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COVID-19, Haredi Jewry, and ‘Magical’ Thinking

During quarantine, we judge the ultra-Orthodox for practicing what other Jews preach

by
Shaul Magid
April 30, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Hundreds of members of an Orthodox Jewish community attend the funeral for a rabbi who died from the coronavirus in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, on April 5, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At an academic conference some years ago I heard the following joke told by philosopher Slavoj Zizek:

A student went to his philosophy professor’s house for a visit. As he knocked on the front door, he noticed there was a horseshoe hanging above the door post. When the professor answered the door, the student said, “Dear professor, why do you have a horseshoe hanging above your door? Everything you taught us would say believing in this stuff in nonsense.” The professor replied, “Oh yes, I certainly do not believe any of it. But they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

I thought of this joke as I read the many essays about Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews’ responses to the coronavirus. Many attempts have been made to try to understand, and often criticize, the Haredi community’s lack of expediency in closing yeshivot, enacting social distancing, and heeding medical advice. Many reasons have been given as to why this was so, some more convincing than others. Some attribute their actions to underlying beliefs in the protective character of Torah study, others to the strong focus on communal religious worship. Frequently, we find criticism, often from Modern Orthodox circles, that these beliefs are so embedded in the Haredi world that they have undermined their ability to heed science. Others claim that Haredim’s lack of scientific education made them unprepared to understand what was at stake.

A certain cynical attitude underlies some of these accusations, as if to suggest that Haredi Jews have somehow misinterpreted or misunderstood normative Judaism in ways that resulted in endangering their communities. But what I find more compelling as an explanation is an innate distrust of civil authorities’ ability to judge when a danger is so extreme that it would mandate ceasing from religious activities. Haredim are certainly aware that danger requires avoidance and distancing. I will offer one example. Rabbi Moshe Schick (1807-1879), known as MaHaRaM Shick, was one of the most venerated Haredi halachic authorities of his generation. In the midst of a long responsum he wrote:

… even regarding things related to the body (שייך לגוף ), it is forbidden to go under an unstable bridge or a crooked wall, all the more so to any dangerous place in regard to one’s soul (שייך לנפש), as the Torah teaches, “Guard yourself and guard your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Since the law prohibits going someplace that would endanger one’s body, we also find that it is prohibited to go to any place where there is danger [more generally], for doesn’t the Torah teach, “Let there not be found blood in your house.” (Deuteronomy 22:8) …

The Haredim are certainly aware of avoiding danger. The question is more about authority—who gets to determine danger and who gets to dictate what activities need to cease in light of it.

But what has been less examined is the extent to which this dire situation exposes certain fissures in modern iterations of Judaism more generally. It makes plain what we all knew, which was that many Jews who claim fidelity to normative Jewish law and practice, as rooted in the textual tradition, have also fully absorbed the Enlightenment idea that science, or scientific knowledge, represents the most accurate representation of reality—even, or especially, when it conflicts with religious beliefs. It is certainly true that Haredi leaders misjudged this pandemic and their constituents have paid a high price. However, the Haredim were “negligent” in part because they actually took seriously religious beliefs that many traditional Jews claim to hold. In other words: They really believe it!

The notion of covenantal reciprocity, that our actions are an answer to a divine command that will evoke divine mercy, runs down the spine of the entire tradition. It does not suggest mitzvot will always protect us as if they are some magical formula; we know this is not the case, as the sages somewhat cynically teach, “there are no rewards for mitzvot in this world.” But this equation is arguably the very operating system of Judaism. Other Jewish communities that pledge fidelity to the tradition are well aware of these rabbinic precepts and this idea. But in actuality, they do not really believe them, not when confronted with scientific counterevidence. And what exactly does that say about the “belief” of the modern Jew?

Now it is certainly true that the rabbinic precept of a life-threatening situation (pikuah nefesh) nullifies all obligations, and Haredim know that as well as non-Haredi Jews. But when exactly the pandemic met the halachically mandated pikuah nefesh is a matter about which there can be some debate. Pikuah nefesh is not a halachic category easily deployed for an entire population, its effects are so far-reaching. In a state of pikuah nefesh, one can eat nonkosher food, desecrate the Sabbath, and eat on Yom Kippur. There is the famous story of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883), the founder of the modern Musar movement who made Kiddush in synagogue on Yom Kippur during a cholera epidemic (the story is recounted in Baruch Epstein, Mekor Baruch 2:11). There is some doubt as to whether he actually made Kiddush at his synagogue, but that he ate in public to encourage his constituents to do the same is widely acknowledged. But this reasoning is certainly not applicable to the current situation of quarantine.

For the Jew who professes belief in the tradition and also in secular science, the threat of the coronavirus has helped illuminate where his emphases lie. In a recent essay on this subject, “Corona Virus is a Wake-Up Call for ultra-Orthodox Jews,” the modern Orthodox rabbinic hero Irving “Yitz” Greenberg claims that the “theology [of the Haredim] are refuted by facts.” But how do “facts” refute theology? Or support it? He continues, “The second serious misinterpretation in Haredi theology is to see sickness and natural catastrophes as divine punishment for sins rather than as natural phenomena.” Of course, that “theology” is not exclusively “Haredi,” but flows through most of the canonical tradition, including our liturgy (e.g., “because of our sins, we were exiled”).

