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.