In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many observant Jews have found themselves forced to confront the theological implications of a plague that has subverted popular assumptions regarding reward and punishment.
Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel have seen the lion’s share of infections and deaths from COVID-19, at the same time as Jewish communities abroad have been disproportionately affected, with high infection rates in Hasidic neighborhoods from New York to London.
The high rate of infection in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods was all the more shocking to some in the wake of early assurances by community leaders that their religious observance would provide divine protection.
As the virus began to spread in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the foremost leader of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy, announced through a spokesman that study halls should remain open, as “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than coronavirus.”
Taking their cue from Kanievsky, some members of the community at first assumed that not only did they not have to take drastic steps to staunch the spread of the virus, but that they were essentially immune.
“The Torah protects us. We don’t need to do anything,” one yeshiva student said at the time.
According to Prof. Kimmy Caplan, who heads Bar Ilan University’s department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, several popular ultra-Orthodox preachers took to social media to call for people to increase their Shabbat observance during the weekend prior to the Passover holiday, claiming that this would “tilt the scales and beat the coronavirus.”
But as the death toll mounted and their community was not spared, some ultra-Orthodox Jews began to question what was happening.
On Sunday, reflecting the zeitgeist in his community, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to take stock of their actions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to do very deep soul-searching,” the ultra-Orthodox politician said, asserting that God was “telling us something.”
Several days earlier, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, told followers that their community was bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic because secular Jews weren’t as prone to divine retribution as the religious, whose sins are judged more harshly by God.
The higher infection rates in the communities have largely been ascribed to overcrowded conditions in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, their intensely communal nature and the initial refusal of rabbis, including Edelstein, to endorse social distancing measures and the shutting of synagogues and other religious institutions.
This attitude began to change for many of the ultra-Orthodox as the virus burned its way through their communities, with many eventually acknowledging that a lack of preparedness and resistance to taking early preventative measures played a large part in the unfolding tragedy. (Some members of the community have continued to flout regulations, with hundreds of people crowding together in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday on Monday evening, hundreds arrested on Tuesday in clashes at Mount Meron in the Galilee, and large crowds at another illegal gathering Tuesday in Jerusalem.)
However, while some have acknowledged that these explanations are correct, many appear to believe that there is a deeper, spiritual reason for the suffering.
“Wanting to know why is the most important and frustrating question people ask,” said Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a historian of Medieval and Renaissance Jewry and Associate Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University.
An Orthodox rabbi himself, Woolf explained that discussions of divine justice and theodicy — or why God permits evil — in Judaism go “all the way back” to the Biblical story of Job. “People don’t like being helpless. And if something is happening and you don’t know why, you feel totally helpless.”
Statements like Edelstein’s, asserting that God is punishing the sins of the most fervent believers more severely, are fully in consonance with the “Haredi ethos that the Jewish world and universe depend on us studying Torah and doing mitzvot,” Woolf said.
Jewish popular theology “takes divine providence extremely seriously,” agreed Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library’s Judaica Collection. “Everything happens for a reason.
“There is a very longstanding tradition when bad things happen to look for opportunities for repentance and soul searching,” he said, and currently many in the ultra-Orthodox community are advocating for renewed commitment regarding various aspects of observance.
While for many this approach doesn’t necessarily mean blaming religious laxity for the pandemic, others have seen a more direct relationship between the two.
Among the ultra-Orthodox, wall posters known in Yiddish as pashkevilim, which urge the community to undertake various courses of action, are an important method of communication. The National Library’s ephemera project, which has been gathering material related to the pandemic, has collected several blaming the pandemic on women.
According to the poster, both “Corona epidemic” and “lack of modesty” have a numerical value of 900
“Horrifying discovery: Corona epidemic = lack of modesty,” one such poster seen in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem announced, using gematria, or Jewish numerology, which ascribes a numerical value to letters and words and draws significance from words or expressions with equal values.
According to the poster, both “corona epidemic” and “lack of modesty” have a numerical value of 900, indicating a conceptual link.
A number of Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against using gematria to find meaning in the pandemic, with one telling The Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper in New York, that “to create new ideas or theories based on numerology is improper.”
Another poster shared by the National Library’s ephemera project, this one in English and with an American phone number — recommends that women should join the Tzniut [modesty] Challenge and rid their closets of inappropriate outfits in order to “arouse the mercy of heaven.”
According to a WhatsApp message seen circulating among Haredim in the United States, God “is sending us an unprecedented and powerful message” and “any woman who makes her wig more modest will be blessed with protection.” Married Haredi women cover their hair, many of them with wigs that have drawn rabbinic irritation for being too attractive.
Others have advanced different punitive reasons for the pandemic. Signs plastered in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel have linked COVID-19 to gossip and slander, using the tagline “Don’t speak [badly of others], don’t get infected.”
Some figures on the fringes of the Orthodox community have offered even more radical suggestions. Rabbi Yosef Mizrahi, a controversial New York-based Israeli rabbi who has previously suggested that both the Holocaust and various developmental disabilities were the result of Jews’ sins, blamed the pandemic on Chinese people eating limbs from living animals, stating that when God “punishes the nations it always relates to us, the Jewish people.”
In a video viewed more than 27,000 times on YouTube, Mizrahi suggested that the only cure for COVID-19 was blowing hot air from a hair dryer down one’s throat.
Teaching us, or our enemies, a lesson?
Some have have taken a different tack, attempting to divine what God is trying to teach them through the pandemic. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem and a prominent figure in the national religious camp, is one of them.
Despite asserting in multiple articles that “we don’t know what causes coronavirus” and that even the Biblical prophets couldn’t give a reason for everything that happens, he has also posited that COVID-19 could help create peace between married couples by forcing everyone to stay home.
