As is the case in New York City, ḥaredi Jews in Israel are receiving special scrutiny for their alleged and real violations of social-distancing restrictions. Most recently, pictures have circulated of closely packed mourners at the funeral of the Pittsburgher rebbe, who himself died of complications from COVID-19. And as in New York, not all criticism of such scenes is external. Haviv Rettig Gur writes:
[T]here is another group troubled and frustrated by ḥaredi behavior: the Ḥaredim themselves, whose acknowledgment of their community’s failures to cope with the pandemic, and the accompanying frustration and despair, now dominate their media and politics. Accusations of betrayal course through the community’s internal debates.
During the cholera epidemic that struck his city of Vilna in 1848, Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant told his followers that they were permitted to eat in small portions during the Yom Kippur fast if they feared that strict adherence to the fast would weaken them and render them more susceptible to the illness.
According to a later account of the decision by his son Yitzḥak Lipkin, the great Lithuanian sage was concerned not only about his community’s health but about its reputation as well. He feared that a fast that weakened his followers during an epidemic would lead non-Jews to say “that it is for the faith of Israel that they brought the sickness upon themselves.”
An anxious exhaustion has set in across broad swaths of the Israeli ḥaredi community, which feels uniquely threatened by the pandemic and the lockdown. Ḥaredi journalists and leaders don’t know how to get their communities to abide by the government-set restrictions, even as the virus cuts a deadly path through their neighborhoods, felling family members and beloved rabbis. They know, keenly and viscerally, how bad they look. They have no idea what to do about it.