Jacob Kornbluh, a journalist who knows the ultraorthodox community intimately and is recovering from having been beaten up by rioting members of that community (as we speak, hundreds of them have gathered threateningly around his house), says the most important thing of all. He took part in a Haaretz-sponsored zoom session this afternoon (UD watched it) about the (sometimes violent) refusal of ultraorthodox Jewish communities in New York and Israel to mask and distance and stay home, and when asked about the motivation of these people, he said… see the title of this post.


A relative of Kornbluh’s asks the haredim, on his Twitter page, “Are you all out of your minds?”

But I don’t think it’s a madness of crowds thing. Like Kornbluh, I’m not sure there is a reason. You have to contort yourself until you’re way off the charts intellectually to get anywhere with this mystery.

Haredi Jews in Israel and to a lesser degree in the United States live in crowded conditions and have less access to information, not to mention fewer intellectual tools for fully understanding the pandemic by virtue of an education devoted almost exclusively to the study of religious texts. However, unlike any other impoverished, undereducated minority, the Haredim have consciously chosen this way of life by adhering to an ideology that looks upon the modern world as a threat. It undercuts the argument that they are blameless victims of a virus.

So UD would like to suggest that consciously choosing an ignorant, impoverished life was the last conscious thing the haredim did. The reason one can’t get anywhere with them is that they are in a group trance; their life is perennial twilight sleep. In her great short story, “Holiday,” Katherine Anne Porter’s narrator recalls visiting a hardworking German American farm family in Texas. She was struck by “the repose, the almost mystical inertia of their minds in the midst of [their] muscular life” – and if you change muscular to communal I think you get the daily existential reality of many haredim, people who intuitively understand the advantages of sleepwalking through life. Saul Bellow used to say that most of us sleepwalk through life; entire spiritual practices – Buddhism, say – are devoted to trying to shake us awake.

The haredim are out to prove that religion really is the opiate of the masses; and, like most people suddenly jolted out of a dream by some rough shove, they are truly not going to be pleasant with the wakened world, the threatening modern enlightened world.

Think of it like this: People coming out of anesthesia are sometimes combative: It happens enough to have a name: Emergence Delirium.

You know: Til human voices wake us, and we drown.

If human voices wake the haredim, they will drown; their rabbis know at least this much.

The threat of death and disease should be a powerful countervailing force, but Haredi leaders live in perpetual fear of their followers’ religious observance slacking off and even of them leaving the community. If the momentum of prayer, study, and mass gatherings is halted for even a few weeks, no one can predict what the consequences would be. One study estimates that 15 percent of young Israeli Haredim leave the community.

And after all death (by covid or any other means) is only, if you like, an intensification of trance – Shakespeare calls sleep “death’s second self,” and if UD is correct many haredim, by this reckoning, are already living quite morbid lives, lives quite close to death. The refusal of the world; the refusal of almost everything the world has to offer by way of pleasure, enlightenment, expressivity, discovery; the pale black-suited men and the virtually invisible women… 15% attrition? The rabbis are certainly right that under the unbearable pressures covid places on already unimaginably repressed lives (stuck in a crowded apartment with not much in the way of toys, and no secular books or television or internet) that number will grow. Hence their refusal to acknowledge the existence of a pandemic.


Zzzzzz: “Borough Park Synagogue With COVID-Positive Rabbi Still Holding Large Indoor Prayer Services, Despite $15,000 Fine”

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