(סמא דמותא) Death-Torah (Coronavirus)


As a rule, religious tradents associate kedushah (holiness) with life and images of life like light, water, and fruit. But with what kind of life? Life in this world or life in the world to come? In truth, religion and religious sancta bring life and death into close proximity. This goes beyond the merely symbolic. Kedushah creates, constitutes, institutes a hinge between life and death. Kedushah is simultaneously repelled by death and drawn to death. Not physical life, not even the fear of heaven, what really matters is the sancta.

The Babylonian rabbis touch upon this theme here:

Within and without shalt thou overlay it. Raba said: Any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar. Abaye, or, as some say, Rabbah b. ‘Ulla said: He is called abominable, as it is said: How much less one that is abominable and impure, man who drinketh iniquity like water. R. Samuel b. Nahmani, in the name of R. Jonathan: What is the meaning of the scriptural statement: Wherefore is there a price in the hand of a fool, to buy wisdom, seeing he hath no understanding, i.e., woe unto the enemies of the scholars, who occupy themselves with the Torah, but have no fear of heaven! R. Jannai proclaimed: Woe unto him who has no court, but makes a gateway for his court! Raba said to the Sages: I beseech you, do not inherit a double Gehinnom!

R. Joshua b. Levi said: What is the meaning of the Scriptural verse: And this is the law which Moses set (סם) [before the children of Israel]? — If he is meritorious it becomes for him a medicine of life (סם חיים), if not, a deadly poison (סם מיתה). That is what Raba [meant when he] said: If he uses it the right way it is a medicine of life (סמא דחייא) unto him; he who does not use it the right way, it is a deadly poison (סמא דמותא).

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: R. Jonathan pointed out the following contradiction: it is written: The precepts of the Lord are upright, rejoicing the heart, but it is also written: The word of the Lord is purging (צרפו)? If he is meritorious, it rejoices him; if not, it purges him. Resh Lakish said: From the body of the same passage this can be derived: If he is meritorious, it purges him unto life; if not, it purges him unto death

Yoma 72b

(Soncino translation with alteration)

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(HAZMAT) Haredi Jewish Studies (Coronavirus)


In the opening months of the viral pandemic, there were posts at sites like the blog run by the Katz Center for Jewish History relating to setting the pandemic in historical and philosophical context. There has been lively back and forth online on the social media sites of Jewish Studies academics (suggesting that social media might be a first incubator for Jewish Studies scholarship) and here and there at online Jewish media platforms. Apart from general interest,  the most sensitive question, at least right now and perhaps into the future,  is how and why Jewish communities (Haredi) have become a vector in the pandemic in areas where these communities enjoy demographic mass and something close to communal autonomy, and the kinds of things the pandemic and these responses to the pandemic reveal about Jewishness and Judaism, i.e. the intensive formations of Jewishness and Judaism and values that they represent.

It is still too early to come to any definite conclusions that would pass academic muster about Jewish responses to the pandemic. But institutions of Jewish Studies (AJS, centers of Jewish Studies, departments and interdisciplinary programs, journals and university presses) will have to address or account for the disproportionate prevalence of the virus in Haredi communities and the damage posed by this spread in Haredi communities to and as part of the larger social fabric, at least in areas of dense Haredi settlement in places like New York City and New York State, and especially in Israel. Failure to do so on the part of Jewish Studies scholars and institutions would amount to something like academic malpractice, i.e. neglect, assuming that the Haredi response in particular is likely to have far-ranging social, political, and theological repercussions relevant to Jewish Studies and the study of Judaism.

At the most simple level of first appearances, journalists have been writing about disruptive behaviors in Haredi communities. Included are the refusal to follow public health guidelines and pushback when public health guidelines when the state seeks to impose its will in order to safeguard public health. Students crowd into the schools and yeshivot, synagogues fill to capacity, especially during Purim last spring when few people understood the virus, and during the High Holidays this fall, when people should have known better. Wedding and funerals attract hundreds of people. Mask use is inconsistent. Haredi street mobs get whipped up out of shape and attack journalists. The state tries to intervene or, in Israel, fails to intervene. What’s required, however, is something by way of explanation. 

