The Crisis of Authority in Haredi Ranks and the Void Left Behind – Covid-19

ORTHODOX JEWS IN BROOKLYN ON APRIL 29, 2020. SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES.

American Orthodoxy’s Twilight of Authority

When the established rabbis go silent, others, including civic-minded philanthropists and charismatic outsiders with inflammatory social-media presences, fill the void.

The events this autumn in Brooklyn’s ḥaredi (Orthodox) communities have been quite extraordinary, even revelatory. Contrary to popular hope, herd immunity to the coronavirus has not been achieved; the city government’s response to the new second wave has been heavy-handed and possibly discriminatory; and in turn its legitimate attempts to enforce closures, social distancing, and mask wearing have been spurned rather than obeyed, thanks in part to the emergence of the since-arrested agitator Heshy Tischler as an outspoken voice for what he hopes constitutes the silent majority of the ḥaredi world. That this convict-turned-politician-turned-radio-host-turned-riot-inciter has found significant—though by no means total or even majority—support for his combative message reflects important and overlooked changes in the ḥaredi community in recent years, most notably the appearance of a serious crisis of authority in its ranks. This is most revelatory of all. As America at large is dealing with the hollowing out of institutions and the rise of politicians with inflammatory social-media presence, the ḥaredi world is too, even if the institutions are rabbinic and the social-media platform is more likely to be WhatsApp than Twitter.

Ḥaredi attitudes toward leadership have long differed from those of their surrounding communities, Jewish or gentile. Much of the community subscribes to a theology of Daas Torah (“knowledge of Torah”), whereby leading rabbis—those with the greatest degree of Torah knowledge and therefore the greatest degree of insight into the divine mind—are empowered to make all major communal decisions. We see this approach very much in effect today in Israel, where the two senior rabbinic authorities—Rabbi Gershon Edelstein and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky—are engaged in political negotiations through the ḥaredi parties, in determining when to reopen yeshivas, and simultaneously in messaging to their communities on how to proceed. The two rabbis having often been at odds with each other in recent months notwithstanding, the fact remains that the prevailing ideology of Daas Torah dictates that these rabbis (and their courts and handlers) make policy on nearly every issue for their ḥaredi followers. In America, a similar rabbinic seat of authority rests with the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the council of great rabbinic sages, which is affiliated with the Agudath Israel of America. (The organization lost its leader, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, “the Novominsker rebbe,” to COVID-19 in April, added several members in September, in a move towards relative youth, and lost Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, one of its elder statesmen, just two weeks ago.)

For as long as there have been rabbis, those possessing expertise in Torah knowledge have been consulted on issues large and small in their areas of training—Talmud and halakhah (Jewish law). Daas Torah goes well beyond that, into a presumption that their training in Torah qualifies leading rabbis as experts to be consulted on all worldly issues. There is some controversy as to when exactly the approach took hold. Lawrence Kaplan and Jacob Katz, two historians of Jewish law, have argued that this is an innovation of the modern period, possibly stemming from the 18th-century revolution of Ḥasidism. Others, like the rabbi Alfred Cohen, have argued for roots in the pre-modern period.

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“Like All Sugar Highs, Euphoria Wears Off” No Jew Should Vote for Trump: [Opinion]

The following opinion piece was posted to The Times of Israel, Marc Shulman blog. We have reposted some of this opinion. To read it in its entirety, click here.

Why No Jew Should Vote For President Donald Trump: Take Two

Exactly four years ago, I reluctantly wrote take one of this article. As a historian who maintains a website that includes a section chronicling the history of American Presidential elections, and a book with the same title, and as someone with a regular column in Newsweek, called “Tel Aviv  Diary,” I had attempted to remain non-partisan. Over the years, I have largely succeeded in maintaining objectivity regarding American politics. But, at that moment, when it had become clear that the election of President Donald J. Trump was a real possibility, I felt I had no choice but to speak out against what I saw the genuine danger to Jews and the State of Israel, not to mention to the United States, and the world-at-large.

Now, four years later, unfortunately, much of what I predicted has happened. Again, like last time, I will not touch on all of the areas that have made Trump the worst President in United States history, or all of the harm he has done to the world in this article. I’ll leave that for my history website. Instead, I will focus on the ways in which Trump has been bad for Israel, and why he has been bad for Jews, through my lens as an American-Israeli.

Let’s start with the Jews in America. In 2016, I wrote that I did not believe Trump himself to be an overt antisemite — still true. Although I asserted: “However, as a result of the nativist, racist, xenophobic rhetorical approach of his campaign, Trump has unearthed a level of overt antisemitism in America that I thought would never return.” 

