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When the Coronavirus Meets Orthodoxies

Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

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Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

Most people tend to believe that they are rational. They believe that their priorities are compatible with the changing realities of life. When they face a new challenge, such as raging pandemic, they believe they know how to adapt but it isn’t always easy. When a synagogue-goer finds herself unable to attend her weekly Shabbat services, should she take part in a digital service, organize a smaller service for her family and a few neighbors, or defy the instructions of government officials and health experts and find a synagogue that keeps operating? Whatever she decides, she will find a way to rationalize it. 

It also is not easy for people who feel the need to protest against racism, or government inaction, or a particular leader, or an annoying decision. But when the Israeli, or the American (or the German — we saw a similar issue in Germany last week), decides protesting is important enough for him to violate the restrictions of social distancing, he also will have a rational explanation for his decision. 

Alas, as we try to assess these decisions and their feasibility, there are two components involved: objective (the virus) and subjective (the importance of prayer or a protest). In recent weeks, those components have been visible in two separate issues. 

One is the anti-government protests. For the 10th consecutive weekend, tens of thousands of people have gathered every Saturday night in Jerusalem calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation in the wake of his indictment on corruption charges and amid allegations of his mishandling of the coronavirus. Many of them wear masks but many don’t, and there is no social distancing. There has been unrest and many arrests. In fact, there have been protests in Tel Aviv and Haifa and other cities.

The second involves the desire of many thousands of Israelis to spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, near the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. If they go, they won’t be able to social distance, and many experts predict that they will return infected with the coronavirus. 

For the 10th consecutive weekend, tens of thousands of people have gathered every Saturday night in Jerusalem calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation.

The protesters and the Chasidim use similar arguments to justify their actions. They don’t deny that the pandemic is a serious challenge. They don’t say that social distancing is unnecessary. They say that even in the midst of this pandemic, some things are more important. Protesters say that democracy is more important than maintaining social distancing rules. Breslov Chasidim say that the “Day of Judgment” is more important than maintaining social distancing rules. Both groups abide by an orthodoxy they deem superior and both see the priority of the other group as skewed. 

How can a rational person prioritize a non-consequential protest over maintaining the public’s health? How can a sane person not understand that going to Uman is not as important as saving lives? Unless you see the protests or visiting Uman as ultimate commandments that trump most other practices, you can’t. This is inflexible Orthodoxy. And the result is an angry discourse between two viewpoints that can never meet on common ground.

The role of the government is to set the priorities for the entire country, but even a capable government (and Israel doesn’t have one these days) finds itself in a bind when it faces the stringency of orthodoxy. The protesters and the Chasidim feel like the Maccabees. An oppressive regime is trying to prevent them from committing a holy act and they must fight back. In the case of the protesters, the right-wing government is an obvious culprit trying to limit democracy. In the case of the Chasidim, the secular, civil government clearly doesn’t understand the significance of religious acts. 

And so, these modern-day Maccabees raise their flags: black flags for protest, Nachman flags for Breslov. They raise their flags and fight for their orthodoxies. You can almost hear the virus laughing.  


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.

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