We should all mourn for the ultra-Orthodox

Jew-haters with guns are no longer the greatest threat to Jews. The new enemy is invisible.

(RNS) — No, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is not an anti-Semite.

That is what one prominent Jewish tweeter said this morning.

Give me a break.

Late last night, de Blasio went ballistic on Hasidic residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as he personally oversaw the dispersal of hundreds of mourners at a rabbi’s funeral.

He lashed out at “the Jewish community” for violating social distancing rules.

That was his utter frustration boiling over and forming words.

He misspoke.

It is not “THE Jewish community.”

It is a sector of a sector of the Jewish community — the so-called (and, for some, the term is problematic) ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, the frum — the so-called (and pejorative) “black hats.”

They are the Jews’ Jews. As the Jews are Other, they are the Other inside the Jewish community itself.

In this March 31, 2020, file photo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the USTA Indoor Training Center, where a 350-bed temporary hospital will be built in New York. De Blasio oversaw the dispersal of a large, tightly packed Hasidic Jewish funeral and lashed out at the mourners who had gathered in defiance of social distancing rules. He tweeted April 28, 2020, that his message to the Jewish community “and all communities” is that the time for warnings has passed. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

That community has historically been afraid of the outside world.

Its members have been afraid of the world’s terrors and its temptations.

This time, the enemy is not the Cossacks or the Nazis.

This time, the enemy is an invisible terror.

At the same time as we have been binge-watching “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “One of Us,” the lives that these shows portray have been evaporating.

De Blasio was right to be angry and frustrated. He has to safeguard the health of all New Yorkers. If he ruffled some feathers in doing so, so be it.

Me? My first reaction was anger at this community — for its lack of responsibility.

Then, sadness — profound sadness.

First, because the ultra-Orthodox are the victims of their own sociology.

Many of the massive deaths in the ultra-Orthodox community are, in large measure, self-inflicted. Many of them have no internet. They only listen to their rabbis. Their knowledge of what is going on beyond the pages of the Talmud is seriously limited.

And, yes, they persist in gathering in large numbers — in Lakewood, New Jersey, and in Israel, among other places.

Why do they do that?

Because, that is who they are.

They have large nuclear and extended families. Traditional Judaism is intensely social. That is part of its very design. It is why a minyan of 10 is required for communal worship. It is the nature of traditional Judaism.

Second, because when Haredi leaders die, wisdom dies with them.

Some Haredim are the remnants of the Lithuanian yeshivot — a world that brought musar (ethical) teachings into the Jewish world. Check out the new musar commentary on the Torah, edited by Rabbi Barry Block, Alan Morinis, et al. — and published by the CCAR, the Reform rabbinic organization.

Some Haredim are Hasidim. Hasidic wisdom has had an honored place in liberal Judaism for more than a half-century. Check out Arthur Green’s new book on neo-Hasidism.

I do not romanticize these communities. This is not “Fiddler On The Roof” Judaism — a nostalgia for a distorted past.

Not at all. But, I have learned from them — and if their teachers die, a part of my Torah dies with them.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews watch the funeral procession of Rabbi of the Kaliv Hasidic dynasty and Holocaust survivor Menachem Mendel Taub during his funeral in Jerusalem, on April 28, 2019. Thousands attended the funeral of Taub, scion of a Hungarian rabbinic dynasty, who died at the age of 96. Taub helped produce a two-volume encyclopedia documenting Jewish religious martyrs killed in the Holocaust. His death came days before Israel marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Third, because when Jews die, a piece of Jewish history dies with them.

As David Biale et al wrote in Hasidism: A New History, in a passage on the resurgence of Hasidism after World War II:

It cannot be overstated how important the rebbes from Eastern Europe were in constructing a framework of meaning for those who had lost everything, often including whole families. … The ethos of postwar Hasidism — meaning its ideas, cultural practices, and communal institutions — must all be framed in this light. The charisma of many of these rebbes was enhanced by their status as living memorials to a murdered world.

For the past week, since Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), I have been thinking about the Hasidim of Eastern Europe.

I have been thinking about the Haredim who ascended through the chimneys of Auschwitz. I have been thinking about how the survivors rebuilt their lives. I have been thinking about how some Haredim send wedding invitations to their dead relatives, at their last known addresses in Europe. Because in some way, the dead are still alive to them.

I have been thinking about how these families have eight, nine and 10 children — in order to try to replace those who were lost. Their response to death has been birth.

(“You do realize, Jeff, that those Jews have no use for you and/or your Judaism.”)

(“Yeah, I do. I don’t like what they do. But, I do love them — as my fellow Jews. I’m funny that way.”)

So, yes, I went from anger to sadness — and then, like de Blasio, I return to anger at the Haredim.

This is what I want to say to them.

How dare you?

How dare you, my brothers and sisters, sacrifice your communal gains on the altars of your own stubbornness and/or lethal lack of knowledge and/or your cultic overdependence on your rabbis?

How dare you squander Torah this way? How dare you willingly let more Jews die?

How dare you endanger the lives of your fellow citizens — yes, rebbes, civic responsibility is a traditional Jewish value.

Far vus, I say in their native Yiddish: For what?

But, after anger and sadness and anger again, I go to joy — and pride.

De Blasio can turn this around. He can herald the redemptive news that has emerged from the frum community.

De Blasio can thank the more than 3,000 Orthodox Jews who have donated blood plasma at blood banks around the New York area, with an additional 6,000 recently tested to see whether they have the correct antibodies, according to the Forward.

Chaim Lebovits, a shoe wholesaler from Monsey, New York, who has been masterminding the operation, says he hopes that in total around 45,000 Orthodox Jews from the New York area will take part in the plasma drive. 

“The plasma isn’t just used for frum people or Jewish people, it’s for people in general,” Lebovits told the Forward. “We as observant Jews have an obligation to preserve life, and save life, and help as many people as we can.”

That, my friends, is what it means to live Torah.