NOTE: This article is for people who appreciate the difference between an explanation and an excuse. Many people profess to being unable to understand how Charedim can ignore public health regulations during a pandemic; for those who mean it, I hope this helps. Others, for whom Charedim exist to externalise their own internal torments, are warmly recommended to read Daniel Greenberg’s latest article in the Jewish Chronicle, a perfect exemplar of the genre.
With the growth of the Charedi community in the UK and around the world has come a distinct genre of journalism promising its readers access to the mysterious Charedi mind. Most of this genre is outright tripe, written by people with no pertinent experience and knowledge, or consisting of taking every statement made by an ex-Charedi as if it were peer-reviewed sociological research. It’s important, then, to start by acknowledging that Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin stands out from the crowd. Not only does he know parts of the Charedi community from the inside, he makes a real effort to fairly portray and explain alien concepts and ideas to his audience. With that said, however, Slifkin’s recent article, while making many salient points, is, as a whole, deeply misleading.
While the article is a synopsis of posts originally appearing on his Rationalist Judaism blog, its publication in the Jewish Chronicle is obviously intended to refer to the recent scandal of the illegal Stamford Hill wedding and subsequent explosion of interest in social distancing, or the lack of it, within the community. The core of his argument is that, lacking an understanding of science, Charedim do not really appreciate the connection between social distancing and stopping a virus, and that, instead, they conceptualise government lockdown order as part of an eternal struggle to maintain Judaism in the face of obstacles presented by outsiders. While his treatment of the importance of communal activities to Charedi life is accurate and informative, Slifkin’s broader argument does very little to help the reader understand what is going on in Stamford Hill and, worse, will lead the reader up a garden path hedged by issues of deep concern to the author personally, but peripheral, at most, to Stamford Hill.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that Slifkin fundamentally looks at Charedi Judaism as an ideological phenomenon. The vast majority of Charedim, however, merrily buying their groceries maskless and fancy free care little for ideology: their Charedi identity is cultural, even ethnic, in nature. Accurate explanations of how the community functions and behave must start by approaching it from this vantage point, rather than through the concepts that animate intellectuals like Slifkin. Indeed, in the ideological section of the Charedi community it is possible to find the full spectrum of opinion from fanatical anti-Vaxxers to figures like Rav Asher Weiss who match the UK Chief Rabbi in their fervent advocacy for lockdowns and social distancing. It is not the behaviour of those who live on this ideological spectrum that JC readers want explained, but rather the outright apathy and indifference of the Charedi mainstream.
Perhaps even more importantly, Slifkin’s analysis is dominated by a central theme of his blog: the relationship between the Israeli Charedi community and wider Israeli society. Slifkin, as a resident of Beit Shemesh, has seen this relationship at its very ugliest, and he has put a lot of thought into understanding it in the search for solutions. However, even where these analyses are spot on for Israel, they only serve to mislead when applied to diaspora communities. This makes all the difference if you want to understand what is going on, because Charedim outside Israel are even less likely to comply with COVID-19 regulations than their Israeli cousins.
This brings me to the most serious flaw with the JC piece, namely the claims that non-compliance with even minimal social-distancing is attributable to a mindset in which “there’s a War to Save Yiddishkeit”. It is absolutely true that there is a large and very vocal Charedi minority in Israel for which almost any conceivable issue can be weaponised in the struggle for the soul of the Jewish people between Zionism and Torah. Peleg and much of the Meah Shearim community really do think they are fighting a centuries-long struggle by refusing to wear a Zionist mask. In Stamford Hill no-one thinks like that. Over the past year – and there’s no point in denying it – I have seen no end of obliviousness to public health regulations: not one person has ever conceptualised this in terms of “Fighting in The Resistance”. The very idea is surreal.
Diaspora Charedim are not politicised in the way that many Israeli Charedim are. It is true that we, especially in traditionally kanui Stamford Hill, have a contingent who live mentally with the rioters in Israel, but when they have a protest they have it against the Israeli Government. Our local extremists can give you a blow by blow account of Zionist wicknedness with names and dates going back 150 years, but they would struggle to name a single member of the UK cabinet and they’re proud of it. Being an extremist in London doesn’t mean you hate the British government, it means you ignore it. Slifkin cites a Charedi Rav in Israel who declared ‘If the government tells us to learn Bava Kama, we’ll learn Bava Metzia”; in London, if Boris Johnson told Stamford Hill to the learn Bava Kama, the moderates would think it was cute and the extremists wouldn’t even notice. Since, schizophrenics possibly excepted, no-one could imagine that English mask mandates are being ordered by the Mossad, it has never occurred to anyone in Stamford Hill that by not wearing one they are saving Judaism.
Similarly off-beam are Slifkin’s comments about the Charedi approach to science, having more to do with his bete noire, R. Moshe Meiselman than the run of the mill Charedi. As the more perceptive observers of Charedi society have noticed, Charedim are very quick to use science when it serves their goals. Examples of this include extremely sophisticated and well-funded programmes for infertility and cancer-treatment services using the most up to date technologies, even flying patients across the globe to receive the latest in proton therapy. Specifically in the case of COVID-19, within weeks of it hitting Israel, the organization Chasdei Amram bought up over a hundred oxygen concentrators and trained up kollel yungerleit in how to use them to provide at-home medical care to patients with severe cases. It is true that in the Charedi community ‘the science’ does not have the moral resonance it has in western culture; the attitude to scientists is purely utilitarian, treating them as technical experts like architects or engineers. The end result, though, is that Charedim are more than capable of using scientific expertise when they see it as being in their interests.
