THEOLOGIANS SHOULD NOT LET THE GLOBAL HEALTH CRISIS GO TO WASTE
Like all civilizations, Judaism reacts – albeit cautiously – to seismic events.
Take for example the development of Hasidism which was partly a response to Cossack brutality in Poland. Or Hassidism’s Mitnagdim opponents who were reacting to Shabbetai Tzvi’s false messianism. Reform developed because modernizers worried Orthodoxy was ill-suited to take advantage of emancipation. Zionism was a reaction to the failure of that same emancipation. Likewise, Conservative Judaism was a reaction to Reform’s radical reformations.
And so on.
Combined with the unravelling of the American polity, the Coronavirus pandemic will transform Jewish civilization in ways we cannot yet envision.
We are already seeing the sociological and psychological impact of Coronavirus on religious life. Worshippers miss gathering as a congregation. Even where services take place in person face masks, and physical distancing creates a stilted experience. That does not mean when all this is over, everyone will be content to resume their usual places in the pews.
A new coronavirus Responsa is developing in the classical Orthodox world. (Do you need to fast during times of plague? Are you allowed to drive home after taking someone to the hospital on Shabbes to avoid further exposure to the virus?) Meanwhile, some in the open Orthodox minority have joined with liberal streams in allowing Kaddish to be recited at weekday Zoom minyans.
Much has also been written about the uptick in antisemitism. Unlike the Black Death which unleashed a wave of pogroms, the 21st-century Coronavirus is accompanied mostly by increased dissemination of Jew-hating messages. These come from white and black supremacists as well as from PLO and other anti-Zionists.
My interest here is less sociological, psychological, Halachic, or even political and more theological. An observant and erudite friend of mine thinks I am engaging in a fool’s errand. He says Random events happen, and not to make the pandemic a God issue. This sounds like a variation on Richard Elliott Friedman’s hypothesis that God has withdrawn from intervening in human affairs.
My sensible self finds the view that God is not a micromanager utilitarian. Yet I think this is a discussion worth having. Israel’s job is to struggle with God.
Perhaps the Coronavirus will change how people think about the Creator. Will the need for religious certainty increase? Or will God become irrelevant to more Jewish young people?
The competition is not necessarily better situated. The Humanist camp can offer uncertain science, meager pastoral support, and impermanent community. In a COVID-19 foxhole this may be insufficient.
Perhaps that is why some who seldom pray are telling pollsters they have been appealing for divine intervention.
Or, maybe, this in-your-face, social-media-saturated, 24/7 cable news covered pandemic will reinforce existing befuddlement.
As social scientists consider how people are thinking about God, theologians will want to focus on what religious convictions the crisis is raising. But also, what clerics are saying that is new.
You may have seen this poignant moment of religious self-criticism from Haredi Rabbi Gershom Edelstein head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak. Edelstein is a significant figure in the Lithuanian or non-Hassidic stream of ultra-Orthodoxy. His yeshivashe milieu leans toward a religiosity that is obsessive, insular, and puritanical.
So, when Edelstein engages in public self-criticism it is worth paying attention: “There’s something we have to understand here … the Haredim have died, in comparison to the general population, at a much higher percentage. Abroad as well, Haredim have died at a higher percentage than the rest of the [Jewish] public. What does this mean?”
His conclusion was that God judges the religious more harshly than Jews raised in the ignorance of what I would term the Muggle world.
On first blush, he was challenging Haredim to set a good example for ethical behavior and interpersonal relations or derech eretz. Was he insinuating that his followers should be more courteous behind the wheel or in the public square? To be kinder to each other in the synagogue and gentler to their wives and children at home?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Conceivably he was really calling for added stringencies in the Haredi lifestyle. New restrictions on permissible foods, additional layers on female bodies, and more frum signalling.
Some clerics were playing an altogether different blame game. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Meir Mazuz, a Sephardi chauvinist of Tunisian ancestry, intuits that God is punishing humanity for its postmodernist social mores, especially regarding homosexuality.
The challenge is to promote universal social justice while not shape-shifting Judaism into something it isn't.
The modern Orthodox theologian Rabbi Irving Greenberg seems to suggest that no one is to blame for the Coronavirus and it is not a punishment. However, perhaps the Lord is calling on humanity to take part in repairing the flaws of His unfinished creation (Tikun Olam).
At the very least we should not make things worse.
It is too much to ask non-Orthodox rabbis to preach that left-leaning political activism ought not to supersede Jewish ritual commitment. That Shabbat needs to be taken seriously, and that peoplehood and covenant is integral to Jewish civilization.
Is it too much to ask Orthodox rabbis to accept that ritual commitment ought not to supersede menschlichkeit?
אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה
Jettison your religious haughtiness and accept (gasp) that no one, actually, has a Hotline to God.
Is it too much to ask?
Of course, it is too much! We are not on the cusp of the messianic era.
I'd settle for a polemical ceasefire and for more of our spiritual leaders to set aside tribalism and partisanship -- just for the duration of the pandemic.
What matters as our world slides into another miserable and suffocating wave of the Coronavirus?
That is what we need to ask ourselves.
And that is what our clerics need to ponder.