 20th century that was similar to Covid-19 and one that was much worse.
In any case, the fact remains that the lockdown was initially premised upon the concept of flattening the curve to prevent a breakdown of the healthcare system. Since then, the goal has changed to one of decreasing as much possible the number of people who contract the virus. Given that a vaccine appears to be on the horizon earlier than expected, one may say that this strategy has been vindicated. It is obvious, however, that exactly the same argument can be equally applied to seasonal respiratory illnesses, since we could save many thousands of lives through lockdown measures every year. I have seen pro-lockdown estimates ranging from 17,000 to 50,000 lives saved (of course, sceptics argue for lower figures and emphasize the lives cost). It’s reasonable to say that the social distancing required for seasonal flu and colds is less than that required for Covid-19, but trying to maintain that a completely different set of ethical considerations apply to the two is untenable. If masks and other measures are really so easy to implement, then how can we possibly not justify doing them on an annual basis?
Dear R’ Eli Spitzer,
“familiar with the concept of exponential growth, but the case is not exactly as you describe”.
This is an error – the R value – widely quoted, is the speed of exponential growth.
When it is 1, then we have straight line growth. But anything above 1, we have true exponential growth, and the higher the value or R then the faster the speed of exponential growth.
“but you exaggerate the degree of difference”.
I really, really wish I did. Normal Flu kills thousands each year. Corona kills millions. People can argue and persuade and manipulate with words all they like, but this fact will just not change however strongly they argue.
“There was one flu epidemic in the 20th century that was similar to Covid-19 and one that was much worse.”.
No it wasn’t – The Spanish Flu was as bad as Corona, but not worse.
To the average non-Jew, it was much worse because the people it killed in droves were 18 to 30 year olds. And Corona kills people 70+ in droves.
But from our point of view, the loss of a life of an 80 year old is equal to the loss of life of an 18 year old – unlike the non-Jews, we do not deprecate the value of life to an older person as compared to a younger person.
“we could save many thousands of lives through lockdown measures every year”
Maybe yes, maybe no. This is as yet unproven.
But let me leave you with one strong argument:
In the UK, we live in a Malchus shel Chesed with a free health care system. In the USA, the cruel reality is people are told that if you can’t afford healthcare, then they will in many instances have to drop dead (this includes less well-off Jews).
So we are better than the USA – and we pay for it in taxes, but it is worth it.
I have given one example of one country being superior in their Chessed to another.
But let me give you another !
I just read a book written in 1976 which mentioned life in Japan, and lo and behold even then 44 years ago it described people wearing masks in the street.
So Japan has gone to a deeper level of Chessed than the UK (in this regard), in that many have chosen to wear masks to prevent passing on infection to others (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3536629/).
We as a country can choose to follow Japan – and this would be an act of Chessed. Although one individual wearing a mask will make negligible difference, so it is something that would need to be encouraged at society level.
But NONE of this takes away one iota from the need to wear a mask and to lockdown to prevent hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths from Corona.
First, estimates for fatalities from Spanish flu range from 17,000,000 to 100,000,000. Adjusted for population today, that translates as between 67,000,000 and 360,000,000. There is not a single epidemiologist anywhere in the world who has predicted anything like that degree of fatality from Covid-19 under any circumstances.
You have further claimed that, according to Judaism, the age of victims is irrelevant to considering the impact of a disease. This is an extraordinarily radical claim, and yet you have provided no source for it when it is easy to think of sources that contradict it and, obviously, no-one has ever acted as if this were true. The very fact that you would make such a wild claim proves my point that lockdown supporters are advancing radical, novel moral theories that are completely alien to human civilization up till now.
Thirdly, according to the WHO between 290,000 and 650,000 die from flu each year, and many more from other respiratory diseases, not “thousands” as you claim.
Eli Spitzer in Blog ‘… And then it didn’t happen. …’
And now it has happened !
See “This is what an ‘overwhelmed NHS’ looks like. We must not look away” in today’s Guardian Newspaper (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/12/overwhelmed-nhs-covid-britain-hospitals) by a medical expert at the heart of London’s hopsitals.
Read the article to see that members of our community are dying due to the NHS ceasing to function properly.
Some of those dying are our elderly, from Corona Virus.
Others of those dying are our young or middle aged, whose normal medical care (nothing to do with Corona) is being postponed or cancelled or degraded due to the health-service being swamped and ceasing to function properly, on a day-to-day basis.
How many people die Ch’v’Sh in the next three weeks will not be affected by our behaviour today. That train crash is already unstoppable (except with H’KBH’s help).
But the number of our people who die in three-weeks time, and for the next few weeks after that, will be heavily affected by what we do now.
If you constantly wear a mask outside home and don’t spend time indoors with others outside your family, you will save Yiddishe lives – whether of old people, or younger people (whose non-Corona medical needs will otherwise go unmet due to the NHS ceasing to function, as it is now).
Communal events, Kiddishes, Bat Mitzvahs, communal dovening, communal learning, etc. are all indoor methods of spreading the disease and keeping the hospitals full, and stopping the health-service from functioning, even for non-Corona care.
The end is in sight, as vaccinations IY’H will stop this plague.
For just a few weeks more, we can live the Mitzvah of ‘vNishmartem M’od LNaphshechem’ as we are commanded, and stop indoor contact with those outside our household.
After that, our lives can IY’H return to normal.
This article is spot on, and a breath of fresh air. Thank you for posting.