Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Minds Made Up

     Why is it impossible today to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe?

     I have found this to be so at least for the last decade. People’s positions have hardened and most are impervious to reasoned analysis. Even being shown how their arguments are logically flawed, factually incorrect or intellectually unsustainable makes absolutely no headway. Providing examples of their assumptions being proved dead wrong falls on deaf ears. I have been told by too many people whose views were just incorrect or whose opinions I saw as misguided and subject to adjustment based on facts or the disproof of their assumptions something along the lines of: “You are a good debater. I can’t debate you. But this is my opinion and I am sticking to it.” Whether or not words like this are uttered to you, this sentiment is widely held and happens more than we care to admit. It seems as if people would rather donate a vital organ than change their mind about something.

     It doesn’t even matter if the subject at hand is politics, science, history, sports, religion or some other weighty topic. People would rather disengage from a dialogue in which their beliefs might be challenged or refuted than actually confront them, defend them or change them. How did we arrive at such a stage, in which minds are so made up that true dialogue is dead?

     One answer often suggested, and it strikes a chord, is the lack of mutual respect accorded to contrary viewpoints. The oft-repeated trope is that many people on the left perceive people on the right as not just wrong but evil, whereas many people on the right perceive people on the left as fools. It is hard to have a rational conversation with people for whom you have such disdain, although, in truth, it is always tempting to try to educate the fool; that is why people on the right have become the great defenders of free speech. It is distasteful, even morally repugnant, to try to educate people whom you believe are irredeemably evil; hence the contempt on the left for the Western norms of free speech. If people on the right can only articulate “hate speech” (defined as anything with which the left disagrees) then such “hate speech” must be banned. It certainly should not be confronted in any type of discourse, public or private.

     But I think the problem is even deeper than that.

     Leo Tolstoy wrote (The Kingdom of God Is Within You) that “the most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

     Too many people don’t know what they don’t know, and what they think they know is often wrong but so entrenched in their personalities and value systems that a refutation of those notions followed by a transformation in their thinking would be unbearable. They are thus subject to confirmation bias, assimilating only those points, vignettes, anecdotes or studies that validate their thinking and rejecting (sometimes not even hearing or even entertaining) all others.

     Part of the problem is the existence of “alternate facts,” a phrase unwittingly coined by Kellyanne Conway and mocked by the left-wing media but something, properly understood, that has a ring of truth to it. This is what she meant: people only internalize the “facts” that support their positions and do not recognize the flaws, weaknesses or questionability of those facts. For example, much has been made about the imperative of following the “science.” But what if the science is in dispute? Many scientists tout the effectiveness of mask-wearing during the current pandemic, but others argue and say its effects are positive but limited. Non-transmission requires other factors beyond, and more important, than mask-wearing.    

     Scientists differ on whether or not people with antibodies can be re-infected. Scientists differ on the effectiveness of the hydroxychloriquine protocol, with formal studies bashing it and case studies (I personally know people whose lives were saved by it) endorsing it. Obviously, one’s opinion about these “facts” is influenced by the politics of the matter.

     “Alternate facts” are also fueled by the rise of the self-appointed expert class who presumably know more than the rest of us. Their errors, though, are doozies. In late February, one well known expert, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a top Obama/Biden aide, decried the “overreaction” to the Corona virus and predicted the “warm weather” of summer would end it anyway. He is still advising, opining, and dictating. Not to pick on him, but he is typical of the expertocracy that are as wrong as often as they are right and almost never held accountable for their mistakes. But their mere existence provides the argument that their acolytes are seeking and precludes any dialogue. After all, the science has spoken.

     In another and less polemical or sensitive realm, social science studies that are endlessly circulated by a lazy media have been routinely exposed as bogus. In the language of the trade, it is called the “replication crisis,” because as many as 70% cannot be independently duplicated. They make a big splash upon release, shape people’s attitudes and even values, and turn out to be based on gossamer. Thus, “people who are more analytical are less likely to hold religious beliefs.” Bogus. Or, “students exposed to a text that undermined their belief in free will were more likely to engage in cheating behavior.” Bogus. Add to this list the studies that “prove” that coffee is harmful or not harmful, that low-fat, high-fat, low- carb, high-carb diets are good or not good.

