Torah in a Time of Plague: Historical and Contemporary Jewish Responses

Torah in a Time of Plague: Historical and Contemporary Jewish Responses

Edited by Erin Leib Smokler
Ben Yehuda Press. 2021, $24.95

Review by Atara Cohen

How do we make sense of the suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic within a Jewish framework? Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler has gifted the broadly defined Jewish community with a compilation of essays by a diverse range of authors offering a variety of thought-provoking ways in which we can understand our modern plague. Torah in a Time of Plague: Historical and Contemporary Jewish Responses is divided into five sections: Theology of Plague; Jewish Community and Practice under Duress; History and Literature of Plague; Quarantine Reflections; and Time in Unprecedented Times. The essays vary in length, theological framing, and tone, ranging from academic to homiletic, yet they share a fundamental empathy for readers who are experiencing these unprecedented times.

As a rabbi who has spent the past two years accompanying people from many walks of life through this pandemic, I was most interested in the first section, which explores God’s place amid the suffering. Surprisingly, even essays with very different starting assumptions conclude in similar ways: most of the essays center human action as the locus for Divine goodness in the world. Although we cannot understand God’s power over evil, we ourselves can actualize God’s goodness through our own work of ḥesed or lovingkindness. When read carefully, the pieces can be viewed as a progression of models of pandemic theology moving further away from cosmic Divine intervention and toward an immanent Divine role in which we are the arbiters of God’s power to do good. This collection of essays suggests that many experiencing the pandemic feel a compulsion to take the responsibility for large-scale morality away from God and put it on our own shoulders.

Gordon Tucker’s essay, “Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune” balances our desire to question God’s goodness with a theological necessity for God to be omnipotent, even beyond the point of human morality. Tucker argues that to ask God to conform to our morals is to do the impossible: to limit God’s freedom. Instead of insisting that God’s infinite power must be good, which would constrain God, Tucker argues that there “is ḥesed—mercy, pity—in God, but not as a grant from beyond us, but rather in what of God we have revealed, by having evolved by the ultimate power of God” (p. 42). God is not the definition of goodness, but God gave us the power to be good. In short, “[The] answer to ‘What is God’s goodness?’ is: The manifestation of God’s power in the human being is where goodness resides.” To understand or limit God in any way is impossible. However, we can access Divine goodness within ourselves.

Aviva Richman also argues that we cannot understand God in dire moments. Instead, she centers the forces of good in our own actions. In “Loving God Through Life and Death,” Richman argues that we “will never be able to describe fully who God is or where God is in times like these. Instead, or in parallel, the charge to ‘walk in God’s ways’ asks us who we are in times like these, and what we need to activate in ourselves to bring into being the God we want to see in the world” (p. 51). Richman brings a text from Talmud Bavli Sotah 14a, in which we are instructed to do acts of ḥesed just as God does acts of ḥesed. We are created in tzelem elokim, the Divine image, and as such we are capable of manifesting Divine ḥesed through our actions, even if we do not understand God on a cosmic level. 

David Zvi Kalman’s “The Natural Disaster Theology Dilemma” goes so far as to take away God’s responsibility for the pandemic almost entirely. He gives several examples of how humans have become increasingly responsible for natural disasters through climate change or bad policy. Humanity “becomes responsible for an ever-growing number of disasters, while God’s responsibility diminishes at the same pace. As we take on God’s roles, we take on God’s responsibilities, as well—but crucially, these responsibilities are identical in character to the ones we have now” (p. 61). Kalman quotes the same source from Sotah as did Richman and similarly concludes that just as God takes care of others, so must we. We, in the image of God, become responsible for global ḥesed. 

This work is an anthology of diverse genres and voices across the denominational spectrum. The combination of historical essays, homiletical thought pieces, and exegetical analyses comes together to form a rich picture of the ways in which we are thinking of our current global disaster. Despite the diverse backgrounds and disciplines of the authors, this anthology points to an interesting trend in Jewish thought: Many Jews are feeling distant from a cosmically omnipotent God as we struggle to understand the widespread suffering of recent years. Instead, the overall trend emphasizes that we are the arbiters of God’s goodness. This model both distances us from an external, all-powerful Divine image while bringing us close to an immanent, human-centered Divine image.

Although, God willing, this pandemic will eventually end, we will inevitably encounter new struggles ahead. I believe the frameworks of Torah in a Time of Plague will continue to provide solace and thought-provoking frameworks for the challenges to come.

Rabbi Atara Cohen is a Judaics teacher at the Heschel School in New York and serves as the Base MNHTN Rabbinic Field Fellow, welcoming young adults to engage in Jewish life. She received semikhah from Yeshivat Maharat and lives in New York City.

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