Fear of A Lost Haredi Coronavirus Generation (Why the Haredim Will Not and Cannot Close Yeshivot to Protect Human Life)


[h/t William Kolbrener]

People who know better know better, and please help me out here. But among Jews and maybe even gentiles, among secular and liberal and modern orthodox Jews, among Jewish thought leaders (legal theorists and ethicists), there is a common, romantic view that the insularity of Haredi communities create “integral Jewish communities.” They are supposed to mimic the old way of life of the Ghetto before Emancipation, when once upon a time Jewish life was secured on the social compact of a semi-autonomous corporate identity binding Jews together, even against their will.

It is, indeed, true that the re-institution of Haredi communities, particularly in the United States and in Israel, is a remarkable social, ideological, and religious-spiritual phenomenon. Attracting a relatively large social mass, these are uniquely powerful incubators of Jewish life.

But the recent new-Coronavirus is providing something of a stress test. In the United States, the Haredi schools are closing down. Because the law of the land is law, because there’s no choice, because state and local authorities insist, and because of the epidemic. In Israel, things are different. Because of their demographic-political power, the Haredi religious leadership are now able to resist the decree of the Health Ministry and the better counsel of leaders from the Haredi political parties represented in the government.

Why are the yeshivot in Israel not closing?

Last week, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior of Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi rabbis in that country, refused the order to close the yeshivot and other Haredi institutions. With a vague and probably unenforceable promise that the institutions would practice social distancing, his word was final, and the schools are now, apparently, open.

But why?

There have been words about a theological belief system asserting the cosmic importance of Torah study, the notion that Torah study sustains the world, that the power of a tzadik and the power of Torah study protect students from the harm of a biological virus. Of note is this open letter of support from Kanievsky and another Haredi luminary Rabbi Gershon Edelstein reported and linked here.

But, that’s not the real reason.

More important than belief is the factor observed here by journalist Anshel Pfeffer. As is well known, the Haredi communities and their leadership in Israel have secured a real degree of social autonomy and political leverage vis-a-vis the state. Following the government dictate to close the schools would violate that hard won autonomy of a powerful minority community.

But there’s something more basic and even fatal at stake for these communities, as reported here in this article at Kikar Ha’Shabbat, a Haredi news-website and here in an article about a report by Asaf Malchi at at the Israel Democracy Institute concerning long standing attrition rates among yeshiva students that have been accelerated by the pandemic.

Closing down the yeshivot and other haredi schools is not merely a technical matter. It would be nothing short of a disaster. Expressed by people close to Rabbi Kanievsky is the self-understood certainty (!) that the minute they close the yeshivot for even a second, they won’t be able to re-open them, that they will lose the entire generation of young people to the surrounding non-Haredi world, that once out they can’t get them back. A deadly virus they can survive, but not this.

The takeaway is what?

Haredi communities are not, in fact, integral, organic, or self-sustaining. Call them what you want, a fragile social eco-system or an artificial construct, These insular communities depend upon their very insularity, a vast array of walls, buttressed by the intensity of their talmud Torah separating their people from the larger outside. There is no on-off switch. The second the system shuts down, it’s over. They will not be able to reboot. That seems to be the fear.

The relevant quotes from the article are here:

אמר אחד מראשי הישיבות הגדולים, שתלמידו שמשמש כראש ישיבה בפני עצמו השתתף גם הוא בשיחה, את הדברים הבאים:

בממשלה סבורים שסגירת הישיבות היא עניין טכני כמו סגירת אוניברסיטאות ובתי חינוך שלהם.

אני מבקש שתמסרו לר’ חיים ור’ גרשון, שאם הישיבה שלי תיסגר לא יהיה בכוחי להקים אותה מחדש! היום קשה מאוד להחזיק בחורים בהתנזרות ממה שקורה בחוץ, ללא טלפונים חכמים וכדומה. אם תהיה הפסקה של חמישה שבועות ללא אפשרות למסגרות כמו ישיבות בין הזמנים, תביא לבטלה והבטלה תביא לידי חטא.

הדבר יצור בישיבות את ‘דור הקורונה’ שיהיו ברמה רוחנית כזו שספק אם יוכלו לחזור ללמוד. לא רואה אפשרות לשקם רוחנית תלמידים שיותר מחודשיים ללא מסגרת ללא משטר רוחני

On FB, I’m getting interesting push back attesting to the rigor of Haredi communities and against the imputation of insularity. It could be that the views expressed here in the article are a one-off. But I’m not entirely sure. The traditional public chizuk about the protective power of Torah feels like a thin reed compared to the more pressing sociological anxiety expressed in confidence as reported on a community news site.

I am sure that this is an unfolding, fluid event, that the yeshivot will adapt and adjust protocols, that there will be all sorts of variation within the community, and that the reflections reflected here are only a snapshot at this particular moment. I am not pretending to any expert knowledge here, not that of an insider or an academic outsider. But the idea of constant Torah study in the face of the unique threats posed by modernity is an old point of view that goes back to Volozhin and Musar. What caught my attention here was something about the internal logic of the statement that seems of a piece with that tradition re: “fragility” in the system.

Lastly, the article states that the person who made the comment is not some run of the mill rosh yeshiva, but the head of  a major yeshiva and (the implication was that he) is close to Kanievsky. But regardless, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what would happen if the boys left the yeshiva for “x” amount of time, and to wonder would they come back. Because you know, stop for a second to admire the beauty of a furrowed field and….

By way of postscript: this post reflects the first and confused response on the part of Kanievsky to the pandemic. Since then, he has ruled to close yeshivot and synagogues, but this article here posted March 29 suggests that on the street compliance remains at this still early date still confused, uneven, and dangerous. Written by Anshel Pfeffer, the bottom line remains the same, that “This is not just a way of life. It is the ideological battle of a community that will not have the government and its experts tell it how to fight a plague.” Posted April 11, this article here in the TOI, with comments by Benny Brown, an expert in Haredi thought and culture at the Hebrew University reflects on an uncertain future, suggesting growing accommodation, adaption in Haredi society vis-a-vis its own normative institutions and the larger non-Haredi society. About Haredim and soldiers serving the public in Bnei Brak, this  article from the NYT posted April 15 does so as well. In October, Kanievsky came down with Covid.

About the fear of closing down yeshivot and synagogues, see this statement here from October 2020 from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah. At a moment when NYS is facing a second wave of virus, expressed here is a concern for the the public relations disaster faced by Haredi communities. On one hand, there is a recognition that number of cases is disproportionate in the Haredi community and there is a call for testing and for isolating infected people. On the other  hand is the need to “assure the ongoing function of our schools and shuls.” Because “our survival depends on it!” “The core of our existence, our ruchnius lifeline and our societal endurance are in the direct hazard of abrupt shutdown!” The statement could not be more clear-sighted. Haredi society would collapse without these institutions maintaining the separate, enclave structure of the community.

The fear that once they close the yeshivot won’t reopen, that the yeshiva students, a large number of them won’t return is expressed here in this article here about the Belzer rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach and the Gerrer rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter. By October and December (2020) there was this report here and this brief report here according to which according to which “some 30% of yeshiva students have left their yeshivas since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.” “Out of 80,000 bochurim, 24,000 are now on the streets.” All to highlight the fragility of this very artificial social construct and the intensive arrangement needed to be kept in place to uphold the institutions without which the Haredi system could not exist.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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