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Two Hasidic men converse on a street.
The Hasidic community comprises several communities that take their names from the cities of Eastern and Central Europe where they originated. In Montréal, the Belz and the Satmar are the best known. (Philippe Montbazet)

Policing religious gathering limits during the coronavirus pandemic requires sensitivity

The images were stark: men and boys fleeing from a synagogue into the night as Montréal police gathered outside the building.

In the video taken on Jan. 22, the word “Nazi” can be clearly heard in the background mix of different voices, undoubtedly uttered against the police. The officers were at the Skver congregation community synagogue to enforce provincial health rules limiting gatherings during the pandemic.

A judge later ruled in favour of a challenge by the Hasidic community to the health regulations but remained open to future changes to the rules by the government.

As social science researchers interested in how people live together, this video challenges us and also invites us to begin a reflection that goes beyond it.

A fragmented world

Beyond the disrespect of the instructions issued by Public Health, this episode evokes a scenario that has been repeated many times: the characterization of all the Hasidic groups present in Montréal’s Outremont and Plateau-Mont-Royal boroughs based on the actions of certain members.

This approach is well known and numerous works in social psychology — notably those of Henri Tajfel, a pioneer in the study of intergroup relations — highlight the process by which a minority group is perceived as a homogeneous whole and the behaviour of some members is extrapolated to reflect that of the entire group.

Read more: Comment la Covid-19 transforme le travail des chercheurs en sciences religieuses

It is therefore useful to remember that the Hasidic community does not exist in the singular sense. Rather, there are several communities that derive their names from the cities in Eastern and Central Europe where they were born. While the largest in Montréal, such as the Belz or Satmar, have several thousand members and are well known, other communities are made up of only a few families such as the Klausenberg and Trisk.

To these divisions rooted in the long history of Hasidic Judaism must be added divisions within the different communities themselves. Sociologist Samuel Heilman examines precisely these divisions rooted in problems of succession in five Hasidic dynasties in North America.

Institutional fragmentation is not peculiar to Hasidic Judaism. It is also found in other religious traditions that do not have a unique organizational structure. Nevertheless, this fragmentation has very concrete consequences for the local geography of synagogues, as sociologist Iddo Tavory shows in his research on the Orthodox communities of the Beverly-La Brea neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Calif.

While members may be able to attend three prayers a day in a synagogue that is not their community’s synagogue, in part because the times are more convenient to their schedule, they attend their community’s synagogue for Shabbat prayer, which runs from Friday night to Saturday night.

Bad citizens?

Beyond these organizational clarifications, one question remains after watching the video mentioned above: why hold such gatherings when they have been banned in the name of collective responsibility? Couldn’t members of Hasidic Jewish communities simply avoid the Shabbat prayer during the pandemic? Is it necessary to pre-emptively conclude that these individuals are simply ignoring their fellow citizens?

parked police cars
A police car is parked in front of a synagogue in Outremont. Police were called to the synagogue to disperse an illegal gathering. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

It seems to us that such a hypothesis is unsatisfactory and that it is useful to try to understand this resistance without seeking to justify or excuse behaviour prohibited by law.

First of all, it is necessary to point out the intrinsically collective character of certain Jewish prayers. Indeed, these prayers are not simply the result of an individual connection with God. They have a community dimension and a co-presence aspect. And according to Jewish law, in order for certain prayers to take place (such as those on the Sabbath), a quorum of 10 adult men is required. This is called a minyan.

A conception of religious life that is difficult to grasp

But it doesn’t stop there. Behind this gesture lies a reverent experience, both personal and collective, which is difficult to grasp in a society where religious practice is thought to be a private and intimate matter. Giving up meeting for Shabbat prayer would not be something that could be contemplated according to these pious Jews (“pious” being the meaning of the Hebrew word “khasid”).

This prayer, as well as other practices, is the legacy of a tradition that has continued for millennia, even in extreme situations such as the Second World War Holocaust. It should be remembered that the Hasidic presence in North America is inseparable from the memory of the Holocaust. It must be maintained also, and above all, because the request to carry out these practices would come directly from God and because this constitutes the heart of the life of the members and not only a “religious” aspect of their identity.

Last spring, three specialists in Orthodox Judaism explained in the New York Daily News how the shift from the present to the virtual undermines the very essence of this ultra-Orthodox Judaism. For many observers of public life, there is a tension that is difficult to reconcile between respect for the law of God and respect for the law of society, the former prevailing over the latter. This situation is hardly acceptable in a so-called secularized society.

However, it would perhaps be more pertinent to reformulate the question differently and to question the supposed equality of all in the face of the regulations put in place to contain the pandemic.

While it is up to the government to make decisions which are certainly necessary and difficult, we must not forget their character. They are part of a certain vision of what is essential to lead a good life. However, in matters of religious affairs, it seems indispensable to recognize the multiplicity of personal and collective experiences that are not always easy to grasp. Such recognition does not necessarily lead to specific accommodations but it is at the basis of a collective and truly constructive discussion.

This article was originally published in French

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