Sadly, the nativist, xenophobic rhetoric never ended. Trump stayed in campaign mode throughout his Presidency. The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment; representing a 12% increase over the previous year. This constitutes the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. 

The antisemitism that re-emerged incited both the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, as well as the attack in the Poway, California synagogue. Trump’s rhetoric never changes. He has failed to condemn QAnon (a clearly antisemitic ideology), which has become nearly mainstream in the Republican Party under Trump. Another four years of Trump will see more oil thrown on the extremist fire; fomenting even more antisemitism in the US. Will antisemitism disappear if Trump is defeated? That is not likely. But without the President of the United States stoking the fires, perhaps surging antisemitism can be brought back under control.

Now let’s turn to Israel. There is no question that Trump has been the most pro-Israel President in US history, in the short term. And Israel, like someone on a sugar high, has adored Trump’s love. However, like all sugar highs, the euphoria slowly wears off. Four years ago, I wrote: “A person who does not comprehend that US alliances have been the key to world peace for the last 70 years, and refuses to understand there is a price for that affinity, weakens the United States”.

The Times of Israel, Marc Schulman blog, click here.

Hareidim – A Primer – “Fundamentalism is a Recent Creation”

This is being reprinted with permission from the administrators of the “Frum Watch” Facebook Site. It speaks to the differences among various Jewish sects. For Additional Reading we invite you to also consult a site called “Rationalist Judaism with other notes by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin.

The Hareidim – a Primer

In light of the recent civil unrest and civil disobedience displayed in hareidi communities the world over, we bring to you a short primer on the Haredim. Hopefully, this brief outline will afford our readers a better understanding of the nature and composition of the community.

Not all haredim are hasidic, but all hasidim are haredim. In general, the hareidi community comprises two distinct communities, hasidim and non-hasidim. Both are ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as frum Jews, hence the name of this Facebook group. The hasidic community contains multiple sects, such as Satmar, Chabad, Ger, Belz, and many others. For the most part, all the hasidic sects are at odds with each other, with some also at war. The reasons for this division and rancor are varied, some are battles over turf, others battles over ideology and influence. For example, the Satmar and Chabad sects have been at war for the better part of the past 50 years. However, of late, they have agreed upon a cold truce. This detente was due to the joining of forces to repel the treif influence of the internet and other evil secular influences.

Hasidic sects, except Chabad and Breslov, are led by a living rebbe, or admor (grand rabbi). Chabad is still in the throes of its failed messianic experiment, which collapsed with the death of M.M. Schneerson, their rebbe, in 1994. Unable to accept their leader’s failure to bring the messiah, Chabad leaders have refused to appoint a rebbe in his place. Most Chabad followers recognize their rebbe’s death and burial in Montefiore Cemetery, Queens; however, some still refuse to accept that he is no longer among the living. This extreme Messianic faction controls the main 770 synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They believe the rebbe is the long awaited messiah and, though we can’t see him, is still alive.

The case of Breslov is somewhat similar to that of Chabad in that a new leader was never appointed after Rebbe Nachman’s (their founder) death in 1810. Breslov, too, is a fervently messianic group. However, Breslov has never officially proclaimed Rebbe Nachman as messiah, but instead insisted that his light will burn until the messiah’s coming. Breslov hassidim place great importance on praying by Rebbe Nachman’s grave in Uman, Ukraine, on Rosh HaShana.

The non-hasidic hareidim, aka Litvish, aka yeshivish, Jews, mostly hail from the area of pre-war Lithuania and live in the Flatbush/Midwood section of Brooklyn and Lakewood, N.J. They are led by the non-hasidic faction of Agudas Israel of America. Agudah, for short, is the leading umbrella group of American ultra-Orthodox Jews. Agudah not only protects the interest of the non-hasidic community, it also tries to cover up the misdeeds of the hasidim. For this reason when the New York State Education Department ordered hasidic yeshivas to teach their students the mandated minimal secular subjects, it was Agudah who sued them in Federal Court. It was this same Agudah who recently sued Governor Cuomo when he ordered the shuls in Boro Park and Flatbush closed for Simchat Torah.

A third group of hareidim, that of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, also exists. This group is much more prominent in Israel, where their political party, Shas, holds 9 seats in the Knesset. Hareidi Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews are primarily found in the US in the Syrian community of Brooklyn.

All hareidim are suspicious of secular authority, scientific knowledge, and anything “modern.” They feel that they must reject secular authority whenever it infringes upon their Torah lifestyle. It is this rejection of secular authority that is behind all the ills in the hareidi community. For example, cheating on one’s taxes is legitimized because leading a Torah lifestyle is expensive and very costly — from private school yeshiva tuition to the price of glatt kosher meat. Working off the books and not paying taxes is the only way for many frumme to get by. In addition, cheating and scamming the welfare system is also legitimized on this account. How else is a frum family of 10 living in a 3 bedroom section 8 apartment going to survive?

