Jewish communal attitudes and behaviours toward COVID-related restrictions have varied significantly across the world, and in some situations have led to conflict within communities on the appropriateness or otherwise of certain responses. This article explores these from social, cultural, and theological perspectives so as to gain a deeper understanding of the drivers of specific responses. The intent is not to justify, rather to explain and understand. Note that this analysis is based on anecdotal evidence from a number of communities and as such would be classed as ‘non-scientific’. Despite being about a year into this pandemic, we are still in the ‘fog of war’ and there is so much we will only be able to understand through the kind of rigorous analysis that can take place in the years to come, with greater hindsight.
Individualism Versus Collectivism
One of the foundations of the USA is individualism and civil rights, and this is reflected in a number of amendments to the constitution. While civil liberties are expressed on both sides of the political spectrum (gun rights, abortion rights), they are both expressions of a rights-based society, where the rights of individuals are held in the highest order. On the other hand, the principle of universalism is more associated with the political left.
In Asia, collectivism is an important principle in society – the needs of both family and community come before those of the individual. Governments in the region are a mix of democracy, benevolent dictatorship, socialist, and authoritarian (see more below). Yet in all cases, there is a high degree of compliance with government rules.
Where does Judaism fall on these two extremes? Halakhah mostly mandates a priority of the community over the individual. For example, in matters of kodesh, communal sacrifices have a higher priority to those of the individual. With regard to property rights, a public accessway through private property cannot be blocked, and one may not divert a water channel if it will affect others. While slightly tangential, the directive that for someone seriously ill, we may break Shabbat once so that the person will be able to keep Shabbat many times in the future may carry a similar view. These examples indicate that even if there is a clash between the needs of the individual (yahid) and the needs of the community (rabbim), we favor the community.
A fascinating story involving Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky is informative here. The Rabbi was being driven in a car, and reprimanded the driver for not yielding to a city bus out of kavod tzibbur… While this is not halakhic, it does reflect an acute awareness to the needs of the many over the few.
But unlike the well-known Trolley Problem (where we are challenged to take an action that will save multiple lives but cause a single death), under Jewish law, these principles do not extend to human life. The Rambam rules (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 5:5, and based on a case in Gemara Terumot) that if a community receives a threat to “hand over one of you or we will kill you all,” they may not give up an individual – even a specific individual. From this we can see (a) the strong halakhic distinction between active and passive, (b) the limits of putting community ahead of individual, and (c) the importance and value of human life. In the words of the gemara – no person’s blood is redder than anyone else’s.
We can resolve this apparent inconsistency either by recognizing the importance of (a single) human life above all, or by putting categories of laws into different silos: kodesh matters, commercial matters, and human life. The silos sit side-by-side (within property law, community trumps individual), but also exist in a hierarchy (kodesh law trumps commercial law, human life trumps all). In any case, the basic point that the larger Jewish orientation is to prioritize the needs of the community over those of the individual, with important limitations, is clear.
How this informs the COVID response
Asia was the first part of the world to experience COVID. Because of their experience with the SARS virus just a few years prior, many countries had established pandemic protocols and sufficient capacity in their public health systems. Between that and the prevalent collectivist culture, their response was rapid, orderly, and efficient. Thus, countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam were able to bring the initial outbreak under control.
By contrast, in the Western world, we have seen civil rights arguments used as a way to reject government rules that are ostensibly public health policies. (While some Jewish groups, predominantly Orthodox or Haredi, have adopted those arguments, it’s not clear whether they are doing so based on their own belief in civil rights, or driven by other beliefs that may share a common cause.)
Strangely, the halakhic principles mentioned earlier do not appear to be a strong factor in the Jewish community responses to COVID. One would expect that prioritizing the health needs of the many over the few, and the high value of a single human life, would mandate that individuals that are at risk take extra precautions not to infect others, not participate in group activities, and that communities would be extra diligent in safeguarding the health of those most at risk. Yet in many quarters of the Orthodox community, we have not seen vocal expressions of these principles. Why have these halakhic perspectives been muted in parts of the community that are generally deeply committed to the observance of Halakhah?
While the value of the collective has remained important throughout the Orthodox community, in modern times that collectivism has been more often expressed as prioritizing the public perception and standing of the community. Where did this notion come from? It may have evolved over many hundreds of years of Jewish communities living in hostile environments (as I will later explain under the heading of ‘culture’) and therefore led to the importance of not giving gentiles reasons to express their anti-semitism. This has led to a culture of keeping things to ourselves and not “washing our dirty laundry in public.” But in contemporary times, this does not always lead to good outcomes for individuals or communities, and indeed has led to terrible outcomes with regards to cases of domestic and sexual abuse.
The introduction of reputation as an important issue has distorted the previously established silo-like boundaries of collectivism. In commercial matters, we found that the community trumps the individual. When it comes to human life, the individual is paramount. How do we slot reputation into that?
If we apply the Talmudic principle of liflog ve-litnei be-didah, that we seek to highlight difference by comparing two ostensibly similar scenarios, we should not be pitting community reputation over individual health. Rather, we should separately consider reputation and health. In practice, that would mean if there was a reputational issue, we would favour the community reputation over that of any individual. But as mentioned, each of the silos sits in a hierarchy, and human life remains at the top.