In one article, Aviner mused that the disease could be a divine response to “moral relativism or postmodernism,” which he said has caused people to value their own judgment above that of God.
He also suggested that “in every evil there is some good.” In the case of COVID-19, he elaborated, this good was the shutting down of “almost all gentile culture,” including academia and leisure travel.
Both the themes of divine punishment and divine lessons could be seen in a recent article in The Jewish Press in which several rabbis were asked “What Is Hashem [God] Teaching Us With The Coronavirus.”
If the coronavirus succeeds in bringing people to assess themselves… then intrinsically, it’s good
Rabbi Lazer Brody, a popular lecturer and author belonging to the Breslov Hasidic sect, asserted that God was curing people of their materialism by curtailing vacations and ending the “public desecrations of Shabbat.”
Brody also said that “if the coronavirus succeeds in bringing people to assess themselves… then intrinsically, it’s good. The coronavirus can be one of the key catalysts of [the coming of the Messiah].”
Rabbi Mendel Kessin said that God was cleaning up the world by taking action against Iran and China, “the two greatest nations contributing to the instability of the world,” ahead of the coming of the Messiah.
Nachman Kahana, a rabbi in Jerusalem’s Old City, called it a “wake-up experience” for Diaspora Jews who did not want to move to Israel.
Not everyone in the ultra-Orthodox community believes in attempting to divine God’s intentions.
“Rabbis I know have all said that they don’t know what has caused coronavirus or why Hashem would create it,” one member of an English-speaking ultra-Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh told The Times of Israel.
“They have all emphasized that our reactions should be to care more for people…and to use the time to reflect on our own personal realities and what we can improve. I have not yet heard one serious rav claim he knows the reasons for COVID-19 beyond the scientific and medical explanations.”
Some, while acknowledging the epidemiological mechanics of the pandemic, have suggested that it is still possible to consider the possibility that God is sending a message.
“Is it too much to consider that as our world continues to sink ever lower in our commitment to virtue that God responded with a virus that has forced millions into a ‘timeout’ of quarantine and seclusion?” asked Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of American Modern Orthodoxy, in an article on the website Aish.
Noting that the Ten Commandments constitute “the biblical source of the most basic system of ethical and moral behavior,” Blech pointed out that “in the original Hebrew, the language in which the commandments were inscribed by God on the two tablets, there are exactly 620 letters.”
“620 is the gematria, the numerical value, of an important Hebrew word, keter, which means crown,” he continued, musing that the pandemic could be “a divine message reminding us that we have been given our lives to invest them with meaning and virtue as defined by God’s 10 Commandments.”
Several Orthodox publications have approached the issue of the pandemic through an eschatological lens. While warning against getting carried away, one author on Aish asserted that current events showed just how close the world is to redemption.
Might humanity now be open to hearing the voice of Moshiach?
“The current global crisis could be a likely scenario for the advent of Moshiach,” Sara Yoheved Rigler wrote, using the Hebrew word for the Messiah.
She elaborated: “Spiritual truth cannot sprout in ground crowded with the weeds of false beliefs and tenaciously-held fealty to false gods. The last few years have seen an unprecedented disillusionment with government. With the malls closed and the stock market in seizures, the bastions of materialism and economic security are crumbling. Confusion abounds. Might humanity now be open to hearing the voice of Moshiach?”
In an audio lecture on the Torah Anytime website, a Rabbi Yaakov Mizrahi said that the 14-day quarantines mandated for people who test positive for COVID-19 or who have come into contact with coronavirus patients mirrored Jewish laws relating to purity and impurity that will become relevant again after the rebuilding of the Temple when the messiah comes.
“Hashem is clearly preparing us for mashiach, that we can get used to the concept of purity and impurity,” he said.
Even outgoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has expressed messianic sentiments. Replying to a journalist’s question about lockdown restrictions being maintained over Passover, he said that he was “sure that the Messiah will come and bring us out, as [God] brought us out of Egypt.”
While some rabbis have tried to explain what is causing the virus, others are focused on telling people what to do to avoid it.
In the run-up to March’s repeat Knesset election, Israel’s Central Elections Committee fined the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party NIS 7,500 ($2,150) for illegally handing out charms and candles promising protection against coronavirus at polling stations.
Earlier this month, the Bnai Brak-based Kupat Ha’ir charitable organization began a campaign promising donors that if they send in NIS 3,000 ($850) they will receive an amulet in addition to an assurance by Kanievsky that they “will not get sick and that there will not be anyone sick in [their] home.”
“I have enough Haredi friends who’ve told me that the fact that the Haredi world has taken such a serious hit could lead to a weakening of their group identity and morale,” Woolf told The Times of Israel, explaining why rabbis like Edelstein may be so focused on providing theologically acceptable explanations for their followers.
Such an approach has led to pushback among some current and former members of the ultra-Orthodox community. In an article on the Haredi website Iyun, one ultra-Orthodox rabbi decried “the standard responses of citing specific issues in need of strengthening,” asserting that “such suggestions are not appropriate for a situation of plague.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a former member of the Haredi community, presented a different approach on his website Rationalist Judaism.
COVID-19 is the “consequence of global society not placing sufficient emphasis on medical preparations,” he wrote, citing the views of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides.
Putting it into more religious terms, he said that there is a mitzvah of taking precautions to preserve life and that “we are obligated as a society to make sure that we have the necessary precautions and medical equipment to deal with a pandemic. To the extent that countries and societies failed to do so, they suffered the consequences.”
However, such an approach is unlikely to stir many people looking for an easily identifiable answer that can be framed in traditional ultra-Orthodox theological terms.
“The reality,” Woolf explained, “is that many people can’t deal with nuance. They want ‘the answer.’”
JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.