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Religion, Science, and the Religion of Science

New York’s scapegoated Haredi communities appear to be the last Americans capable of maintaining a sane balance between science and faith

Liel Leibovitz
October 16, 2020
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

This past week, I read about 407 articles, some in the Jewish press and some in national publications, expressing absolute horror over the images of Haredi Jews protesting new COVID-related strictures. The stories all read the same: Here again were the bearded men in black, fetishizing their benighted way of life and failing, in their medieval misapprehension of scientific principles, to fathom the threats posed by the virus. In so doing, they are a shonda and are nothing like us, sophisticated modern Jews who are savvy and smart and responsible. Shame on them.

In that spirit, allow me to offer a retort: In the fullest, truest, and most literal sense of these words, the Haredim have shown themselves this week to be the real American Jews, displaying dedication not only to the fundaments of faith but also to concrete American commitments like freedom or fairness or, for that matter, science.

Consider the following: As of this writing, 8,795 medical and public health scientists, and 22,290 medical practitioners, have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which was authored by three epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford universities and argues that keeping our current lockdown policies in place “will cause irreparable damage.” Their reasoning seems to have struck a chord with the World Health Organization, which this week reversed its position and admitted that the only thing the lockdowns managed to achieve was condemn millions to poverty and misery.

Many of them live in small spaces ... which means that the lockdowns themselves were a major cause of viral transmissions in Haredi neighborhoods.

The Haredi Jews, unlike the swarms of armchair public health experts who popped up to offer their unreasoned opinions online, understood the effects of the lockdown intimately. That’s because many of them live in small spaces with large, mutligenerational families, which means that the lockdowns themselves were a major cause of viral transmissions in Haredi neighborhoods. It’s also why this community suffered so gravely while observing the lockdowns from the very beginning, and why the death rates in New York were so high. It hardly takes a medical degree to realize that when you lock families together in tightly packed buildings, those already at risk are going to suffer gravely. The same thing happened in New York’s nursing homes, turned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s murderously malfeasant policies into death factories.

Considered against this background, Haredi behavior is eminently sane. Forget the cherry-picked shots of young maskless men thronging together for this simcha or that; you would’ve found such images in any community in the city, had you bothered looking. Here, for the most part, was a community engaged in rational, evidence-based behavior, based on their own values, which in fact accords with the recommendations of a large and increasing section of the public health community. It’s the rest of the city, and a large section of the country, who’ve gone nuts, fetishizing lockdowns and embracing a host of measures which, by normative public health standards, are causing far more harm than the virus does.

What, then, can the nattering nabobs who prattle on about “science” while disdaining its core precepts learn from the Haredi community? Two major lessons. First, how to be Jewish. And second, how to be American.

Sometime in midsummer, when New York City’s COVID cases plummeted and the curve was flattened and mortality rates dipped blissfully low, many of my friends and neighbors began chanting the same invocation we residents of the nation’s least sensible city turn to every time the going gets especially tough. We’re resilient, they hummed, and we’ll get through this. Just look! The restaurants all have outdoor seating now, courtesy of a few narrowed lanes of traffic. You can get booze to go and drink on the street. And the parks are still full of people picnicking and throwing the ball around and proving that you can still have a great and good life here in New York even while obeying sensible and essential health regulations.

Know what almost never came up in these giddy conversations about how the new normal isn’t all that bad? The fact that nearly every shul—and practically every non-Orthodox shul—remained and remains closed. People who made a beautiful habit of sipping sake on Thursday evening while sitting outdoors at their favorite sushi joint had far less interest in making sure that, come Friday night, their synagogue, too, would offer an in-person experience that was safe and meaningful. Even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were written off as necessary victims of COVID, Zoomed at best or otherwise ignored.

None of this, mind you, is to suggest that people who toiled to arrange in-person services—like the blessed Hart Levine, a young rabbi who took the initiative, got a permit, shut down 185th Street, and offered the sort of warm and eclectic and welcoming High Holiday minyans that really ought to have popped up on every other block of the city—or the people who attended them are somehow better Jews. Observe as you wish, or don’t. If listening to Kol Nidre on your iPhone is enough for you, hallelujah. But none of this changes the simple and essential fact of life, namely that you are what you prioritize. If you deem Judaism essential, you’re going to work very hard to make it work, even—or especially—when times are tough. Natan Sharansky celebrated Hanukkah in the gulag. And plenty of Jews in New York celebrated Yom Kippur—distanced, masked, and in person. The majority of them, however, were Haredi.

