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Why didn’t the ultra-Orthodox take coronavirus seriously?

The pictures have become all to familiar. Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men gathering in together for a wedding, a funeral, for prayer services, in yeshivas, and other aspects of communal religious life despite the social-distancing orders of the Health Ministry to top the coronavirus epidemic.

And although the ultra-Orthodox public began to take the crisis more seriously over the course of last week, some schools and yeshivas remained open, as were many synagogues, while large public celebrations continued to take place.

Of particular note was that the senior rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community ruled that schools and yeshivas should remain open and never rescinded that order, although the school term has now ended.

It took till Sunday for the most senior leader of this community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, to finally issue a clear ruling that the community must obey government orders aimed at stopping the deadly virus.

That Kanievsky made his comments shortly after data was released showing the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the country are in cities with high ultra-Orthodox populations demonstrates how serious the consequences of this delay might turn out to be.

But why did it taken so long for the the community to take the epidemic and its dangers seriously?

One of the primary reasons is that the ultra-Orthodox community sees its rabbis as its true leaders and not the secular authorities or politicians.

“The ultra-Orthodox community does not see the state as representing its interests, you live with the state, it’s like your apartment building management council, but it doesn’t tell you what to do,” says Professor Yedidya Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert on ultra-Orthodox society.

When talking about issues critical to religious life like Torah study in schools and yeshivas, as well as prayer, “the ultra-Orthodox always see their senior rabbi as the prime minister,” he added.

So when various government ministries and officials began instructing the general public to implement social-distancing, it was the instructions of the rabbis, which were largely to keep going as usual, which they listened to.

This problem is heightened by the more extremist factions within the ultra-Orthodox sector such as the Eda Haredis and the Jerusalem Faction, who pay even less regard to state authorities and often violently resist enforcement of state regulations be it over IDF enlistment or, as now, social-distancing.

Another factor is the leadership of the community itself, which is comprised of elderly Torah scholars steeped in Talmudic knowledge and totally immersed in the world of religious ritual life and Jewish precepts, but largely unacquainted with the wider world and especially with matters of scientific knowledge.

Those leaders like Kanievsky, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, and others, truly believe that Torah study and prayer through metaphysical means provide physical protection to the Jewish people.

When they were approached two weeks ago and asked whether schools and yeshivas should be closed the number of coronavirus cases and fatalities from it were still small, so it was inevitable they would defer to the dictum that “the Torah protects and saves,” and that “the world exists for the sound of children studying Torah.”

Prayer and Torah “goes to the heart of their existence,” said Stern, and so it was extremely difficult for them to appreciate the gravity of the epidemic while the consequences of it still appeared slight.

But it is not only the ultra-Orthodox leadership that lacks knowledge and appreciation of scientific fact, it is the general public itself.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, a frequent commentator on ultra-Orthodox society, notes that the community is in general “suspicious of scientific authority” and believes its rabbis are better guides.

Scientific disciplines are taught at almost no ultra-Orthodox elementary schools and not at all in high-schools, and there is a general lack of appreciation for scientific knowledge.

When government authorities are warning of an epidemic that has not yet struck in full and advising measures based on scientific understanding designed to ward off the future consequences of such an epidemic be taken, it was to be expected that the ultra-Orthodox community would dismiss this advice, says Slifkin.

But there are also other societal factors at play as well. One serious problem, raised by both Stern and Slifkin, is that ultra-Orthodox society is much less exposed to news media than the general public.

While many non ultra-Orthodox have a steady stream of push notifications, tweets, Facebook posts, and WhatsApp videos inundating their smart phones, the majority of the ultra-Orthodox community is not exposed to such a torrent of information.

This creates a far lesser sense of urgency amongst the community, since they do not see the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic in China, Italy, Spain and wherever else the disease has struck.

And there is also the very real problem of how exactly the community can go into physical lockdown like the rest of the country.

Ultra-Orthodox families are typically very large, their apartments are far smaller than their needs, and they do not have gardens and often not even balconies.

Some homes might not even have enough beds for everyone to sleep at the same time, since some children live in their yeshiva dormitories during term time and families are simply not prepared for everyone to live at home.

There is also very little to do since the internet, especially its entertainment options, is often not available at home, and the cramped conditions and lack of outside space make physical activities extremely difficult.

It is this confluence of circumstances that led the ultra-Orthodox leadership and public to downplay and ignore the threat of the Covid-19 epidemic, even as the government was enforcing ever more drastic measures on the general public.

The results could yet be disastrous for the ultra-Orthodox sector in terms of the cost to human life and economically.

And if the ultra-Orthodox community suffers badly as a result, trust in its rabbinic leadership could be significantly damaged and may lead to far-reaching changes in the sector further down the line.

Header: A Jewish ultra-Orthodox man looks onto a local billboard with instructions related to the coronavirus at a street in a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, March 27, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Source: THE JERUSALEM POST