Organizational Culture, Intergenerational Trauma, and Respect for Authority
Much has already been written about the extent to which community activity is an intrinsic part of Orthodox and Haredi life, and the impact of being restricted by government during COVID. While we can argue that various Jewish groups have been affected in a way that is qualitatively greater than the general population, it’s worth looking deeper at other cultural elements that have contributed to the response.
Having seen open disregard for and dispute of many government regulations, it’s worth exploring Jewish cultural attitudes to government and authority.
Jewish organizational culture has evolved over thousands of years, the vast majority of which we lived under oppressive governments which granted us limited rights, subjecting us to violence. In the Orthodox and Haredi narrative, what kept communities going during that time was their observance of Jewish practices – Torah and mitzvot.
Consider the deeply embedded Haredi culture: Government does not serve our best interests, and is often anti-semitic and opposed to our interests. Only by abiding by the Torah way of life can we survive. Our community members are the only ones who can look after us. We need to cling to our traditions, keep isolated, and separate from the wider community to perpetuate our way of life. This has evolved into a ‘siege mentality’ when it comes to anything from outside.
The fact that we now live in an open democratic society has meant different things to different communities as we move across the spectrum from Modern Orthodox to Orthodox to Haredi.
Modern Orthodoxy has found a middle path that seeks to engage both with contemporary society and maintain Orthodox practice. At the other end of the spectrum, for Haredi communities, engagement with the modern world is just a shifted threat that is spiritual rather than physical (and in some ways, that may be considered worse).
The trauma experienced by our ancestors is transmitted to us and does not magically fade away just because we have grown up in a free society. All it takes is governments that start to restrict Jewish practice (no matter what the reason), and instantly the fear returns.
When we consider communities that came from communist Russia after the Second World War (predominantly Chabad), there is an added dimension: a proud history of defying government rules against organized religion. My late grandparents and their wider family were part of a network that operated ‘illegal’ minyanim and yeshivot, and went to great lengths to ensure Jewish boys were able to have a bris. Their threats included masrim – Jewish informers.
With regulations against minyanim and other gatherings, the issue of mesirah has again raised its head. Many insular Haredi communities have maintained the strict prohibition against mesirah, while other communities have openly stated that it no longer applies when we have ‘friendly’ governments and judicial systems that protect the rights of all citizens. The Haredi culture of “we look after things ourselves” has led to serious failures in dealing with domestic and sexual abuse. It is clear that reporting abuse to police is not just permitted, but should be encouraged. But what about reporting a secret illegal minyan in your street? That is not so simple.
In Australia, during the first wave (which affected the entire country) people were most diligent in maintaining the restrictions as shuls closed down. T he second wave in Melbourne is seen as a result of government incompetence , and the rate at which restrictions are being lifted are considered by many to be politically motivated, and somewhat arbitrary.
This led to a number of distinct responses over that period, which included the yamim noraim:
- We continue to fully abide by the government rules, no matter what they are. Holding a minyan when it is not allowed is halakhically unacceptable. As an example, I was fortunate to attend a bar mitzvah in shul on the last Shabbat before the second wave restrictions were introduced. At the time, twenty men and twenty women were allowed to attend. We sat socially distanced, but the women did not. Before hazarat ha-shatz, the Rabbi announced that the hazan could not continue unless the women complied with regulations, or else it would be considered a berakhah levatalah. This is a straight-as-it-gets interpretation of dina de-malhuta dina.
- Another community opted to run minyanim by registering as ‘mental health support groups.’ They followed social distancing guidelines, and did not hide in any way. They were regularly reported, and received visits from the police, as well as some negative publicity and criticism from other parts of the community.
- As the yamim noraim approached and the second wave seriously declined, a number of home minyanim emerged (some secret, some not). In some cases, they were in streets where a minyan happened to live within earshot, so people could stand in their front gardens and participate (whether people can be mitztaref to a minyan on either side of a street is, like many things in Halakhah, a matter of differing opinions). Some minyanim were secret and indoors. A handful were reported by neighbours and received visits from the police ordering that they disperse.
These distinct approaches roughly fell along Modern Orthodox and Haredi/Hasidic lines, in an environment where most would agree the public health risk of operating minyanim was very low. This example supports the notion that the organizational cultures of these communities contribute to their response.
However, the situation in Melbourne (less than 5 new cases per million population per day) contrasted significantly with communities in Israel (about 600 during Sukkot) and the USA (about 70 in New York state, and probably much higher in frum zip codes), where second waves were very serious and the public health threat remained high. The response in Melbourne would have been very different if case numbers were higher, or if there was significant risk in the Jewish suburbs. So in the large communities in the US and Israel, are the cultural elements identified sufficient to shift behaviour, or are there other factors at play? This brings us to a final element: rationalism and mysticism.
