Who By Suicide
"On Yom Kippur it is sealed... Who by water... who by fire... who by plague..."
Why doesn't this famous prayer mention "who by suicide"? Perhaps because, like murder, suicide is subsumed within the other categories. Perhaps because it is dependent on personal choice, rather than Divine decree. And perhaps because it is extremely rare.
Most of us don't want to suffer, and certainly not to die. When suicide does happen (and there have been several such terrible tragedies in my home city this year), it is something that is obviously related to serious psychological difficulties. The natural inclination of all living things is for self-preservation.
How, then, can we explain the attitude of many people to coronavirus?
I'm not necessarily talking about the issue of refraining from important economic or other activities. There are certainly good arguments to be made in both directions regarding the long-term effect of various restrictions on human welfare. (And human welfare is far more complex that just counting how many people could die from Covid-19.) I'm talking about even very simple things, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, which are likely to prevent the virus, and which come at virtually no cost. And yet, there are countless people who don't bother with it.
At an individual level, it can perhaps be explained by laziness or foolishness. But how do we explain it at a communal level? There are entire communities, particularly in the chassidic and wider charedi sectors, in which there is little or no sense of any need to take preventative action. (The picture here is from the notorious Belz wedding.) Why is that the case?
As I've written on several previous occasions, when people act in a certain way, it's not enough to just dismiss it as "crazy" or "evil." There is a reason why people act that way, even if it's a bad reason, and it's important to understand what it is.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a post titled "Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus." I suggested three reasons as to the lack of concern in the charedi community.
The first was that 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. Clearly, this is no longer applicable.
Another suggested reason was that as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. In light of the countless deaths from coronavirus, this is certainly less applicable (though I have heard of Jews in the US, even people who have lost family members, who still believe that it is some sort of hoax).
The third reason that I gave was that as a community based around a siege mentality, charedim are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. I think that this is more true than ever before.
There's a lot of well-earned distrust of the government, in Israel as well as other countries. But for some people, it takes on an additional dimension. In the United States, where there a strong (and largely anti-Torah) emphasis on personal rights, this affects how some people react to mask-wearing and other such enactments. In the charedi community, it strengthens the siege mentality and tribalist tendencies.
An article in Ha-Aretz seeks to relate the charedi community's coronavirus response to its general approach. Somewhat misleadingly titled "Why Haredi Willingness to Contract COVID Could Bankrupt Israel," the subtitle more accurately states "The coronavirus is the latest example of a long-term act of self-destruction." The article details the depressing reports about how elements of the charedi community frequently try to reduce or ignore coronavirus restrictions, and the even more depressing reports about how the charedi community is causing economic ruin by their low participation in the professional workforce. The linkage that it draws between the two is that both reflect a willingness to engage in self-destruction.
No community wants to engage in self-harm. But the charedi community nevertheless engages on such a path, with both coronavirus and economic functioning. Unfortunately, the more that they are pressured to break out of such behavior, the more likely it is that they will see it as a challenge to their identity, triggering a siege mentality which causes them to actively find tribal meaning in it. Many people won't die for nothing, but they will die for a cause, even if that cause is only standing up for one's own identity in face of opposition. This makes efforts to solve the problem particularly difficult.
See too this article which a reader sent to me, Covid-19 and the Failure of the Gedolim, which contains much useful data and fascinating analysis.
In addition, there has been an uptick in people sharing Dennis Rancourt's pseudoscientific paper titled "Masks Don't Work." Here is a detailed rebuttal that I found, which exposes Rancourt's distortions