(Torah Trumps Life) Haredi Response to Covid and Uncivil Religion

I wrote this essay, “Torah Trumps Life,” trying to get a handle on the catastrophic Haredi response to Covid during year-one of the pandemic. It is my contrubution to this special issue on Jewish Thiought in Times of Crisis, edited by Elias Sacks and Andrea Cooper. The basic point is that going back to the locus classicus of this concept in the Babylonian Talmud highlights the fact that Pikuach Nefesh (saving life) is not the most important thing in Judaism. Haredi response to Covid shows how tight-knit communal value-systems lend themselves to communal forms of Uncivil Religion. Tight-knit value systems will always sustain the value-system and the autonomy of the value-system against the larger common good of the secular order upon which it depends and against which it sets itself. In these types of communal forms, the value of the holy way of life is more important than life itself.

These are some basic segments to the essay:

Abstract: “As if by design, crisis reveals basic structural fault lines. In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, non-Haredi Jews expressed surprise and even outrage about the ultra-orthodox Haredi response to the pandemic. It was not understood how large-scale violations of public health protocols comported with the legal-halakhic principle of Pikuaḥ Nefesh (saving human life). In this essay, I explore Hasidic response to COVID-19 as reported in the secular and Haredi press and in emergent social science literature about this crisis. I place Haredi response to crisis in relation to the clash between two sets of values: the value of saving human life and the value of intensive Talmud study (talmud Torah) and ritual-communal practice. In what Robert Cover called a paideic nomos, there are more important things than human life. What we see already in the Babylonian Talmud is the profound ambiguity of paideic norms vis-à-vis the larger public good.”


“From a distinctly liberal point of view, my own fascination at the particular form of conservative, ultra-religious Haredi paideic nomos is meant to address larger interlocking questions about religion and value. First, I am looking at the basis in the paideic order of Talmud and at Haredi first responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to clarify theoretical questions about Jewish norms and values. Knowing that this will, of course, depend upon the “Judaism” in question, I still want to ask an overarching set of questions. What is the most important thing in Judaism, and what does Judaism value most of all? Second, I am interested in political questions about religion and secularism, about the value of the nomos of a paideic community versus the value of the secular canopy of a liberal political nomos. In these reflections, I will observe how both Talmud and Haredi first response to COVID-19 confounded “common sense” and “conventional wisdom” as represented by the broader liberal public and by public health professionals inside and outside of government. What we learn from Haredi first response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that nothing about Judaism and Jewish ethics is what one thought it was at first glance. The first Haredi response to COVID-19 revealed that the one thing that “everyone” believed that they could agree upon about Judaism was not actually true: namely, that the preservation of human life is paramount in “Judaism.”. Haredi first response to COVID-19 has also shown that liberal political theorists since Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke were right about the perceived need to subordinate religious interests and ecclesiastical authority to state authority and the public good. What becomes clear at a moment of life and death crisis is that the larger life of the paideic nomos is a life-form that seeks to sustain itself in the face of that very crisis: above all and even unto death, paideic nomoi steeped in values value values more than mortal human life itself.”


“With its own special value-set based on holiness or purity, paideic nomos is a “distinct” and crystallized social sphere that is, for all that, not “separate” from society at large. Embedded in political life, its primary sphere of competence and virtue is not political. Regarding the specific form of Haredi paideic community, the perceived distance from profane, conventional life is more or less charming. The attraction is aesthetic and lends itself to romanticism. Haredi nomoi generate aura and attract the gaze of outsiders. At the same time, there is the exclusive devotion to the life of the enclave and to the hard sectarian boundary-making that makes the enclave possible. In this, they prove to be extraordinarily brittle at moments of crisis. Rather than pulling society together, paideic communities are uncivil and asocial in their separation from the larger mainstream, the liberal nomos, where political interests are ordinarily negotiated, accommodated and accommodating, determined pragmatically, contrapuntally in order to secure vital things basic to human life and the life of the polis. In modern times, the common good is a state-political responsibility that trumps the interest of religion when they collide.”

[[Zachary Braiterman, “Torah Trumps Life: Reflections on Uncivil Religion and Haredi Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic” in Elias Sacks and Andrea Cooper (eds.), Religions 14: 946 (18 pp.)

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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1 Response to (Torah Trumps Life) Haredi Response to Covid and Uncivil Religion

  1. dmf says:

    indeed, they proved that they hold themselves not just as a people apart from the general community but as a people above the rest of us who they are willing to sacrifice to their G-d, an attitude they apparently not only feel entitled to but indignantly insist we should honor…

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