The rejection of civil authority is also behind the widespread disregard of social distancing guidelines currently wreaking havoc in hareidi enclaves the world over. They believe, as the Belzer rebbe made clear, that they cannot allow the guidelines to interfere with their day-to-day Torah lifestyle. If people have to die, so be it, the Torah lifestyle must go on.

We must emphasize that the extreme fundamentalism of current hareidi practice, theology, and philosophy is a recent creation. In earlier times, observant Jews had a healthy respect for science, doctors, and civil authority. Whether on account of the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, or otherwise, the hareidi community’s rejection of civil authority is unprecedented in the annals of Jewish history.

Please note that, though the demographics are not in their favor, there still exists a substantial group of Modern Orthodox (or MO) Jews. Modern Orthodox Jews are generally college educated professionals and businessmen. While ritually observant, this group is familiar with contemporary culture and respects the rule of secular law.

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Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, Medical Pioneer, Covid-19 Defiance, Anti-Semitism

Yehuda Mesh-Zahav (Courtesy of Zaka to The Times of Israel)

Haredi health pioneer: COVID-19 defiance fuels anti-Semitism, sullies God’s name

An ultra-Orthodox health pioneer has expressed intense frustration at coronavirus disobedience, and said it’s bringing hatred on his community and fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav hauls body bags of the COVID-19 deceased, but even the warnings he delivers after carrying out this gory work fall on deaf ears, he said.

His organization ZAKA, a medical aid and rescue nonprofit, has helped some 1,800 God-fearing Diaspora Jews killed by the coronavirus to fulfill their dying wish, transferring them from planes for eternal rest in Israel’s sacred soil, he said. He also personally retrieves bodies of Israelis who have died.

But he is astounded that nothing he can say or do — whether talk of the body bags, Israel’s dizzying coronavirus stats shared in Yiddish, or personal stories of those who died — can convince the slice of the Haredi community that is insistently noncooperative in the battle against the coronavirus to change its ways.

Meshi-Zahav spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday, at the end of the Jewish holiday season, amid numerous reports that mass gatherings had taken place among Israeli Haredim in defiance of coronavirus rules.

These included celebrations for Saturday’s Simhat Torah festival, held despite statistics indicating that ultra-Orthodox Israelis, around 12 percent of the population, are catching the virus out of proportion to others. Hospitals are heavily populated by Haredim, while some members of the community are being treated by a program to give breathing support at home, without knowledge of the authorities.

“I explain to people that others are looking at them, and saying that we’re in this situation because of Haredim, and that the 12 percent is infecting the 80-plus percent, and that ‘you’ are ‘stealing’ the breathing machines,” Meshi-Zahav said. “And I say that this hatred is terrible, but what people see is the continuation of singing, dancing, public prayers, and simchas [celebrations] — as well as continuation of protests.”

The Times of Israel, click here.

Disobedience born of poor leadership

It’s a misconception to assume that Haredi refusal to follow virus rules is driven by disrespect to others, he said, arguing that it stems from a misguided desire to retain religious routine at all costs. In his view, strong and determined leadership could fix this with a clarion call insisting that the religious imperative to save life comes above all, but there is no such leadership on the horizon.

He said there are large parts of the Haredi community where coronavirus rules are carefully followed, and there are rabbis who encourage this. And he stressed that disproportionately high virus rates among Haredim don’t reflect disobedience alone, but to a large extent also circumstances, like large families and cramped conditions.

Yet he is worried that a notable minority is breaking rules, which causes infection to spread, and lamented: “People don’t understand we’re all in the same boat. It’s like the story of the people who drill a hole under their seat in boat, saying it’ll only affect them, but of course, it affects everyone.”

Meshi-Zahav is particularly concerned by the fact that Haredi disobedience has an international element. In New York’s Haredi community, where virus rates have been high, there have been some very visible expressions of disdain for restrictions, including angry protests against coronavirus shutdowns.

The Times of Israel, click here.

shutdowns.

Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on October 7, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Fueling anti-Semitism

And he believes that the situation in Israel and New York is playing into the hands of anti-Semites. “If Jews are saying the things I mentioned about each other, of course others will say them,” he said. “They will take the symbol of a man in Jewish dress, and connect it to the coronavirus

To Continue Reading the Times of Israel in its entirety click here.

Haredistan and the Militancy of the Ultra-Orthodox Response to Covid-19 Rules

This is being reposted from a Facebook Group – Frum Watch. It is being reprinted in its entirety with permission from the author, Rabbi Yossi Newfield.

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Haredistan – What Went Wrong?

