Transformation

Why do some religious groups defy public health orders even in a pandemic?

Culture and collective memory can be just as influential as science, medicine and government.

Joyce Dalsheim
5 May 2020
Haredi (Orthodox) Jewish couples at a bus stop in Jerusalem.
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Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Adam Jones. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In the US some conservative religious communities have ignored government regulations aimed at stemming the spread of Covid-19. Some Evangelical churches, educational institutions and places of business were determined to remain open. Some very observant Jewish communities in the United States were also slow to respond to social distancing orders. In one case a prominent religious leader of the Satmar community, who first instructed his followers to continue to study and pray together, was himself diagnosed with the virus. But things seem even stranger elsewhere. In Me’a She’arim, an observant Jewish neighborhood in Israel, the residents cursed and threw stones at police who came to enforce social distancing regulations.

Outsiders are outraged when religious communities flout government regulations that are supposed to protect the general public. But we know that people give meaning to their experiences in different ways. Some ways of knowing the world have been denigrated as “backward” or “irrational” by secular Western forms of knowledge. But secular ways of life may be considered decadent and immoral from a religious point of view, not to mention empirically harmful. “Modern” ways of life create wide differentials in wealth and dignity among people, destroy irreplaceable natural resources, and poison the earth in myriad ways that are fatal to the ecosystems of the Earth that supports us all. Our aggressive encroachment into new ecosystems is one of the reasons we face increasing threat from pandemic disease in the first place.

So it’s worth thinking about why we end up blaming minority populations for endangering our health. In Jewish communities, most prominent rabbis ultimately supported government health regulations even though some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) communities had been defying the orders. Many were opposed to closing down their places of study and worship. As a result, the virus has been spreading in ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States and in Israel.

The situation is more complicated than simply flouting the rules. The ultra-Orthodox are a diverse community, but many do not share the same information sources that others take for granted. In accordance with the rulings of their rabbis, their internet access is generally limited, as is their access to television broadcasts and to certain functions of cell phones. They maintain their closeness to God by distancing themselves from the secular world, which kept many of them from seeing news reports of the virus spreading elsewhere.

At first, the leaders of Haredi communities told people that gathering to pray and study was paramount because studying the sacred texts is a commandment, a requirement, and a duty. More than a way of life, prayer and studying the Hebrew scriptures (Torah) are the means for protecting life itself. According to Jewish sages: “One who has the word of God placed in his mouth through Torah study has established heaven and earth,” and “One who engages in Torah study also protects the entire world” (Sanhedrin 99b). Indeed, “without Torah the world falls.” Thus, it is not surprising that recently one prominent rabbi in Israel was quoted as saying that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

On March 22, the Israeli police were sent into a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem to enforce coronavirus restrictions. When they arrived, they were met with curses, slurs, and stones hurled at them. Some Haredim called the Israeli police “Nazis”. These behaviors might seem irrational, but as an anthropologist who studies questions of religion, politics, identity and conflict in Israel and Palestine, my research suggests that culture and collective memory are integral to this kind of response.

Collective memory.

Our perception, imagination, and the actions we take are deeply embedded in the whole of our experiences. The past, whether individually experienced or collectively shared and nourished by the community, intervenes in the present. “[O]ur duration,” Henri Bergson wrote, “is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never be anything but the present… Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future.” The past shifts to present itself to us in ways that appeal to the present. Individual and collective memories differ. So different people will recall different aspects of the past .

In times of crisis this sense of duration becomes more acute. Now, during this pandemic, we find people reacting in different ways. Some people see images of temporary hospital tents erected in public places and recall pictures of World War I. Octogenarians who lived through World War II may have different recollections. A Holocaust survivor told me the stay-at-home order brought back memories of her years of confinement hiding from the Nazis as a child. A New Orleans resident told The Guardian that the sudden “flood” of coronavirus deaths recalled Hurricane Katrina.

Collective memory is central to the formation of group identity. The stories we tell ourselves and our children about our past give meaning to who we are. They tell of our struggles and triumphs and define our moral community.

Persecution.

The strictly observant Jews in Me’a She’arim may associate Israeli police enforcing health codes with collective memories of soldiers and police wreaking havoc and destruction on Jewish communities in Tsarist Russia and later in Western Europe. The history of persecution of Jews around the world is central to the identities of both secular and strictly observant Israeli Jews. But the ways that memory works in contemporary circumstances is different for these groups.

Most Israelis see the history of Jewish persecution as a justification for the establishment of the state of Israel. They see the Israeli army and police force as theirs, existing to protect them. But some Haredim distrust the state and its functionaries, viewing them as a continuation of the soldiers and police who persecuted Jews in other places. In fact, Haredi Jews, who make up about 10% of Israel’s population, are foundationally opposed to Zionism.

While they believe that God promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people, they also believe that promise cannot be fulfilled by human intervention in God’s work, which is how they interpret the establishment of the modern state of Israel. When the police entered their neighborhoods to close down synagogues and yeshivas, members of the Haredi community drew on their collective memories. Rather than feeling protected by the state, they were fearful and suspicious. When we think about Haredi reactions to the police in Israel, we might think of other communities whose collective memory likewise associates police with violence and danger.

In times of crisis like the coronavirus,some of us rely primarily on science, technology, and government to protect us. While the Haredim do not reject science or medicine, their daily and hourly work with Torah is the primary means by which all our lives are maintained and preserved. The political order interfering with that work could be even more dangerous than the virus itself. It could mean the end of Jewish life, it not humanity itself.

We are often quick to judge others based on our own norms and values and slow to recognize the limits of our own ways of being. It is challenging to understand that different worlds can exist at the same time and in the same space, not only across the globe but in our own neighborhoods and cities.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared in The Conversation.

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