Which should come as no surprise: These are, after all, the folks we sometimes call, our disdain barely concealed, the “ultra-Orthodox,” as if we are the arbiters of Orthodoxy and are free to determine how much observance is tasteful and acceptable and how much simply exceeds the boundaries of good taste. So here comes the second, and far more surprising part of the realization, namely that the Haredim show, at this moment, a far more profound understanding of what it means to be American than any other members of the Jewish community.

When they were singled out for criticism by Gov. Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, they fairly pointed out that plenty of other minority groups throughout the city have experienced spikes in COVID cases, and none were subjected to derisive and bigoted statements that made them feel like perpetrators rather than victims. When cops were dispatched to chain up playgrounds, they said that such discrimination on the basis of ethnic affiliation and religious belief was profoundly unconstitutional.

Then came the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd, and the Haredim, perplexed, asked why 15,000 of their neighbors could congregate in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza to state collectively that Black Trans Lives Matter, but Jews couldn’t get together in a safe manner and pray as their faith commands. Asked that simple question, Mayor de Blasio dismissively replied that comparing religious services and civil protests was like comparing apples and oranges; the latter, he stated, incredibly, were sacred and protected while the former were some sort of trivialities. Again, the Haredim pointed out what should’ve been obvious to everyone, namely that the freedom to practice religion is a fundamental American guarantee—if not the most fundamental of them all—and that no one who cares about America should remain silent when the government chooses to suppress this freedom while allowing other forms of political congregation of which it approves to proceed without interruption. Once again, most non-Orthodox Jews were unmoved by this argument, fearing, perhaps, that by pointing out the grotesque double standards at play here they would be accused of being insufficiently faithful to the ultra-orthodoxies that govern so much of liberal society these days.

Like, say, the idea of science. If you believe in it—truly, deeply, and unequivocally—you understand that science isn’t a faith-based system. It cares little for politics or virtues. It’s a blissfully agnostic methodology that makes guesses, compares them with available evidence, and amends, alters, or rejects them based on results. So, if you’re being true to science, say, here’s how you should be thinking about public gatherings: Are they unsafe? Then they’re as unsafe for the proponents of Black Lives just as they are for the Satmars. Are they safe under some conditions? Then let us be clear about precisely what these conditions are.

Take, for example, Gov. Cuomo’s decree that no more than 10 people are allowed in a house of worship at any given time. If you possess even a modicum of common sense, you realize that this idea is, at its core, profoundly anti-scientific, as it has nothing to say about the size of the house of worship in question. Ten people in a small one-room shtiebel is a real risk; 10 people in a grand synagogue built to seat thousands is a real farce. A governor serious about science and public safety rather than about seizing power would’ve understood that and acted accordingly, offering guidelines that were sensible and measured and concrete. The only ones pointing out this travesty are the Haredim.

It’s of little surprise, then, that the main flag on view during the Haredi protests last week was the Gadsden flag. Don’t Tread on Me, that quintessentially American cri de coeur, is, these days, primarily the domain of the Haredi community. Everywhere else in the Jewish world, the slogans recited are the confused and exhausted and meaningless truisms of nice liberals who can’t or don’t care to explain the staggering contradictions, violations, hypocrisies, and usurpations committed with their tacit support.

Flatten the curve, wear a mask, close the shuls—all were accepted without too much attention to detail or rationale and without asking what, in effect, we’re risking when we sign away so many of our freedoms to officials who seem to have nothing but the vaguest grasp on science and democracy alike. There’s nothing less Jewish, or less American, than that. The Haredim understand that by succumbing to the tyranny of illogic, the sort that restricts attendance regardless of the size of the venue or deems one form of gathering acceptable but not another, all will be lost. To surrender thusly would be a total disruption of their Jewish and American way of life. Their critics, sadly, prefer instead to worship at a very different altar, sanctifying their leftist bona fides and reverence to leaders from the correct political party rather than asking hard but obvious questions. What we see in Brooklyn these days, then, is nothing less than a religious war, in which the Haredim, in a delicious twist of fate, have actual science on their side. Here’s hoping they prevail.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.