Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate
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Corona and keter, disease and divinity

Rather than seeing God as decreeing disease, we're better off recognizing how human beings affect the cosmos and, in turn, the divine

A recent headline on Times of Israel highlighted the challenge of our world-wide pandemic for people of faith: “Slammed by COVID-19, ultra-Orthodox Jews try to understand what God hath wrought.” The article went on to note that “many observant Jews have found themselves forced to confront the theological implications of a plague that has subverted popular assumptions regarding reward and punishment.”

But it is not only very Orthodox Jews who are asking these questions. Many people – of all faith traditions – have articulated the same spiritual concerns. Essays from a variety of faith leaders have populated the Globe and Mail, CBC, the New York Times, Huffington Post and other international media outlets. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote: “So much death and suffering! So many hopes for a better life, destroyed by pandemic. Such an incalculable amount of trust — in government, in the future, and in God — undermined or irreparably lost.” Why would God permit such pain, suffering, social disruption and death?

In Jewish mystical teaching, one of the terms for God is Keter, Crown, referring to Divine sovereignty and understood as an aspect of divinity beyond human comprehension. In our time, it also evokes an association with a microorganism known as Coronavirus. Is there a connection between Corona and Keter, disease and divinity? Ishay Ribo reflected this concern in a song recorded shortly after Purim, as he and other Israelis were  placed in confinement: What does God want humanity to learn in order to give the Holy One “Keter Melukhah,” the Crown of divine sovereignty?

We recognise that moral evil is always with us, that human beings can act in terrible ways: terrorists shooting school children, Stalin authorising the killing of people in the Holodomor and gulag, Hitler directing the murder of Jews on an industrial scale during the Holocaust. While human beings may have contributed to the spread of COVID19,  we know that this pandemic is different. As an expression of natural disaster, we are left with a gnawing feeling that the chaos we witness doesn’t make sense or have meaning.

Seeking answers, some people return to an ancient explanation, rooted in the Bible and Rabbinic literature: human sin and moral misdeeds lead an all-powerful God to punish the world. “Because of our sins, we have been exiled.” Sometimes, this leads to blaming particular groups or identifying specific behaviour as a contributing cause. Jews have certainly been stigmatised by such claims. Others imagine that we face suffering as a test, to ascertain who has true trust and loyalty, belief and faith in God. And there are those who see economic collapse and human suffering as “contractions” prior to the birth of a messianic era. All of these see the divine crown, the Keter, as directly engaged, even causing, the coronavirus pandemic.

Trying to comprehend contingency and uncertainty, these explanations seek to offer some rationale for “who shall live and who shall die.” Of course, there is value in reflecting on our personal or social behaviour in search of self-improvement, or taking tragedy and turning it into motivation for future good. Of course, we can use this crisis as an opportunity to reflect on and improve our environment. Of course, we who can breathe without respiratory problems should be thankful for every breath we take. Of course, we can recite blessings to make the everyday holy, offer appreciation and remind ourselves with humility that we are not in control of the world around us.

However, that doesn’t mean that religious thinkers should claim that they “know” what connects God, the Keter of the universe, to the coronavirus. If you think you really know what God is doing, for weal or woe, I would like a copy of the divine SMS. I shrink away from the idea of a deity who is sufficiently cruel to cause pain and suffering in an indiscriminate and massive manner or as part of a plan to bring about a better world. If that were the case, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, rows upon rows of coffins, people dying alone, families experiencing terrible mental anguish, physicians forced to triage patients, God would have much to explain.

That agnosticism does not exempt us from trying to understand the relationship between humanity, the world we inhabit and the divine Keter. An opinion offered in the Talmud tells us that even though idolatry, theft, and adultery should interfere with the natural processes of the world, “The world goes along and follows its course.” Similarly, Christian Scripture teaches “the rain falls on the just and unjust.” Medieval philosophical thinkers developed these ideas further and, influenced by Greek ideas refracted through the lens of Muslim thinkers, thought of a rational God who created a world that operates by divine wisdom through immutable laws of nature.

However, despite the order and design we generally observe in this world, regardless of the benign and even benevolent views of nature to which we cling, we also witness cataclysm and chaos. Violent biological conflicts involve one creature thriving by killing another. Cosmic entropy and disorder are evident through the physical world. As Byron Sherwin wrote over ten years ago, scientists warn of the “destructive power of ‘antimatter,’ ‘black holes,’ ‘dark energy.’ On earth, they warn of ‘pandemics’ as natural occurrences — unrelated to sin or demonic forces — that could decimate earth’s human population.”

If we choose not to proclaim God to be omniscient and omnipotent, ordering and structuring our daily lives, and we reject the notion that our lives are meaningless — a dysteological surd lacking purpose or meaning — we must look for another way to comprehend the relationship between God and our world, between the divine Keter, and the coronavirus.

I have been helped in this quest by the theological teaching that we live in an incomplete and unredeemed world. In the Genesis narratives, as Jon Levinson has shown, the Bible portrays God as being in a purposeful and determined struggle to establish cosmos and control chaos. The coronavirus is one example among many of the breakout of the dark force of chaos within the natural world which requires constant vigilance and constructive opposition.

