The joy of Shavuot was slightly marred by the appearance on that sublime, holy and transformative day in world history of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg entitled “The Coronavirus Isn’t G-d’s Will.” I am quite aware that the provocative headline was not the author’s choice. Having been down that road several times myself, and having thoughtful pieces somewhat misconstrued because of incendiary headlines, I recognize that headlines are chosen by editors and not by the writers.
In this case, though, the headline is entirely accurate, as this one sentence indicates: “Religious authorities should lead in proclaiming that Coronavirus isn’t willed or inflicted by G-d.” Well, how does he know that? Rabbi Greenberg has long been an iconoclast, but I immediately recalled the medieval philosopher (cited by, among others, Rabbenu Nissim and Rav Yosef Albo) who said of G-d: “Eelu yedativ, heyitiv” – “If I knew Him, I would be Him.”
Rabbi Greenberg presumes to know Him. Iconoclasm aside, how does he know? And how would traditional Judaism view the divine role in the current crisis? If anything, the pandemic should instill in us more humility before the Almighty, as we have experienced the limits of human knowledge, the frantic search for answers, and the collapse of the economic and social order as we know them, and all seemingly overnight. There has been a natural increase in prayer in the last few months, as people of all faiths have realized how little we control our lives and our world; such piety is to be encouraged, not derided.
His general point is that man has to act using our wisdom and especially our capacity for kindness, and that is well taken. So too are the targets of his displeasure, including his polar opposites (those who also think they know G-d’s will and attribute the pandemic to their favorite agenda) or those who deny nature entirely and thus presume that their faith renders them immune from disease. That is also sensible, but his road to that conclusion is littered with half-truths, ill-formed assumptions, clichés, and not a few heretical comments.
“G-d has self-limited, says the Talmud, giving humans greater freedom and responsibility. The biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended. The Lord asks the faithful to serve not to beget miracles, but out of love and shared fate. G-d shares our pain and asks us to take action to end the suffering.”
I am not sure where G-d’s self-limitation is mentioned in the Talmud, although there is a concept of tzimtzum in the Zohar that relates to how G-d, an incorporeal Entity, created a physical universe. And of course mankind has great freedom and responsibility. But R. Greenberg’s divine “self-limitation” seems less a catalyst for human action than it is an utter denial of divine providence. It is as if G-d was a Creator who then abandoned His creation to its own devices leaving behind a string of platitudes to guide them but certainly disdaining any form of enforcement of His moral system.
Who says the “biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended”? Chanuka was post-biblical; did not Chanuka involve a visible miracle? There have been innumerable instances of miraculous events that have transformed battles and altered the destiny of nations – bombs that didn’t go off, events that defied nature and the laws of war, and the like – not to make even more numerous instances of decisions made or actions taken or not taken that were attributed by participants to nothing but Providence.
Indeed, this is a recurrent conceptual error in his musings here. “…the Creator’s presence and love are evidenced precisely in the miraculous functioning of the natural order… It is time for everyone to understand that G-d operates within the laws of nature, which are themselves miraculous.” The world has always functioned pursuant to natural order, but nature and miracles are not at all identical. Greenberg disregards the concept of Providence, whereby God intervenes in human affairs according to His will that is inscrutable to man. Similarly, Providence and miracles are also not identical. Nature is nature; miracles are deviations from nature. Divine providence can employ overt miracles but can also manipulate human beings to serve G-d’s greater purposes. But R. Greenberg further erases from Jewish thought the concept of reward and punishment, for individuals and nations. The Creator of all is just a “good news G-d,” who just wants man to be good (as each person defines it) but otherwise is uninterested in those who perpetrate evil as He sees it. The author’s God does nothing except to ratify human conduct, to the extent that He cares at all. It is a bleak and materialistic picture.
The author further reduces God to being man’s partner without specifying a particular divine role. Clichés aside, what really does it mean that “G-d shares our pain… that we work with him to fight Covid-19 and develop cures and vaccines…to work in partnership with the Lord…”? How does G-d “share our pain”? We know what we have to do to fight this scourge and others – but what does He actually do? What is His role in the partnership, especially since He has purportedly withdrawn from judging man for doing evil, relies on man to sustain the world by doing good, and mocks as “magical thinking” any person of faith who prays for miracles or salvation?
It is nothing less than cloaking G-d in human garb. He is what we say He is, we believe in Him and serve Him at our pleasure, and write Him out of the story when convenient or His bromides – especially on His moral order – are unwelcome to progressive thinkers.
One will look in vain in classical Jewish literature for even a hint that G-d is uninvolved in his world, sends no messages or punishments, and lets man alone to fend for himself and enjoy whatever immorality, venality or decadence suits him. One who believes that spends a lot of time on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mouthing words that he simply does not believe: “Who will live and who will die?…Who by plague, who by strangulation?…Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree…You wish…that man repent and live…Have compassion on Your handiwork…Instill Your awe upon all Your work…Everything is known and revealed before You…Regarding countries it is said, which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger, which for abundance…” This is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that his premise disregards, even disparages.
Greenberg intones: “The Lord calls us to join with him to fight suffering and to choose life over death.” And if we don’t? Well, there is really not much He can do about it, since nature rules and G-d’s active interest in mankind ended with the Bible. Belief in R. Greenberg’s powerless, figurehead deity, and rejection of God’s existence altogether, seems to be a distinction without a difference.
What lessons can we draw from the crises that are wracking our world these days? Certainly we should feel humbled, limited, and diminished. For all our sophistication and progress, medical science is always one disease behind perfect cures for everything. We solve one problem and another, unprecedented, presents. We can only evaluate at first based on precedents, however apposite or inapposite they might be.
In looking at our present tribulations, we can exclude one approach: the one articulated here, that “Coronavirus isn’t G-d’s will.” It is acceptable to say that “of course it is,” but the humble, human answer is that we just don’t know. But we are certainly allowed, even obligated, to assume that G-d is sending us a message. We are supposed to introspect, self-evaluate, and ponder a deeper meaning beyond the nuts and bolts of medically solving this problem and its consequences. It suffices to say that it might be G-d’s will, which demands a prescribed response from us. And who among can dare presume that it isn’t G-d’s will?
The Rambam (Laws of Fasts 1:1-3) codifies that we are commanded to cry out to G-d over any communal affliction, including “pestilence.” “And this is one of the ways of repentance. When the community is tormented and cries out, it should know that this tragedy has befallen them because of their evil deeds…But if they don’t cry out or sound the trumpets but rather say that ‘this is the way of the world’ (i.e., nature!) and it is all coincidental [and without ultimate meaning] this is the way of cruelty and causes them to cling to their evil ways.” It is “cruelty” in the essential meaning of the Hebrew word – ach-zar – it is all foreign to me, it has nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with G-d.
That conclusion is cruel – cruel to the individual who believes it and to the community and world he is trying to heal.
Lacking prophecy, we cannot know with any specificity what sins generated this particular malady that is afflicting us. That is not the same as saying there is no sin, no sinner, and no repentance. Perhaps a good place to start our contemplation would not be in the newfangled progressive pantheon of sins but instead in the Bible itself, to see where we have strayed and to find our way back.
That, too, is G-d’s will.