There’s a thought that’s been percolating inside of me. Most recently, it was activated by the surprising response of large segments of the Frum/Orthodox community, to the COVID crisis.
The thought actually starts with a question: Why is it that a good many of the most observant members of our community seem almost allergic to rules that broader society tends to abide? In particular, why do a large number of Frum Jews make light of recommended, sometimes mandated, safety guidelines?
In answering the second question, some have noted how the more observant and insular segment of our community has already downplayed, educationally, the value of science. “Wouldn’t,” they argue, “a community that diminishes the worth of science, devalue the advice of scientists?
Taking a different tack, Jonathan Rosenblum, has referenced the term “moral balancing”, in addressing the broader phenomenon of Orthodox rule breaking. He cites Mazar and Jhong, writing in Psychological Science, who found that people who made a moral choice in one instance – e.g., buying an environmentally friendly product – tended, soon thereafter, to take moral shortcuts in another – e.g., underreporting income.
The explanation they offered was that once a person establishes their moral bona fides, in one domain, they feel less bound to demonstrate ethical behavior in other domains. Rosenblum applied the above to Frum Jews, who are sometimes scrupulous, in ritual observance, but may other times come up short, in the interpersonal realm.
I’d like to offer a parallel explanation to address the phenomenon of Frum rule breaking. It is less about posturing and curating ourselves. It’s more about the availability, to Frum Jews, of the physical, emotional and mental energy, to respond to a crisis that is not overtly religious, in nature.
Whether or not we ask for it, Frum Jews have a lot on their plates. We are expected, from a young age, to attend dual curriculum schools. We are obliged to keep rules that govern a wide range of our behavior – rules to which members of broader culture are not bound. Frum Jews are blessed, as well, with several designated prayer times, a day.
As we get older, young men are told to invest their time in Torah study, while anticipating supporting a larger family. Young women are given the Herculean task of simultaneously pursuing their own spiritual growth, bearing and raising large families, and bringing home a salary. In short, even as the Frum lifestyle can be deeply rewarding, it can also be taxing
Given all the responsibilities they must shoulder, many Orthodox Jews may be suffering from “Frum Fatigue”. They may simply not have any bandwidth left to adopt the significant lifestyle changes that the CDC and other health experts have presented them.
Many families were reluctant to spend Yomim Tovim/holidays separate from each other. Those with young children, may have pressed for schools to open sooner than advisable, with less restrictions. They may continue to bend guidelines, when it comes to play dates.
A sizeable number of Frum Jews are unwilling to pass up on the joyous opportunities the Jewish calendar offers for congregating and celebrating. As can be seen in various neighborhoods, many have outright abandoned mask wearing and social distancing.
The burdens Frum Jews carry are not only related to physical energy and limited financial resources. Many Frum Jews also carry hidden mental burdens – ones that would render them particularly antagonistic to the thinking behind the complex, seemingly contradictory guidelines that govern COVID safety.
Because Frum Jews profess to believe in the entirety of the Torah, we have likely been balancing, even prior to the pandemic, a broad array of complex, paradoxical, and, perhaps, disturbing ideas. We read in Vayikra and Devarim that Hashem can bring immense suffering upon those who don’t fervently and joyously follow His Torah; we are assured by our Rebbeim and Moros that Hashem loves us deeply and specifically tailors consequences to enhance our lives. We are taught that Dovid Hamelech was righteous; we encounter the highly upsetting Bat-Sheva narrative, in which Dovid Hamelech, at best, abides the letter of the law, while apparently ignoring the spirit of the law.
I’m not saying that there is no way to resolve these painful contradictions. I am saying that, whether we are aware of it or not, are brains are busy, perhaps overloaded, juggling paradox.
Perhaps, we have no mental or emotional bandwidth left to deal with a government agency that initially downplays the value of mask wearing, but later insists it’s an essential part of safety protocols. We have little to no patience for politicians who target Jews for coming together to Daven or to attend a funeral, but then seem to celebrate those who congregate for the cause of racial justice.
We become cynical. We glom on to the most lenient medical views – even those of us who generally adhere to the most stringent Halachachic views. Worse yet, we regress to the point of being indistinguishable from the children in class who try to justify their misbehavior. We insist that the teacher allows other kids to get away with it: “He’s picking on me,” we bleat. We decide that we are not bound by COVID guidelines. We ignore them.
So, if Frum Fatigue is a likely contributor to the poor showing many of us have made, in meeting the demands of public health, what can we do about it?
We can, in the least, acknowledge that amid the joy and profound meaning available to those who are Frum, we are likely overtaxed – mentally, physically, and emotionally. Let’s recognize the consequent anti-authority bias to which we are subject, particularly as we struggle, to create a Jewish Bayis/house.
Let’s recognize, as well, that if we’ve already trained ourselves to manage the paradoxes that are part and parcel of being Orthodox, we can likely stomach the twists and turns, the peaks and valleys of scientific progress. After all, our brains ought to be quite agile.
Finally let’s remember what several prominent Rabbonim have emphasized - that scrupulously following the COVID guidelines outlined by the CDC is actually a form of Mitzvah observance. It is the primary manner that we fulfill the Torah’s commandment to guard our lives and our souls.
May we find safe passage, through this pandemic, so that we can, in good faith, return our focus to the rich, meaning-laden lives that have until now been available to us. May we once again enjoy full access to the supportive, joyful communities of which we are a part.
Photo Credit: Unsplash: Channey