At more complex levels of analysis, responsible journalists and scholars make clear that the pandemic is bigger than the Haredi response, and that the failure of the state and national political leadership to respond effectively is at the heart of the problem, along with an array of factors relating to social fatigue, economic distress, and psychological wear and tear. But the failure of rightwing politicians in the United States and in Israel to lead against the pandemic includes, among these other things, their refusal to enforce guidelines against the uniquely disproportionate kinds of pandemic spread (high rates and large numbers) in these small communities, which are easy to scapegoat. Everyone is put in peril at a moment of danger, the larger society unable to heal itself while impacted by the behavior of a minority and also members of that minority community, if not the community itself as a whole, unable as it is to heal itself. Playing their own part in Haredi communities are poverty and crowded living conditions, which cannot, however, be separated from the connection between ideological and religious underpinnings and mal-adaptive social behavior.  

Still more complex, Jewish Studies scholars who work in and close to these fields will need to place Haredi response to the pandemic in historical context, namely the early development of Haredi society in opposition to enlightenment science and society at the end of the 18th and into the 19th  and 20th centuries. Also involved is the relation of Haredi society to gentile political authority, the internal lines drawn against non-Haredi Jews, the impact of secularization and Shoah, postwar developments primarily in Israel and the United States. Sociologists of religion might look to patterns of sociation to explain the Haredi response to and contribution to the disaster, the need to maintain plausibility structures, as well as differentiation across different movements; and social stigma. Of keen interest is the relation between individual versus group behavior. Also the unique characteristics that mark sectarian religious communities, in this case an ideology of subordination and commitment to the institution of talmud Torah and fidelity to rabbinic authority. Scholars of Jewish thought and philosophy will want to take another look at things in the textual corpus having to do with “God,” “Torah,” and “Israel,” with Kabbalah, ethics and community, and perhaps most interesting,  spirituality and materiality, monism and world denial in relation death and suffering, subjectivity, bitul ha’yeish, attributes of power, and other objects of “fascination.”

What kinds of conferences will convene, what kind of articles and special issues and books under what kinds of titles? What kind of general takeaways will be drawn about Haredi forms of religious-Jewish community? Are they adaptive or mal-adaptive and why? Are these communities tough and organic or artificial and fragile? How will we need to rethink again the relation between religion and state? What are the variegated relations between the real and ideal and surreal as these show up in the awful vis-à-vis of a catastrophic community response to a pandemic in this age of globalization and information?

Those are meta-questions. Other questions concern methodology. Who is the best ideal-type of a scholar for this kind of work? The careful methodological way is probably piece by piece. The best studies will be conducted by those who combine critical distance and a modicum of insider knowledge. How far is too far and how close is too close will be worked out in the work, but I am less sure about hermeneutics of charity. That reflects my own liberal prejudice, and about bias, one needs to be upfront, no matter where and how the analysis falls. Especially toxic, the material is hazardous. At this early and emergent juncture, one can only imagine the state of the field in another 5 to 10 years.

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Something About a Gnat (According to the Talmud)

This happened to Titus:


A voice went forth from heaven saying; Sinner, son of sinner, descendant of Esau the
sinner, I have a tiny creature in my world called a gnat. (Why is it called a tiny creature? Because it has an orifice for taking in but not for excreting.) Go up on the dry land and make war with it. When he landed the gnat came and entered his nose, and it knocked against his brain for seven years. One day as he was passing a blacksmith’s it heard the noise of the hammer and stopped. He said; I see there is a remedy. So every day they brought a blacksmith who hammered before him. If he was a non-Jew they gave him four zuz, if he was a Jew they said, It is enough that you see the suffering of your enemy. This went on for thirty days, but then the creature got used to it.

Gittin 56b

h/t Jonathan L. M.@TheLordGave

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Liberal Hot Takes re: Haredi Response to Coronavirus

Asked by a colleague in Religious Studies about the spike of infection rates of coronavirus among Haredi Jews in the fall and around the High Holiday season, and about Haredi response to and backlash re: attempts by government authority to enforce public safety guidelines, I could only come up with liberal hot takes.