In addition, Greenberg attributes Haredi inaction to a belief in “magic.” He writes, “Magic claims that through certain words or action—in this case, religious faith/behaviors—God is ‘compelled’ to do what the practitioner wants. … The Torah treats magic as abhorrent.” This is true, but not quite what was at issue with the Haredim. When one says that Torah study protects the Jew, he is not saying that it “compels” God to protect them from harm. Rather, it suggests that doing God’s will serves as strengthening a covenantal bond between God and Israel that merits divine protection. This supposition can be found in thousands of canonical sources. There is nothing inherently mystical or magical about it. Greenberg accuses the Haredi community of engaging in what he calls “magic” by (literally) believing, and acting on, what the sages said about the protective nature of mitzvot.

Consider that Jews often recite Psalms in times of distress of danger. Is it just to calm our nerves, or do we believe it can be, in some real way, efficacious? If the latter, is that “magic”? The fact that the modern Orthodox and other Jewish communities quickly ceased from the public study of Torah, closed schools, and sheltered in place was indeed smart, and correct. But the fact that there was not much consideration, as far as I know, about rabbinic teaching and the efficacy of mitzvot also says something about the ways those communities navigate between tradition and modernity. It seems clear, when science trumps religious practice, we believe science. Nothing more to be said. The Haredim, on the other hand, actually believe these religious precepts and thus were slower to concede in this circumstance—with tragic results.

But perhaps we discount the Haredi response too flippantly. What does all this say about our relationship to the tradition?

If this was simply about modern Jewish communities heeding their belief in science over religion, nothing here would be that new or interesting. But the story does not end here. The complexity of modernity and Judaism, and religion more generally, has another important layer. Modern traditional communities often pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, what to take seriously and what to discount, sometimes in ways that are far closer to “magic” than the belief that Torah study protects one from harm.

For example, when a noted Israeli Kabbalist named Ben Tov, who claimed to be able to see one’s soul-root by reading one’s mezuzah, visited New York in the early 2000s, dozens, even hundreds, of modern Orthodox Jews lined up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, mezuzahs in hand. And when a modern Orthodox couple I know had a fire in their home, the first thing they did afterward was to get their mezuzahs checked. They wanted to see whether nonkosher mezuzot could explain their misfortune.

For the Jew who professes belief in the tradition and also in secular science, the threat of the coronavirus has helped illuminate where his emphases lie.

The mezuzah is a good example, because the great legal codifier Maimonides makes it quite clear how easily the mezuzah can be treated by its owner as an amulet, that is, something that will protect your home from harm. After all, one source offered for the mezuzah is the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite homes in Egypt to protect them from the plague of the firstborn. For Maimonides, however, the sole purpose of the mezuzah is a reminder of divine presence. Anything else borders on “magic.” But, of course, much of later tradition, certainly influenced by Kabbalah, argues that the mezuzah does, in fact, have protective (“magical”) power and thus should be checked if calamity falls. It is certainly not only Haredim who believe this (see Maimonides’ “Laws of Idolatry” 11:12 and Guide to the Perplexed 1:61).

In addition, how many modern Orthodox Jews travel to receive a blessing from a Kabbalist while in Israel, or received a dollar from the Lubavitcher rebbe, which was then saved as a charm (segulah)? I recall many of my friends in Israel, religious and secular, who had a bottle of water blessed by the famous Israeli Kabbalist Yitzhak Kaduri (1898-2006) tucked away in their refrigerator with the label “do not drink.” How many make the trek to the grave of the first-century sage Yonatan ben Uziel, in Amuka in the Galilee, to pray for a soul mate? Or stuff notes in the cracks in the Kotel? While there is certainly nothing wrong with such behavior, it is a kind of “it can’t hurt” Judaism, or maybe a folk Judaism. Maybe these Jews don’t really believe it will be efficacious but, like Zizek’s “professor,” maybe they think it works even if you don’t believe.

But what if you really do believe?

My point is that while the Haredim may be exemplars of what scholar of religion Bruce Lincoln calls religious maximalism, other traditional Jews may be exemplars of religious minimalism. Such minimalism, however, is not consistent: It includes an “it can’t hurt,” unbelief, what we can perhaps call “Zizek’s horseshoe.” If we have an ailment, we go to a doctor—and then, sometimes, we may get a blessing from a Kabbalist. The former is necessary and the latter is a kind of “just-in-case-ism.”

For the Haredi Jew, however, both may be necessary, perhaps equally. Many modern traditional Jews study talmudic passages that support the Haredi position, but when the secular world—in this case, science—intervenes, those views quickly give way. Why? Well, in part because they know that those teachings should not be taken literally. But then how do we determine what we should take literally, and what we shouldn’t?