     Part of the problem is small sample size, another is the need to be published (which gets the author fame and more money for grants) but the biggest problem is that the researchers are “searching” for the answer they want, and they almost always find it even if they have to fabricate the conclusions.

     And then, many of the easily replicable studies are replicable because they are so obvious, to the point of being frivolous. Take the recent study that offered the stunning revelation that “children of intermarried Jews grow up with a very weak Jewish identity.” Gee, who would’ve thought that?! I could have saved the sponsors of the study a lot of money. This notion too has been confirmed by a study published this past August: “Laypeople Can Predict Which Social-Science Studies Will Be Replicated Successfully.” You can’t make this up… or maybe you could. Who knows if that study is accurate!

      The idea of “alternate facts” exists in the Torah world as well. The citation of an opinion, no matter how obscure, is accepted on the religious left when it justifies their predetermined conclusion. “I follow Rabbenu Simcha – but only on this!” The recent travesty of the media trumpeting “Orthodox” rabbis performing same-sex marriages is a perfect example. No “Orthodox” rabbi would do that, any more than he would officiate at an intermarriage, endorse the consumption of pork on Yom Kippur or embrace the Trinity as Jewish doctrine.

      When each side to a debate possesses “alternate facts,” reasoned dialogue becomes impossible. And when the “alternate facts” are based on personal stories of hardship and struggle, often very compelling stories but not objective facts at all, then it becomes impossible even to relate to the other side, much less convince or be convinced by them.

     The existence of “alternate facts” has also played a role in the rejection of the concept of objective truth. Each person can possess his or her own truth if there really is no truth – and then go try to persuade them that there is. It is a dialogue of the deaf. Additionally, there was a time not long ago that reasonable people could disagree on issues without making their dispute personal and therefore irreconcilable. It was not just the matter of disagreeing without being disagreeable but mostly that there was a distinction between what is considered “business” and what is “personal.” I certainly had that in the rabbinate for many decades and was blessed with it in Teaneck (we didn’t always agree but it was never personal). Those lines have been blurred, partly because of the determination that some Torah ideas are intrinsically immoral, G-d forbid, and those who express them are beyond the pale. One who holds the “wrong” views on women’s issues, for example, can easily be castigated as benighted, unworthy or worse.

     Finally, minds are made up because, for all intents and purposes, we all live today in an echo chamber of our own creation. (Not me! I’m happy to say that I’ve changed my mind on a couple of things. Like the old saw goes, you should have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.) In the United States it is certainly true. The political division reflects a physical division in the country. Most people live in states that, for example, voted overwhelmingly for Trump or Biden. People now live among their own (certainly in the Jewish world it is like that also), thinking and acting in similar ways, and sharing values and religious beliefs. The coasts tend to be secular and progressive, and the heartland is called the “Bible Belt” for a reason. In New York and California, the free expression of religious ideas is under attack and religious worship is not fully valued by the state.

      The explosion of media has allowed people to get their news from the source that bolsters, but never challenges, their opinions. The “other side” is not presented, as much as it is ridiculed – and, I will say it, the exception being the news programs on Fox News. (The other networks generally offered a Democrat who hates Trump, and for balance, a Republican who hates Trump.) In the prevailing environment, most people therefore simply do not know what they do not know, few have an interest in finding out, and they will never discover that what they “know” just might not be so. Minds can never change as they do not have access to other information that might cause them to change.

     There is a handy solution, which is not to say that it is simple. Seek the truth rather than an intellectual triumph over the other person. Be prepared to act on that truth, for that is intellectual and moral honesty. Be open and intellectually curious. “Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Avot 4:1). You cannot learn anything while talking to people with whom you agree. So seek out people with whom you disagree, engage them, do not demonize them or their views, and the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions will be refreshing. Focus on facts more than feelings, and rather than refer to numerous studies that prove nothing, can’t be replicated and are often just tendentious, search for moral clarity in the Torah and the Talmud.

