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The Silent Solution: Orthodox Jewish Rabbinate Knuckles Under to Lockdowns

Michael Lesher

Israeli police officers seen in the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim as they close shops and disperse public gatherings. March 22, 2020. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The exchange of recriminations between ultra-Orthodox (or “haredi”) leadership and its critics over the former’s coronavirus policy has focused so obsessively on exceptions to the rule, Tweedledum/Tweedledee fashion, that the really astonishing fact about the rabbinate’s stance has gone virtually unnoticed.

That stance – never more glaringly evident than now, as New York-area Jews attend religious services muzzled, and the entire Jewish population of Israel prepares to observe the High Holidays under house arrest – is its unprecedented submissiveness to arbitrary state power.

True, you’d hardly know that from the arm-waving of the usual haredi-haters, like Naftuli Moster, who as early as April 7 was accusing “ultra-Orthodox leaders” of augmenting the spread of the virus. Nor would you guess the rabbinate’s true position from New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, an Orthodox Jew who out-Mostered Moster by calling such criticism a “blood libel.”

But what the verbal shadow-boxing obscures is the most important point of all: that the Orthodox rabbinate – in defiance of its own stated principles – is abandoning its congregants to an increasingly hysterical, anti-democratic campaign aimed at curbing the basic freedoms that we as Jews should be doing all we can to defend.

That is the rabbinate’s true failing in the current crisis; and ominously enough, few Orthodox Jews seem to have realized it.

Yes, among my coreligionists there have been “outliers,” as Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs, contemptuously called them: a few stubborn haredim who still think the Bill of Rights applies in Brooklyn, or that a New Jersey rabbi should be able to hold a harmless religious celebration in his own back yard without being assaulted by police.

But as Rabbi Shafran correctly emphasized, the occasional act of recalcitrance has only thrown the leadership’s docility into sharper relief. The American Orthodox rabbinate uttered not a peep of protest when the governors of New York and New Jersey closed down every single Jewish school, study hall and synagogue for months at a time by executive diktat.

Even Israel’s notoriously unruly haredi leadership, after a few perfunctory grumbles, is now submitting to the prospect of spending an entire holiday season under guard.

To grasp how astonishing this is, you need only think back to 2012, when New York City’s Department of Health was considering very modest regulation of m’tzitzah b’peh [oral suction during circumcision]. The optional practice of using oral suction (as opposed to a sterile glass tube) on a circumcision wound can cause newborns to be infected with the herpes simplex virus, with results that have included brain damage and even death. But America’s Orthodox rabbis promptly declared “battle” against health authorities who dared to worry about the safety of Jewish infants. In August 2012, a single issue of the Orthodox-run Ami Magazine contained no fewer than three separate articles denouncing the “evil decrees” of New York City’s government.

Rabbis affiliated with Agudath Israel even scurried into federal court in an attempt to block any rules that might limit m’tzitzah b’peh, claiming that such regulations would violate their religious rights.

Yet now – in the face of a moderately serious flu virus – the rabbinate has turned its position upside down. Orthodox Jews who dared to arrange private prayer groups at their homes were “murderers,” screamed a mass email I received from a rabbi on March 27. Making it clear his position was shared by the most prominent US Orthodox authorities, the writer even praised a “holy person” who confessed that “I feel like going into one of the house minyanim [prayer groups] with a baseball bat.”

From “battle” in support of m’tzitzah b’peh to threatening violence against Jews for praying: can anyone believe the same rabbis who were ready to sacrifice babies in 2012 were sincerely moved by the “health risk” associated with COVID19?

Nor is the rabbinate’s invocation of the principle of dina d’malkhutha dina [the law of the secular government is the law] any more credible than its concern over communal health. Has anyone forgotten the hue and cry the rabbis raised over New York’s baby steps toward enforcing minimal educational standards at state-accredited yeshivoth?

That was only two years ago; and in case you thought the haredi rabbinate changed its mind about the value of secular education in the interim, the cover story of this year’s May 13 number of Ami Magazine quoted the “renowned mechanech [educator],” Rabbi Dovid Levy, to the effect that the notion that “people evolved from the same common denominator as monkeys” is a fantasy “of the non-Jewish world.”

So why did the same rabbis who rejected innocuous regulation of religious schools actually embrace executive fiats that closed those schools altogether?

It certainly wasn’t because the government had a strong legal case. Not one of the decrees closing American religious institutions was issued by a legislature or approved by a court order.

Like the mass house arrest of tens of millions of citizens, these edicts were unilateral executive orders issued by governors who had assumed quasi-dictatorial powers on the strength of each state’s version of the Emergency Health Powers Act (EHPA) – a controversial statute drafted at the end of 2001 to deal with the possibility of a massive bioterrorism attack that (it was feared at the time) might put tens or even hundreds of millions of American lives in immediate jeopardy.

