Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus
It's extraordinary. It was just a few weeks ago that Rav Aharon Feldman was being "mevatel his daas" to Rav Chaim Kanievsky regarding voting in the WZO elections. Now, we have the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of Agudas Yisrael of America saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky makes serious mistakes in his communal guidance.
Of course, they don't say that explicitly. What they explicitly say is that everyone must listen to medical advice and close all the shuls and yeshivos. But Rav Chaim Kanievsky famously stated a few days ago that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it. The Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America are now effectively saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was completely, dangerously wrong.
There's been a lot of talk in the last few days about the charedi response (or lack of response) to coronavirus. I saw plenty of crowds while driving through charedi neighborhoods in Ramat Beit Shemesh. There were large chassidishe weddings here in Beit Shemesh, in which the invitations urged people not to take photos which could lead to prosecution. The Litvishe Yeshivos in Israel carried on as normal (which is only just now beginning to change). Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, rosh yeshivah of the massive Ateres Shlomo network of yeshivos, is on video leading his students to sing "We will not listen to their (the health department) regulations." And even the statement of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America, as welcome as it is, is coming several days late.
Many people have responded by referring to the Gedolim or the charedi community as "stupid," "evil" or even "murderous." This is a mistake. As I always make clear in my talks and writings about the notorious ban on my books, people are generally not either stupid or evil. You have to understand their worldview and how it causes them to develop their approach. The opposition to my books was completely understandable, even if its expression in terms of a ban on the books as being heretical was incorrect and mistaken. Likewise, the severely deficient charedi response to coronavirus is completely understandable, when you understand the charedi world.
As I wrote in my monographs on the Novelty of Orthodoxy and the Making of Haredim, the chareidi community developed in the twentieth century based on taking to an extreme the Orthodox concept of communal segregation. They developed a siege mentality; in fact, the first time I saw the phrase "siege mentality" used in reference to charedim was in an article by none other than Rav Aharon Feldman about the Israeli Yated Neeman. Wider society, and especially the government, is the "other." Charedim separate themselves from the "other," and are suspicious of it. Likewise, they are hostile to secular knowledge, science and rationalism.
Coronavirus has challenged us with changes to our lifestyle that are unprecedented and which initially seem crazy and unthinkable. Most of us have made this rapid change because we have been strongly motivated to do so, by a combination of three things. First is the terrifying reports that we read online from Italy and elsewhere. Second is our trust in government authorities with regard to their guidance and regulations. Third is our acceptance of the basic underlying worldview of the scientific community.
Chareidi communities are lacking in all three of those. As a relatively isolated community, they are less in tune with the news and mood of the wider world, and their reactions to events lag behind the rest of us (and in Corona Time, a lag of even a few days is a lifetime). As a community based around a siege mentality, they are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. And as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. It's only to be expected that the response to coronavirus would be deficient - and that the American Gedolim, less insular than the Israeli Gedolim, would lag less far behind.
Meanwhile, the charedi community is facing complete and utter collapse. The global economic costs of coronavirus are going to be serious; for the charedi community, they will be catastrophic. Already, there is a video of someone asking Rav Chaim Kanievsky what to tell donors to kollelim who are nervous about parting with funds during these uncertain times. Rav Chaim responds with the assurance that the donors will make double of the amount that they donate, but this is unlikely to resonate with people who are also aware of Rav Chaim's previous assurance that yeshivos should stay open to protect from coronavirus.
Many charedim do not have meaningful employment, nor job skills, nor even see work as desirable. They live off government support and private donations, and these are going to be rapidly drying up. They need to make an immediate and drastic transformation to their lifestyle, and start training themselves and their children with the skills and desire for meaningful employment. This in turn will require their rejection of the insistence of the Gedolim that there is no correlation between secular education and parnasah.
The charedi community is going to need bailing out, big time. But right now, before the situation becomes any more dire, donations to charedi institutions should be made with a message to the recipient that just as hishtadlus (closing yeshivos, social distancing, etc.) has been necessary to protect from the virus, so too will hishtadlus be necessary going forward in terms of preparing our children and communities to survive in a world which now lacks the financial resources to support a kollel lifestyle. Which means difficult changes. It means teaching all our children the desire to work and the skills and education to get a job. It means the recipients acknowledging that the Gedolim were wrong about coronavirus, about Rav Chaim's leadership and about other things.
It will be very hard for many donors to insist on this, and even harder for many charedim to acknowledge it. But it's a matter of life and death - from coronavirus, and from poverty.
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