Rather than God standing alone, we can stand with the divine against natural evil and suffering. The Talmud imagines humans as partners with the Holy One to complete Creation. Va’yekhulu, “the heavens and earth were completed” becomes va’yekalu, “they — God and humans — complete the heavens and earth.  This remains an ongoing effort.

The midrash collection Beresheet Rabbah contains a remarkable statement that the Holy One created and destroyed many worlds before finally accepting ours. Today in Silicon Valley, this is called “creative destruction.” And the mystical tradition recognized that this unredeemed world includes evil mixed with good. The microbiology that kills also cures.

Another early tradition teaches that God is not in complete control. When the destructive power of the mash’hit, the Destroyer, is released, the innocent may be affected along with the wicked. Similarly, Midrash Va’yosha, an 11th century midrash on the Song at the Sea, comments that even at a time of great achievement, such as the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, we can experience the complex and problematic nature of our lives: “In this world, there are wars and sorrow. The evil inclination, Satan and the angel of death have authority to rule in this world” (on Exodus 15:18).

Because Jews have experienced the unredeemed quality of life, we stand as witnesses to the world about the incomplete nature of human existence. Writing about Martin Buber, Ernst Simon cited a remark made by Buber as part of a memorial address for a Christian Socialist friend, that despite Jewish messianic hope, such an aspiration is profoundly distant. Following the Shoah, “Standing, bound and shackled, in the pillory of mankind, we demonstrate with the bloody body of our people the unredeemedness of the world.” All we can hope to accomplish is to get us a bit closer to a better world.

Rather than seeing God as omnipotent, this approach sees the divine Keter sharing in human suffering and the struggles of human life. In his magisterial study of rabbinic thought, Torah min Hashamayim, Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses the idea that God was in distress when the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. Citing a debate in Mishnah, Heschel notes a tradition of rabbis from the Land of Israel, preserved in the Hoshanot prayers recited during the Sukkot festival, that God was also delivered from Egypt.

Moreover, according to another midrashic perspective, human beings have the possibility of enhancing or reducing the divine presence and power in this world. In a mystical tradition, what Moshe Idel terms “augmentation theurgy” became part of the recitation of kadddish and the chanting of kedushah. Although not from the Hasidic mystical tradition, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recalled a Habad teacher from his youth who referred to the night of Rosh Hashanah as Karanatzia Nacht (Coronation Night). “And do you know who places the crown on God’s head? Yankel the tailor, Berel the shoemaker, Zalman the water-carrier, Yossel the painter, Dovid the butcher.” By maintaining the Covenant despite tragedy, the Jewish people join with others who seek to enhance life in the face of trouble and travail to bring strength to God and the world.

Tamar Ross, commenting about C19, draws attention to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook who noted increased human “interconnectivity and interdependence with a vast and fluid spectrum of being.” He thought that a more holistic theology would not see sharp distinctions  “between the natural and the supernatural, or between human endeavour and divine control.” Rather than seeing God as decreeing or disrupting disease – or any natural evil — we would be better served by recognizing how human beings affect the cosmos and, in turn, the divine. By our actions, we convey or control the spread of the coronavirus. As partners with God, we contribute to the divine desire to diminish disorder and destruction and to enhance life by washing our hands, maintaining social distancing, and wearing masks. As we know from chaos theory, small changes can yield outcomes on a large scale.

Two contemporary thinkers sought to shift Jewish theology away from both the Aristotelian idea of the unmoved mover and the notion of a divine being who directs all human actions. Instead, Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized that “God is in need of man. The idea of God being in need of man is central to Judaism and pervades all the pages of the Bible and of Chazal [the rabbinic sages of talmudic literature], and it is understandable in our own time.” Going beyond his idea of divine pathos, articulated in The Prophets, Heschel articulated a full-blown concept of a divine–human partnership, which linked prophetic, rabbinic and mystical expressions of humanity’s relationship with God.

Hans Jonas, the great philosopher of biology and environmental ethics, discussed the integration of the material and moral aspects of nature. He argued that the linkage of the physical and biological elements of our world required human ethical responsibility for the continuity of life on earth. A German Jew who fought in the Israeli War of Independence before settling North America, Jonas came to believe that the “existence and autonomy” of the world and full human responsibility for history leads to a rejection of an omnipotent God in favour of a suffering, becoming and caring deity “emerging in time,” experiencing “something with the world… [being] affected by what goes on in it.” Thus, “It is not God who can help us, but we who must help God.”

We can leave behind the idea that God has brought the corona virus upon us as punishment or for a teachable moment. This disease has come about because of the complex inter-relationship between the environment, animals, human beings and the powerful vector of international travel.

Where then, is God? With us and waiting for us. In a constant struggle to defeat the anti-Keter, the coronavirus, our actions will determine when the true Keter will be crowned as the God of life.

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He serves as a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus. He received a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University.
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