From Bnei Brak to Boro Park, the haredi community has had higher case numbers, higher hospitalization rates, and higher deaths rate than the surrounding areas. The question is why? We believe the very nature of the haredi community is the cause.

Inevitably, wherever there is a critical mass of haredim, the community feels that it can disregard secular laws and norms. Sometimes this is done openly; other times there is a great deal of dissembling, with community apologists such as Avi Shafran working overtime. Before the coronavirus pandemic the disregard and rejection of civil society may not have been as pronounced, but it always lurked just below the surface, waiting to raise its ugly head.

An example of this is the haredi (especially hasidic) self-ghettoization and their rejection of state mandated minimal secular education standards. The resulting intellectual isolation of their communities is considerable and it is accompanied by severe side effects, such as systemic fraud, rampant sexual abuse, and poverty.

But so long as the harm was confined to the haredi community itself, the civil authorities from Israel to London to New York looked the other way. They reasoned that if a community wants to stay ignorant, poor, and a refuge for sexual predators, so be it. It’s not our problem.

However, the moment the pandemic struck, these same civil authorities began demanding that the haredi community abide by the social distancing guidelines promulgated by their respective health departments.

To their shock and amazement, they were surprised to learn that haredi society was not willing to curtail their communal way of life, even in the face of a once in a century world-wide pandemic. But we were not surprised in the least. Once a society is allowed to disregard civil laws and norms for decades, it is no wonder that they will not become normal law abiding citizens overnight.

Let’s look at how things progressed:

At first secular society convinced themselves that the haredim in Israel were trying to follow the guidelines, but they just couldn’t on account of their large families and crowded living conditions. Then came the grand wedding in Belz. The Belzer rebbe brazenly ordered that his grandson’s wedding continue as planned, covid be damned. Thousands of men packed together to witness the chuppah. At that point, it became clear to the rest of Israel that the disregard of the guidelines was pre-meditated and intentional.

Why?

The Belzer rebbe decided that his sect would not follow state mandated guidelines out of fear for the spiritual welfare of his flock or out of fear of the breakdown of communal life. Pick either reason. In haredi eyes they are one and the same.

But Belz is not alone. The haredim in Bnei Brak, Meah Shearim, Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights have all made the same decision. They will not follow the guidelines because the guidelines disrupt their daily prayer and torah learning schedule, tisches, weddings — their communal life and routine.

This disregard for coronavirus guidelines does not only jeopardize the health of haredi communities, it puts the surrounding non-haredi communities in grave danger. The haredim are either so used to getting their own way or so insensitive as to be unaware of the reaction that’s bound to come.

Back to the present, in New York Governor Cuomo ordered the shuls in Boro Park and Flatbush closed for Simchat Torah because of rising Covid-19 case numbers. Instead of accepting the executive order, Agudas Israel sued him in Federal Court. This is the same Agudas Israel who sued the New York State Education Department for having the nerve to order hasidic yeshivas to teach the English language!

The chickens have come home to roost. Even before the virus escaped from Wuhan, the haredi community was on a dangerous and unsustainable path. Covid-19 just made this apparent for all to see.

While a last minute correction of course by haredi communal leaders may avoid total disaster, we are afraid that this will not occur and we will all suffer because of it.

By Rabbi Yossi Newfield

Israel’s Vizhnitz – War of Attrition – Flouting Covid-19 Rules. Fait Accompli.

Hasidic rabbi calls for ‘war of attrition’ against virus restrictions

Head of the Vizhnitz hasidic sect rejects government limits to curb coronavirus spread, calls on followers to continue as usual.

World Israel News, click here.

“Let us prepare for a war of attrition,” said Rabbi Yisroel Hager, the spiritual leader of the Vizhnitz hasidic sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, after police broke up a large indoor gathering of his followers earlier this week in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

“Yesterday we should have prevented them [the police] from entering,” Hager told his followers. “I will not allow the closing of ritual baths, synagogues and educational institutions.”

A phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not able to assuage Hager’s anger over the national lockdown despite the high infection rates in many ultra-orthodox communities.

World Israel News, click here.

[EXCERPTED]

Shlezigner discovered that the hasidic sects are opting for herd immunity as a “deliberate and conscious policy” under which the adults and those at risk will take care of themselves, but the young will continue as usual.

With Hasidism built on the community where the spiritual leader, the “rebbe,” is at the center, it is inconceivable for his followers not to be able to approach their rabbi or pray with him for many months, Shlezinger wrote. Living in densely crowded neighborhoods, they consider it just a matter of time before everyone gets infected.

The ‘herd immunity’ policy of the followers is a fait accompli,” Shlezinger said. “The questions are only if, when and how it will affect the entire country.”

World Israel News, click here.