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. 

15 thoughts on “Charedim and COVID-19: response to Natan Slifkin

  1. Are you aware how snide and patronising you come across? You are going to alienate whatever readership you have if you continue with your mean spirited jibes. Like the opening one aimed at Greenberg. You need to rise above petty personal “shtechs” and use substantive arguments if you want to get anywhere.

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    1. Wow! Greenberg’s entire article is nothing more or less than a stab at an entire community, and you’re calling the mere mention of it, a ‘shtech’….

      Greenberg is lowering himself to the gutter against a community that he is more than happy to drink his fees from, Spitzer was being too kind in return.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. 1) Missing from this article: contrition and menschlichkeit. This is still pure defense of the egregiously indefensible, and it will make everyone upset by this terrible pirtzah more mad. Eli, it was wrong. They knew it was wrong at the time. And it tells us something is rotten in N16 AND NW11. If you want to help, acknowledge that reality. People are dying, the sophistry can wait.

      2) I think that it is true to say that Charedim are raised to be more communitarian, more hive minded, less individualistic, and more concerned with Yenna, then the rest of society. That is itself a sickness. But when we combine that with a corrupt and out of touch geriotocracy people die. I don’t know why there is only one Rav in Stamford Hill who doesn’t think Coronavirus is an irrelevancy. And even he doesn’t know how to wear a mask over his nose. The depth of Rabbinic failure on this issue is what is stunning. Everyone knows that if all the chassidish Rabbonim coalesced Charedim would be Covid frummer than North Hendon. Nobody does crazy frum like Charedim. And yet everywhere they are meikel, lax, complacent, and dying.

      3) I am nevertheless upset by the snobbery on show. Mr Greenberg, who lives in a large house and is a man of substantial means, has contempt for poor people without internet, TV, education. He decries their life of crime.

      There are no criminal sanctions for the individual in Mr Greenberg’s social group who made hundreds of thousands on developments using Romanian labor paid ‘off the books’ (the £5,000 cash withdrawals each Friday were to buy bricks off the back of a lorry I am told), and in possible contravention of modern slavery rules. There are no consequences for the rich people who put all the joint income into the lower paid spouse’s name to evade tax without splitting the tenancy and filing the right form at the land registry (I’m thinking of one of the more loquacious local GPs right now). The editor of the JC has yet to account for the proceeds of weekly advertising his publication sold to a gamboling conman who made obviously fraudulent claims of double digit returns when interest rates were at 2 percent.

      The rich gets Corona carveouts to protect the grouse hunting season and to ensure property developments finish on time. They get £50k bounce backs, no questions asked. The Charedim get locked up parks and bans on religious worship.

      I suppose it is easy not to be a criminal if you get to write the laws, and a trivial matter indeed if you get to chose how to apply them.

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  2. “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…”

    Are you even aware that he was actually himself Charedi born and bred until Tropper et al dragged him through the dirt?

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    1. Family davenned in Vine Street, father an academic, went to MJGS school….. A Charedi-lite upbringing, then went yeshivish aged 16 for 15 years, and now has ended up pretty much where he started

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    2. RNS was born into a Modern Orthodox British family, but learned in Charedi yeshivos. His original name was, in fact, Natan, but it was changed to Nosson for marketing purposes when his books were sold by Feldheim. R. Slifkin writes that “Jonathan Rosenblum once said that I would someday be his successor” and that he used to be a “former charedi apologist”, so he indeed has, to an extent, and insiders perspective(see his posts , “The Purpose of Criticizing Charedi Society” 4/26/13, and “Torah for the Nation”, 3/28,/14).

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  3. Brilliant!
    I am from that N16 lot, and I identify with everything you have written here. The Eruv snippers are the only Israeli style Charedim we possess

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  4. Henry Sugar, are you kidding ?

    When every Government Education Authority (Ofsted, Hackney Council, Department of Education, etc.) is considered an existential threat to our community, and we are constantly told that we should be willing to die to counter their pernicious efforts, how can you possible say that ???

    That is why I also disagree with R’ Spitzer’s article as a whole – It is not possible to reconcile the average Stamford Hill mindset and behaviour with a fair treatment of basic and unarguable science. Basic science is viewed with the same suspicion as something that is at heart heretical, even though basic science is actually by definition Parev and uncontestable.

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    1. I agree with you in regards to our fight to the death, to stop our children getting sex education and “equality” lessons, and generally what education should look like. However regarding covid restrictions Eli’s article sums up our attitude very well. In my shul there are completely uneducated people, zealots, torah scholars, teachers, who are well clued up on every twist and turn of the Science of Covid, the mortality data v the real data v the excess deaths, new trials, vitamins, that might offer protection, and were to buy them. In March we were truly locked down as we thought we were all going to die. Lack of clear cause and affect of infection and the fact that politicians are in charge of restrictions based on big data, has led us to the feeling that it’s every man to himself, if your vulnerable, protect yourself, life must go on. Politicians are not going to get us to understand that businesses must go on, but weddings not. It has become like parking restrictions, if you can get away with it… Chochma I hate to say this but I sense self hate. Basic Science has not come out looking squeaky clean in the past year. They could not agree on anything Parev and uncontestable? Really?

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  5. Another interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking article. The conclusion I draw is that the disrespect for lockdown rules is essentially the innate human reaction to being controlled for long periods and becoming indifferent to it. Perhaps the wilful disobedience reflects the strong character of some chasidim to be themselves and not be bound other than by Torah? While other chasidim might simply follow these law-breaking leaders so as not to be apart from the (lawless) crowd. Ultimately those that so blatantly break the law probably reflect a part of any society that does not like to be bound by inconvenient rules.