      It is there. It is real. “Uncover my eyes so that I may behold the wonders from Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:18). And remember that we are “all presumed blind until G-d enlightens us” (Midrash Breisheet Raba 53:14). We might surprise ourselves and even better our world.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 5

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at

Here is the fifth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

 Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.


Should one dress up for a shiur on Zoom if no one can see anything more than your face and top of your shirt? 

 Do we dress to impress others or for ourselves? Probably both – although my sense is more of the former and less of the latter. Nonetheless, Rav Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 113a) would refer to his clothing as “mechabduti,” that which brings me honor. Clothing reflects our inner dignity, and can serve, for better or worse, as a source of identification with a particular group or lifestyle.

One can certainly argue that what we wear at home during our waking hours should engender as much self-respect and respect for Torah as if we were appearing in public. There are rabbis who would never remove their frocks even in their homes and even in front of their family. Indeed, one could cogently argue that a person should dress up even for a Zoom shiur – but I wouldn’t make that argument…or dress up in fancy clothing.

Clothes define a person but they can also distort and deceive. The costumes we wear – and we all wear costumes of some kind – often say little about our inner life or spiritual gravitas. They create impressions that are often misleading and sometimes are meant to mislead. We might even be placing too much emphasis on clothing in Jewish life by expecting or insisting – overtly or covertly – that everyone should wear the same color, style and material.

As long as one is not dressed immodestly, I see no problem with Zoom participants relaxing at home in informal garb. We should save our special clothing for shul, tefila and Shabbat, and at home zoom in on the Torah being learned and not the fashion choices of the participants.


How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)?  Does she consult her own conscience?  Ask her mother?  A teacher? 

Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that would and should not pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance and the body itself.

Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality or moral excellence. Thus, the Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash, sensing that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent thereby detracting from his divine mission.

If that is the barometer of tzniut – a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side – then all three resources are most helpful. The teacher can impart what precisely are the community standards and expectations, just as the mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes and conclusions. Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own so it is critical that they develop the correct notions about body and self-image, about the particular way in which they wish to be identified and to make their mark in the world, and about our responsibilities as Bnai and Bnot Torah.

This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.

Statue of Limitations

The mass destruction wrought to historical statues and venues across America by the privileged and protected modern Philistines engenders the following question: Is there a difference between the demolition of Buddhist shrines by the Taliban, the destruction of Terach’s idols by Avraham and the tearing down of statues bearing the likenesses of flawed human beings taking place now?

The question remains even if we adopt the reasonable approach that the Midrash was not necessarily depicting a literal act on Abraham’s part but rather conveying the idea that Abraham shattered his father’s intellectual idols. Nevertheless, we have to clarify why is it that most civilized people were horrified by the Taliban‘s wanton acts, why we Jews from a young age are taught to applaud Avraham’s zealotry, and why so many people are ambivalent or even supportive of the  brutal erasure of America’s history – including some of its secular saints, sinners and founding fathers.

How do we distinguish one from the other?

It is first worth noting that if Jews wanted to enter the grievance competition, we could be very fierce competitors. Any self-respecting Jew should take umbrage at a highway be named for Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration, after all, did a little or nothing to save Jews during the holocaust and even thwarted efforts at refugee relief or disabling crematoria. Forget the statues; the FDR drive is an affront. Stuyvesant town and high school would have to be renamed because Peter Stuyvesant was a known Jew hater who banned Jews from his new settlement in lower Manhattan. The statues of Hadrian and Titus in Rome, like the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev, should cause profound pain and offense to any Jew. All were tyrants and mass murderers of Jews. As unseemly as the grotesque victimhood sweepstakes is, whatever evil was performed by Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson doesn’t compare to what the Roman emperors and the Ukrainian desperate did to the Jews. But we don’t go around seeking the destruction of their images because, to me at least, they serve as a constant reminder that we survived and prevailed. We won. It’s Hadrian and Titus and Chmielnicki and a host of others who have essentially disappeared from history.

