(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. 

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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