Rationalism Versus Mysticism
The notion of distinct rational versus mystical approaches to Judaism has been popularized by self-described rationalist Rabbi Natan Slifkin. In short, rationalists look to human knowledge rather than exclusively faith, favor natural explanations over miracles, and seek to minimize the role of supernatural entities and forces. It makes sense to think of this as a spectrum rather than a bifurcation, especially as Jewish communities are so diverse and fractured.
The evolution of these streams from the Middle Ages to contemporary times is beyond the scope of this article, and is itself worthy of further exploration. That said, it would appear that Hasidim tend to be more on the mystical end of the spectrum, Modern Orthodox and Orthodox at the rational end, and the yeshivish world occupies significant space in the middle of the spectrum.
This perspective is most salient when the science of COVID (albeit grappling with many unknowns) tells us that davening with a minyan and learning in a yeshiva are dangerous for our physical health, and tradition tells us that not davening with a minyan and not learning in a yeshiva are dangerous for our spiritual health.
Thus, Rabbi Slifkin takes issue with a lengthy pesak from Rav Moshe Shaul Klein, a member of Rav Wosner’s Beis Din and considered a leading posek in the Haredi world. Rav Klein draws on the principle of “sheluhei mitzvah ainan nizokim” – that people doing a mitzvah enjoy a form of spiritual protection from danger, which is contingent on the important test of “shekhiyah hezeika” – essentially the risk factor. We would not say someone is protected from injury while walking to shul and crossing the road recklessly. There are essentially two issues here: to what extent do we apply the principle of sheluhei mitzvah in the modern world? And how do we quantify the COVID risk?
A rationalist will tend to downplay the halakhic weight of the sheluhei mitzvah principle. Indeed, given the examples of its application in Halakhah relates to risk of snakebites while davening shemoneh esrei and searching for hametz in a decrepit house, it’s generally considered in the category of halakhot that are less relevant in modern times. Indeed, the extent of its application these days is the custom of giving tzedakah to someone before they travel overseas.
If we do accept that it has practical applications in these times, it then hangs on the risk level, and that poses another challenge: what information does the posek rely on to make that assessment? Consult with one expert and be told that it is rampant, and another and be told that the risks are only high for people with co-morbidities. Can anyone be objective about this?
This touches on the principle of Da’as Torah – that we should seek the input of Rabbanim not just on matters of Halakhah, but on all important life matters, on the basis that their knowledge of Torah serves as a spiritual sense to provide general life counsel. Again, this is a Haredi principle (perhaps a yeshivish version of the approach of Hasidim to seeking counsel from their Rebbe) that a rationalist would reject.
Thus, Rav Klein’s approach differs starkly from that of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, whose starting proposition is that during a she’at magefah (a time of plague), standing next to the ba’al koreh for an aliyah is a danger (sakanah), with no qualification. Assuming that there will be keriyat ha-Torah in shul, his issue becomes how to handle the aliyot, and he draws on the Halakhah relating to whether a blind person who receives an aliyah could theoretically do so from his seat, as he cannot follow along. Rabbi Schachter, as posek for OU and a Rosh Yeshiva of YU, in this respect represents a typical Modern Orthodox approach, which leans more toward the rationalist Jewish view of the world.
At the best of times, Halakhah is subjective. The identical chicken brought to a Rabbi may be ruled as kosher on Friday afternoon for a poor woman with guests coming in just a few hours, and not kosher for a financially comfortable woman on a Wednesday. The difference is not the circumstance of the case (the heftza), but rather the context of the questioner (the gavra). The essential element to being a good posek is shimush – learning from the experience of others, and developing a sense of what halakhic humrot and kullot should be applied when. That is the ‘art’ of Halakhah.
What this example illustrates is how the rationalist-mystic bias influences the halakhic process. One posek classifies COVID as black and white sakanah, and another uses the shades-of-gray test of shekhiyah hezeika. That initial decision is the foundation for what follows. What influences this choice? We might suggest that for the rationalist, science is fixed and Halakhah is flexible, and for the mystic they are reversed. The rationalist has a high ‘belief’ in science, and once we establish that there is danger for everyone, uses halakhic devices to do the best we can under the circumstances. The mystic either has less trust in science, or more trust in the primacy of ritual practice, its ability to protect us from harm, and the huge risk – social, cultural, and metaphysical – of putting a pause on those activities.
We have identified a number of factors that impact how Jewish communities respond to COVID-related restrictions. Beyond the scope of this article is the political dimension, which has also been significant. Most communities are affected by more than one factor. Some of them are competing, and others are compounding, and the compounding effect generally tends to lead to even worse health outcomes.
So much of this is a product of our diversity and dispersion. There is no single Jewish response or halakhic position to anything in this world. The most effective responses to COVID have been geographic, where rules can be established to limit the spread of the disease, but as a people we are mefuzar u-meforad – spread out across the world. In a time when other countries and communities have been able to unite against a rare event that truly affects everyone, we continue to be our own worst enemies and our divisions tear us apart.
 Singapore’s second wave came from within the neglected immigrant worker population who live in poor conditions, and are a lower priority for government. Similar situations occurred in the Emirates, who also have multiple ‘classes.’