    The problem is that chasidim rule breakers are noticeable. And their misbehaviour reflects beyond themselves and their families and even the immediate community. It reflects on all chasidim and indeed all Jews. And herein lies the lack of morality in such behaviour. A morality that should sound in the religious thoughtfulness of being chasidim especially in the diaspora – though the point holds for anywhere. Indeed observing laws is something enshrined in Judaism starting with those handed down by Moses.

    Collective responsibility and an acknowledgement of the enormous harm being done to all Jews by the behaviour of, at least relatively speaking, a minority of Jews, should be forthcoming from those able to influence the wrongdoers. Analysing the reasons for rule-breaking helps if it reveals a way to drive home the message and change behaviour. But foremost must be the need for anyone who has any influence, publicly or behind closed doors, to halt these blatant unlawful lockdown gatherings. Not only will it deflect anyone who loves to criticise Jews (and we have enough problems already even in 21C England) but it will save lives. And isn’t the preservation of life, that is our physical life and not just our spiritual essence, something worth living for?

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  6. Good God. What on earth are you writing?

    Does it actually make sense to you?

    Sure, Mr Greenberg is a horrid little man. And yes, Rabbi Slifkin may still not have forgotten or forgiven the despicable way he was treated by certain individuals close to our Gedolim. But regarding our collective behaviour, not wishing to add to the public condemnation we have regrettably attracted, it is hard to respond fully. However, once again, you are nothing more than an apologist for inexcusable behaviour. It is a hard fact that if you were to walk into you know where wearing a mask, people would think you were ill, either physically or religiously. Trying to be even a little covid safe among most of us, is akin to kefirah. And don’t tell me about one little lechhel where they are makpid, because in 99% of places they are makpid not to be makpid.

    There was a time when I looked to you in hope, finally, a true believer, one of us, not a renegade but still unafraid to call a spade a spade. But it seems that Covid has drawn you back to the sometimes very deeply rutted and narrow train of thought that runs through most of our chareidi minds.

    We always know better and we are always right.

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  7. While you are better qualified than I, fashion can’t simply be the reason. It can’t explain why people are ignoring the health risks to themselves. Why are weddings are still going ahead ( I know they’re a crucial part of life, but it’s not hard for a Rabbi to insist on the minimum number of people) Why they need to be mass events? How can people be happy to attend these and put their loved ones at risk? Why people are willfully covering these events up and misleading the police and authorities. Why the Rabbis are encouraging disobedience. None of that is because people don’t like wearing masks. All it takes is for leaders to insist and their followers will listen – they do for everything else.

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  8. In line with every article you have written, you once again approach this issue from an inherently male-centric stance, ignoring 50% of Stamford Hill’s population.

    “Charedim … live in a bubble where fashions in wider society simply pass them by”

    Perhaps this may be the case for Charedi men – I cannot confirm this as I am a Charedi woman and therefore haven’t conversed much with my male peers. I can however speak from my experiences, and fashions in wider society do not pass us by, but rather we pay a great deal of attention to them.

    At every Simcha or family gathering, Kate Middleton’s latest outfit is discussed and analysed with some detail. Fashion retailer Zara is a Stamford Hill woman’s firm favourite; she will ensure each new-season staple has a place in her wardrobe.

    “Styles of dress, interior decoration, cuisine and the like develop in an autonomous fashion”

    The fashions of wider society hugely influence what Charedi women wear, how they do their makeup, how they style their sheitel, and what diet trend they follow. It is a shame that these topics of conversation may not be ones you as a male are privy to, but attributing the disregard of Covid-19 restrictions and mask-wearing to the lack of adherence to the latest fashions and trends most certainly does not apply to the women.

    Perhaps Charedi men are simply clueless about the current trends, but women’s eyes are at the front and centre of what is fashionable, trendy, and “normal” in the secular world. Perhaps they are not oblivious to the rules, but simply do not care about their civic responsibility – in the same way they do not care about double-parking, committing benefit fraud, or simply cutting in at Carmel queues. Oblivious to the existence of anyone apart from themselves.

    All it takes is a headteacher in a Charedi school, such as yourself, to inculcate a new generation with values such as fairness, politeness, duty,and responsibility.

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  9. This is an interesting take on a terrifying phenomenon.
    I strongly disagree with the notion that Chareidi society is not masked up (and by extension, not following the rest of the guidance and laws) because they are simply not in tune with the ‘fashion’ and ‘trends’ of the rest of society.
    The rest of the population are not wearing masks because it is trendy. They are wearing masks because they have been told that based on the evidence that has emerged since the start of the pandemic, widescale mask-usage will save lives. When the government say that the level of danger does not warrant this intervention anymore, 95% of people will stop wearing them.
    Chareidim have as much access to this information as anyone else in the country. They are fully aware that they *should* be wearing masks, they have simply decided, en-masse, not to.
    When I have challenged friends and family in the Chareidi community about their lack of mask wearing, social-distancing, and following the rest of the rules, the response has never been “Oh, I didn’t realise that was the trend these days” or “I don’t like how it feels”. The response has always been a combination of conspiracy theories, lack of ability to understand the nature of scientific evidence, or a simple lack of understanding that their actions will impact on those around them.
    Eli, I think you are selling the community short by implying they are so fickle as to only start implementing evidence based medical interventions when it becomes ‘fashionable’.
    What’s happening here is much more sinister. The ease at which conspiracy theories infiltrate the Chareidi mind, the lack of care Chareidim seem to have for society around them in this area, and the complete lack of ability to weigh scientific evidence are surely at the root of these issues.
    The solutions have to be more comprehensive than ‘hacking the internal fashion system of the Chareidi community’. This is an ideological issue, not a cultural one.

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