COVID19 never posed anything like such a threat, but more than forty state governors seized the opportunity to bypass their state legislatures and to suspend the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of “due process of law” by declaring what was supposed to be a “temporary” state of emergency. (I challenged the constitutional basis of these actions, in print, months ago; on September 15, a federal judge concluded that Pennsylvania’s lockdown orders did indeed violate the Constitution.) Those quasi-dictatorial powers have not been relinquished to this day, though the governors’ excuses for maintaining them grow more absurd with every passing month.

Never in modern American history has so much personal liberty been so drastically compromised on such flimsy grounds.

Nor does COVID19 involve an unprecedented medical threat. Anyone still seeking proof of that need only look to Israel – whose government has just announced a drastic second “lockdown” to coincide with what is normally a holiday season.

Israeli officials attribute just over 1,100 deaths to COVID19 this year, nearly all of them among people of very advanced age and fragile health. To put that in some perspective, in 2016 – the latest year for which I could find comprehensive data on line – 28,780 total deaths were recorded for Israelis aged 75 or older. Even if we assume that no one whose death was attributed to COVID-19 would have died from some other cause during the relevant six months of 2020 – which is unlikely – that means that COVID19 accounted for barely a 7 percent increase, at most, in the death toll for the hardest-hit age bracket, while other groups were barely affected at all.

It’s hard to see to how the devastating effects of a nationwide lockdown can be justified when less invasive measures, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable demographic, could have tackled a medical problem of that relatively modest stature.

Why, then, has the Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced in sweeping attacks on its congregations’ religious freedom? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first is that coronavirus hysteria has enhanced the rabbinate’s power. For six months, Orthodox rabbis have been micromanaging Jewish life like an old Soviet bureaucracy run amok: who may pray, when, where, for how long, with what sort of mask; how one may behave while shopping, how long one should “talk to a neighbor,” etc. Even as I write this, complicated penalties for attending weddings are being circulated among the faithful.

(A few samples from a source here in Passaic, New Jersey: you must quarantine yourself for 8 days if you dance; if you don’t dance, you’re exempt, but if someone else who attended the wedding gets a cough, your quarantine goes up to 10 days, or to 12 days if you “were in close proximity to that person.” And, of course, you must wear a mask while saying “mazel tov.”)

The obvious gusto with which the Orthodox rabbinate has adopted the role of commissar-cum-Mrs. Grundy speaks for itself.

The second possibility is that the rabbis, having concluded that lockdowns were inevitable, decided that they had less to gain from defending religious rights than from playing toady to the powers that be. In fact, it is hard to imagine another explanation for the way they’ve not only accepted the lockdown regime but have actually boasted of intensifying it.

On May 8, the “COVID-19 Task Force” of my own community issued a public statement insisting that the total closure of synagogues, religious schools and study halls would continue as long as the rabbis wanted it to, regardless of the position of the secular authorities.

Brushing aside the fact that serious cases of the virus were already in sharp decline, the local rabbis and lay associates denied that “the considerations and decisions of local, State, and Federal officials” would persuade them to allow people to pray in synagogues or to study in yeshivoth.

That position cannot be squared with past rabbinic resistance to state regulation. But it makes perfect sense on the assumption that the rabbis wanted to impress their new masters with a display of their power over a politically useful voting bloc.

All in all, though, I am less concerned with the reasons for the rabbis’ betrayal of their fellow Jews to Big Brother than with the fact of the betrayal itself. The rapid expansion of police-state tactics under the cover of “health regulation” represents a serious threat to freedom everywhere – and Jews, of all people, ought to know how easily the criminalization of dissent merges into the demonization of all differentness.

Naomi Wolf, who warned in her 2007 book The End of America that the United States was already veering dangerously towards fascism, has recently stressed that “coronavirus is the perfect, terrifying internal and external enemy for a power grab.”

A clergy that is complicit in such a process has lost all moral authority.

And what about Judaism itself? The Talmud states (Rosh ha-Shanah 11a) that the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt ceased on Rosh ha-Shanah. If the Orthodox rabbinate understood the meaning of its religion’s teachings, it might well have chosen this season to fight for our rights – as Americans, as Jews, as human beings – instead of shrugging its collective shoulders while the Bill of Rights goes up in smoke.

But the Orthodox leadership has shown its true priorities – and now it’s our turn to act. The same rabbinate that for years has encouraged the crimes of Israel and coddled child abusers is now turning its back on an unprecedented assault on personal liberties, including the freedom to worship. It’s high time we reclaimed our religion from such “leadership.”

Michael Lesher is an author, poet and lawyer whose legal work is mostly dedicated to issues connected with domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. His previous nonfiction book was Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014); his first collection of poetry, Surfaces, was published by The High Window in 2019. A memoir of his discovery of Orthodox Judaism as an adult – Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew – has just been published by Lincoln Square Books.