There is even a better reason why we can take a more tolerant approach to these statues, and perhaps it takes a Canadian safely ensconced north of the border to offer a way forward and provide us with helpful distinctions. Jeffrey Collins, a professor in Ontario, suggested in the WSJ the other day that the first question to ask in evaluating any statue is why? Why was it erected in the first place? Whom was it intended to honor and for what?

Asked that way it is clear that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR and others were honored not for their flaws or misconduct but for their accomplishments. The question really is do their flaws and imperfections outweigh the accomplishments? By any reasonable standard, the answer is of course not. If people were to be judged only by their sins and misdeeds, then no one will be deserving of honor. Washington and Jefferson are not being honored because they were slaveholders but rather because of their roles in the founding of America. Any rational person should realize that if we choose to honor only those without sin then no one will be honored, and that includes Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Floyd.

Thus, we can distinguish between a Washington, a Roosevelt, or a Columbus, and, as Professor Collins noted, a Stalin, whose evil dwarfed any nationalistic achievement. (Visiting Russia once, I personally witnessed the reverence some Russian still have for him, notwithstanding the Holomodor, the Jew hatred, and the Gulag, and found it quite shocking.) But even in the case of a scoundrel, it could very well be that a given locality would seek to pay him tribute (for example, in Russia or Georgia) where such would be horrific in any other place. Indeed, there are more statues of Stalin in Russia or Georgia today then there are of Lincoln in the south or Lee in the north.

Context is important, as well as a true evaluation of a person’s life and his essential pursuits and just not his imperfections. It should be obvious to reasonable observers that homage is paid to people not because they are perfect but because of their greatness in a variety of spheres that made a difference in the world in spite of their flawed humanity.

Professor Collins noted that the “why” question is not asked today and so all context and perspective is lost. Instead, the question asked is “how does make me feel right now?” That question is most in line with the narcissism of the protesters and many others today, whose sole barometer of anything is its momentary impact on their feelings. If so, the world is aflame because, among the rioters, there is a dearth of moral instinct and an abundance of faux outrage.

The Confederate statues present a sticky problem. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, who fought in the Mexican War and was commandant at West Point. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, which he turned down so as not to show disloyalty to his home state of Virginia. He was a professional who was instrumental in the post-war reconciliation – but since he is most known for waging war in the unjust cause of the South, a new generation that has not known slavery but only opportunity, is outraged at his existence and the reverence paid to him. As the respect paid him is largely owed to his military leadership of the Confederacy, he is a ripe target for the wrath of the disgruntled, and such wrath is inescapable.

Of course, the modern Visigoths would have a point if their only complaint was with the Confederate statutes. It seems their real complaint is with the United States, and such grievances cannot be assuaged in any rational way. They are enraged that Columbus “discovered” America. Mix in politics, power, money and elections, and it is a most combustible time.

Along these lines, if a statue reflected perverse and depraved ideas, then that statue as well would be a fair target. Hence, the adoration of Avraham, even if, again, it is unknown whether that tale is literal or metaphorical. And the Taliban, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley?

Certainly, we have no tolerance for idolatry. Its attendant philosophies devastated and corrupted ancient man, and its consequences are still felt today. But these statues were more historical than ideological, and their obliteration in 2001 were expressions of raw power, sheer ruthlessness and cruel conquest. Their destroyer, Mullah Omar, is now dead. His sole point was to destroy the shrines of an ancient religion to prove the superiority of his own corrupt philosophy. That is not Avraham. That is evil.

The modern demolishers have little in common with Avraham and much in common with Mullah Omar and the Taliban. What is especially troubling is that rather than recoil from the comparison, they probably welcome it. Ideas and values have been overwhelmed by chaos and anarchy. The wanton and gratuitous devastation (Ulysses S. Grant? Really?) has taken on a life of its own. Nihilism reigns supreme. The destroyers are intellectually limited and ethically stunted. The political class either encourages it or can’t stop it.

What can?

Reading G-d’s Mind

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.