The hot takes have mostly to with the following claims.

[1] Religion and the religion of Judaism are not an absolute social good in and of themselves and in isolation. [2] Religion and society are distinct by not separate. [3] The interest of broad public good, which is a state-political responsibility, should trump the interest of religion when they collide. [4] Extreme negativity about claims re: the value of religious norms, community, and law made in contemporary conservative Jewish philosophy and religious ethics. [5] Critical questions and negative conclusions about the enclave character of sectarian, paideic communities that form around devoted commitments to religious sancta. [6] Actually dangerous and also a source of social disorder is the unique and distinctive aura that makes religion a sui generis phenomenon.


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(Backlash) Haredi Street Demonstrations (Coronavirus)


What matters more than what and to whom, now well past the pat nod to the putative cardinal value of saving lives in Judaism, (pikuach nefesh)? Registering and trying to bracket my own personal disgust (about which I will be honest), I’m posting and might keep posting below on this page links to articles about Haredi demonstrations. The protesters reject (are reacting against) state imposition of public health guidelines. The state actions are intended to put a temporary (emergency) lockdown on synagogues and yeshivot and local business in Haredi communities which, at the tail end of the High Holiday season, have become hotspots of coronavirus in NYC and NYS. In Brooklyn, the language is couched in civil disobedience and the free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But at what cost to the public good writ large and to the Jewish community, including Haredi Jewish communities, to Judaism and to the image of God writ small?


here (h/t Marta Braiterman-Tanenbaum)



At the crypto-conservative online Tablet Magazine, the backlash looks like this, this, and this. Either what matters is the sacred communities and the rites that sustain them, which are  now massive super-spreader events or the claim against all evidence that Haredi communal leaders are good faith actors open to reason and compromise.

Compare and contrast this response by a healthcare professional from Borough Park. 


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(Coronavirus) Trump (Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment)

Look at the President of the United States, obviously sick and jacked up on antibiotics and steroids. “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.” The more they tell you not to be afraid of the pandemic, the more afraid I am of the President and his party. Starting with the start of his campaign in 2015, it’s been 5 years, a morbid eco-climate of abject terror and lies.

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(Haredi) Religion & State in Israel (Coronavirus)

This piece by Nathan Jaffay in the TOI is one of the best pieces on the disproportionate prevalence of the Coronavirus in Haredi society and communities in Israel, which now has the highest per capita infection rates in the world and is now under total lockdown. It touches upon vital questions concerning religion and state and their non-separation. Anyone interested in this phenomenon might want to read it closely.


What is especially fine about the analysis here are the distinctions drawn between [1] first wave (spring 2020) and second wave rates and patterns of infection, [2] Hasidic and non-Hasidic (Litvak) and Sephardic Haredi communities, [3] demographic circumstance (large communities in crowded spaces) and communal behavior. Also, the analysis draws on a range of experts, including Dror Mevorach (head of internal medicine at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem), Benny Brown (an lead international expert in Haredi culture and thought at the Hebrew University), Yehoshua Pfeffer (a Jerusalem based rabbi and head of the Haredi Israel division at the rightwing Tikvah Fund), Eran Segal (a virus statistics expert), Yitzhak Ravitz (mayor of the Haredi town of Kiryat Ye’arim).

The reporting is clear how a combination of factors are contributing to the disproportionate spread of the virus among Haredi communities. These include [4] crowded living circumstances, [5] high rates of poverty, [6] high rates of socialization internal to Haredi communities, [7] communal behavior flouting public health guidelines, [8] ideological conflict with the state, [9] disconnect from and autonomy vis-a-vis the larger society, [10] zealous and reckless commitments to a particular way of religious/Jewish life, [11] fatigue and fatalism and misinformation about viral spread in the communities, and [12] a failure of political leadership at the national and local and communal levels to impose lockdowns and other restrictive measures to enforce public health guidelines.