This may be an apt time to examine our religious minimalism. Many of us profess fidelity to a tradition that teaches us things we simply do not believe, but we are not quite ready to admit that. When William James asked a schoolboy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, if he knew what religion was, the boy responded, “Sure, believing in something you know isn’t true.” When science intervenes in our religious orbit, we reflexively choose science without thinking much about what that choice represents. When facing COVID-19, of course, this was the right choice, but shouldn’t it also tell us something about our belief? Was the Cambridge schoolboy correct?

I think Peter Berger’s thesis in his The Sacred Canopy can be illuminating on this point. On secularization and the problem of plausibility, Berger writes:

Put differently, secularization has resulted in a wide-spread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality … In other words, the phenomenon called “pluralism” is a social structural correlate of the secularization of consciousness … different strata of modern society have been affected by secularization differently in terms of their closeness to or distance from these processes.

For many of us, our religious lives exist under the canopy of the secular, a view of reality that has to some extent undermined the plausibility of religion as the frame of how we define the world. As Krister Stendahl, Harvard Divinity School professor and bishop of Stockholm, used to tell us, “Religion is a very dangerous thing.” Especially if you believe it. And so, when things are at stake, we choose science and disparage anyone who refuses, or is slow, to follow suit.

Ambiguity, doubt, or skepticism, lies at the very core of the modern religious experience more generally and the modern Jewish experience in particular. This is not only in regard to faith (e.g., “do I really believe in the principles the tradition mandates as true?”) but in the very nature of interpretation of canonical texts. On this, philosopher David Tracy writes, in Plurality and Ambiguity, “as the great interpreters have always recognized, the classics will not be so easily tamed. We may risk identifying with them only at the price of finding our present self-identity undone.” This may go all the way back to the “fact versus virtue” debates in the early Enlightenment. What can we really know about religion in relation to truth?

There are few contemporary traditionalists who understood the depth of ambiguity and skepticism in Judaism better than Joseph Soloveitchik, the pioneering figure of modern Orthodoxy. Yet while his Judaism remains influential, the internal engine of ambiguity, doubt, and skepticism that lies at its core seems to have largely disappeared. A friend and one-time student of Soloveitchik, Fred Sommers, once told me that he said to Soloveitchik in the mid-1940s, “I am having doubts about the existence of God,” to which Soloveitchik, putting his arm around his young student, responded, “Fred, intellectually it’s about 50-50 … But we have to believe.” Fred left Orthodoxy in the 1950s to become a renowned analytic philosopher. Soloveitchik largely avoided succumbing to the pull of the irrationalities that had in his time already become quite normative, even in his community. There is a story that a student once came up to him and said, “Rabbi Soloveitchik, I would like you to give me a blessing,” to which the Rav responded, “Why, are you an apple?”

The Haredim, or at least some of them, live in a different spiritual orbit. They take the sages at their word. They get blessings because they believe they work. They study Torah because they believe it works. When they argue in Israel that Torah study protects Israel and thus they should be exempt from army service, we look askance. We are cynical. We don’t believe that some of them, at least, really believe that. And is there any way that we can really prove them wrong?

Many of us look at Haredim as quaint, naïve, uninformed, in a previous era we might have called them “uncivilized.” But uninformed about what exactly? That Torah study will not protect them as the sages teach? That mitzvot yield reward or, as the Torah teaches, “produce fruit in its season?” Traditional Jews recite that twice daily in the liturgy of the Shema. Are Haredim guilty of “magic” because they believe these things? Hardly. They may be guilty of religious maximalism and a failure to be adequately discerning in such matters. But that is different.

Many modern Jews live as if we have resolved the paradox of religion and modernity, we have found the great synthesis, the secret formula that enables us to be both religious and modern. But this is a ruse. That paradox is never solved, and cannot be solved. We are often forced to choose, and when forced to choose we mostly choose science. Why? Because we believe in it more than we believe in tradition. Here is where we part from the Haredim. They also believe in science to some degree, they seek medical treatment when necessary, but they believe in tradition more. And so when science dictates behavior that curtails tradition, they are slower to respond.

We can resort to the model of Maimonides who offered us a rational Judaism. And that is fine. But Maimonides’ view of the rational is not ours. We live under the canopy of modern secularization. And besides, many of us also do many things Maimonides would find abhorrent, like checking our mezuzahs if things are not going well or waiting in line for a Kabbalist to tell us the secrets of our soul and how to heal our ailing grandmother. Modern traditionalism is not Maimonidean. It is a strange and often contradictory mixture of rabbinic teaching, Maimonides, Kabbalah, folkways, and secularism. The Haredim are believers in ways that we are not. In this case, it killed many of them. But whether we, or they, are living in closer fidelity to tradition remains to be seen. We believe less, and here that helped us to survive. But as much as it is worth chastising their maximalist belief, it is worth contemplating our lack of it.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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