Aside from their disconnect with Stamford Hill reality, there is a very obvious additional reason why all these explanations fall flat: during the first lockdown Stamford Hill really was shut. There were, it is true, a few underground minyanim of fanatics, but they were disbanded after ordinary Charedim called the police. The only weddings that happened consisted of a minyan in the garden. Schools were shut. All explanations for why Charedim now aren’t keeping the rules must also be able to account for why they kept them in April. It certainly isn’t because they remembered that there was a war on Yiddishkeit and didn’t believe in science after all.
As I have tried, largely in vain, to explain before, the evolution of the Charedi response to COVID-19 over the course of the year has a much more mundane explanation. In mid-April Stamford Hill Charedim were actually really scared so they stayed at home. However, like Charedi communities in New York, they were too slow off the mark and, being situated in a global center of commerce and travel, COVID-19 ripped through the community. The reason why they subsequently went back to normal life is because, having experienced COVID-19, they decided that it wasn’t worth upending their lives over.
Now, at this stage, I can already hear the anguished cries of my commenters: don’t Charedim know that pikuach nefesh overrides every mitzvah? I have learnt the futility of trying to explain this position, so I have decided to let someone else do it for me: Natan Slifkin.
The shocking news that EVERYONE entering Israel has to be quarantined for two weeks is leaving many people wondering what will be with Pesach. My guess: This requirement will not last long.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, it’s too catastrophic for the economy to sustain for long. Second: Once corona starts popping up more widely among people in Israel – as will inevitably happen – there will no longer be a point to quarantine.
At some stage, corona will just be something that society accepts, because it’s too costly to try to halt it – like cars. Cars cause a tremendous number of fatalities and accidents, but society is unwilling to live without them. Corona will just be accepted as a slightly more severe version of the flu – which kills hundreds of thousands of people annually – and life will go back to normal. Hopefully this will be before there is too much damage to the economy.
Israel is under no illusions that it can prevent the virus from spreading. The goal of quarantine is to slow it down, so that it can be better managed.
As I wrote, I think that the mandatory quarantine will not last very long, for the reasons discussed in the previous post. Soon, the benefits that it gives will decline, while the costs will rise. The government itself said that it will be re-evaluated in two weeks. Of course, it could be re-evaluated any and every day. But I think it is likely that Israel will not require people arriving for Pesach, right before Pesach, to be quarantined. Meanwhile, the government is making a difficult but necessary decision, and it should be respected.
So, we see that Charedim today agree with the Natan Slifkin of March 9th. The logical question isn’t why Charedim, after a brief period of alarm, returned to Slifkin’s original view, but why he has changed his mind. Now, I have no doubt that Slifkin engaged in extensive research and reflection before concluding that his original view was utterly, murderously, false. It is, however, equally doubtless that most people did not go through this process, because they never do, about anything. The reason why respectable public opinion now sees lockdowns as a normal part of the public-health toolkit to be employed as necessary is a well-established phenomenon called social proof.
Let us take Slifkin’s example of the mask. How can Chassidim object to something so little, he asks. Well, the truth is that, outside Meah Shearim, they don’t object, they think it’s weird and uncomfortable and makes you look antisocial. This is exactly what the general population thought when, with news filtering through from the east, scattered individuals started masking up in early 2020. They were derided as eccentric, antisocial, even xenophobic, and the now chief medical adviser to the President made fun of them on national television. Over time, however, everyone got used to seeing people with their face covered, the inherent logic of doing so sunk in, and eventually it became normal enough to be the subject of official mandates.
The single most important point to understand here is that Charedim – especially Chassidim, and especially outside Israel – have not been through this process of adapting to the new normal. Charedim, for reasons that I do not believe social-science has adequately explained, live in a bubble where fashions in wider society simply pass them by. Styles of dress, interior decoration, cuisine and the like develop in an autonomous fashion, with the natural human urge to fit in and not stand out being activated only by fellow Charedim. Even Chassidic teenagers who consciously seek to look rebellious do not copy the dress codes of gentile adolescents, but have created their own, really rather peculiar, fashion. Of course, Charedim have drastically misplayed their hand here: masks aren’t the new bellbottoms and the wider population are livid about Charedim looking at them that way.
If you want to promote mask-wearing in Stamford Hill, though, forget about ideology, science, pikuach nefesh or anything else in the JC explainer: figure out a way to hack into the internal fashion system of the Charedi community. Persuade prominent members of the public to be mask pioneers and then market a new range of ‘stunning’ masks in the Heimishe Newsheet: bekishe-style geometric patterns for men, diamante-studded versions for women. I can’t promise that will work, but what I can promise is that nothing will be gained from analyses of Charedim that start by assuming liberal modernity is the default mode of human existence and then move on to explaining our abnormal deviation from it.
Getting beyond polemic is a nice first step, but if readers of the Jewish Chronicle really want to understand the strange exotic creatures in N16 then they should start thinking less ideologically and more anthropologically.