Something is rotten in the State of Israel and in the Jewish body politic. In a Jewish state (i.e. a Jewish majority state) with a large Haredi minority leveraging critical centers of power in the coalitional system of the country, these factors, with their mix of religion and politics, have contributed to a perfect viral storm, creating what one could further cite and with serious trepidation “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” A calamitous index to the non-separation of powers, the virus in Israel constitutes a total legitimation crisis marked by the failure of this experiment in so-called theopolitics (here meaning the systemic con-fusion between political order and religious ethos).


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Haredi Dance of Death (Coronavirus)

Oren Kessler@OrenKesslerUltra-Orthodox celebrate the little-known holiday שמחת מגפה, or Feast of the PestilenceQuote Tweet

עקיבא ווייס Akiva Weisz@AkivaWeisz · Sep 28בחורי ישיבת ‘עטרת שלמה’ בראשון לציון חוגגים את יציאתם מהקפסולות עם סיום מסכת36.9K views0:26 / 0:2612:26 PM · Sep 30, 2020·Twitter Web App4 LikesOren Kessler@OrenKessler·Replying to @OrenKesslerThe holiday is marked by heavy breathing in enclosed spaces, hand-holding with multiple partners, the ceremonial repudiation of basic science and common sense, and the symbolic representation of the Jewish people as a single, unified, infected herd.

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(ימים נוראים‎) Questions About Haredi Judaism In the Age of Coronavirus (חילול השם)


In the study of modern Jewish thought and philosophy there is a line of argument relating to the need to broaden the canon to include East European, i.e. Haredi Jewish perspectives. In terms of intellectual history, this is a good thing. But for guidance re: normative practice and spiritual life the lessons are not so clear.

Ethos and ethnos trump always ethics. In this particular case, flooding the yeshivot and synagogues and gathering around the holiday tables, widespread mass behaviors across the Haredi spectrum are like the guy the Talmud describes drilling a hole in his corner of a boat. Not funny, today at this high holiday season, questions about Haredi Judaism and the intensive sociality of holy space and bonds of faith are a matter of life and death. In light of the recent spread of the Coronavirus across these communities in the tri-state area and in Israel and its broader social impact, one possibility is to argue that the turn away from the larger society and concern for its welfare, and the preoccupation with Torah and only Torah in Haredi Jewish thought and culture are a disgrace and a disaster.

Who will live and who will die this year from the Coronavirus? At what point do we draw what critical conclusions? about particular forms of ultra-orthodox and orthodox Judaism, and more generally about the meaning and value of theoretical topoi like “Jewish community,” “Jewish politics,” “Jewish mysticism and spirituality,” Jewish secularism and post-secularism,” “Jewish texts.” “Jewish law,” “authority,” “Jewish ethics,” about “Judaism”? Is it possible to isolate and contain the larger warp and woof of Jewish tradition from its deep isolation in an enclavist social and spiritual phenomenon with thought-roots in the Besht and the Gra and the Nefesh Ha’Chayyim and the Chofetz Chayyim?

It might very well be the case that sociologically, Haredi Jews will suffer dangerous exposures to the virus, regardless of human life, in order for the perceived greater good that is the communal form to survive the pandemic. It might be that Haredi communities cannot long survive without the intense form of social bonding that is basic to its way of life? But at what cost and to whom? Can Haredi communities sustain what might turn out to be heightened levels of morbidity? Will society at large continue to suffer the price it takes to sustain this degree of crisis? Why should non-Haredi people put up with behavior that is intentionally anti-social to the point of anarchy. Why shouldn’t the secular state intervene into the chaos these behaviors are creating and why shouldn’t people demand it?  Because at the end of the day, Haredi Jewish communities are part of the larger social fabric. Ethically, they are responsible to it, even if the ethos that marks them is one that draws them into the circular embrace of tight, narrow enclaves. All I have are these uneasy questions, and they may not even be good ones about the gross negligence regarding human life, larger social norms, and the general welfare.

One thing I do know is that liberal Jews, liberal Judaism, and liberal Jewish communities are not part of this problem, that these cultural formations follow “correct” social norms in relation to life and death and the general welfare. 

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Red Rooster (Gemar Chatimah Tovah)

Marc Chagall, Le Coq Rouge (1952)

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