Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

Human Suffering and Divine Responsibility in the Time of Corona

I am writing these lines on the fourth day of Passover, on the day that most Christians around the world celebrate Easter, at a time when Muslims are preparing for Ramadan, and members of countless of other faiths turn to their respective religious traditions to seek understanding how best to live their lives, both during the present coronavirus crisis as well as in happier times.  Whenever I think of this glorious cacophony of different modes of worship, I prefer to think of in terms of what biblical scholar Israel Knohl characterized as a “Divine Symphony” (even if with discordant harmony!).  And I keep in mind the insight of the prophet Malachi (1:11), when he proclaimed, “For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for My name is honored among the nations—said the LORD of Hosts.”  What the prophet seems to be saying is that in worshipping their various gods and in their respective religious traditions, all humanity is, in effect, worshipping the one God who created the universe and everything — and everyone — in it.  And beyond its ancient hubris in imagining the God of Israel as “really” the one and only God among all that is worshipped, it is nonetheless a remarkable admission that what binds humanity together — in this instance, in the desire to seek beyond itself some greater power to which to turn in both good times and in troubled times — is far greater than what seems to us so often to drive us apart.

To many of us, these troubled times of the coronavirus call forth the ancient question of theodicy, why would a supposedly good God enable so much suffering in God’s world?  For whereas we may regard the suffering caused by political or social oppression (including human violence in war and crime) as the product of a purely human evil, willfully chosen by humans under Divinely-granted free agency, how ought one regard the evil caused by disease?  This can more justifiably be regarded as authored by God.  Would it not then be simpler to think of the world as governed by “two powers in heaven,” one good and one evil, and ascribe all human suffering to the ascendancy of the power that enables evil?  Is this not an advantage of believing in “Satan” or “ the Devil” who battles God for the control of the universe?  Indeed, a religion guided by such a principle would have an easier time with the question of theodicy and, in our case, with the worldwide suffering caused by the coronavirus.

However, monotheistic faiths have had to struggle with the very natures of their monotheism, and the implications of needing to ascribe both good and evil to the one and only God.  This has been true at least since the Sixth Century B.C.E., when the exilic Isaiah proclaimed, “I am the LORD and there is none else, I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil— I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6–7).  In fact, the more one imagines God’s oneness transcendently, the greater God’s unique responsibility for human suffering as well as for human blessing.

Alternatively, one might fall back on the old theology, found in many of the many religious works influenced ultimately by the Book of Deuteronomy and its presentation of the covenantal theology of reward and punishment.  Jews regularly confront this framework in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13–17):

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—  I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.  Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.  For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you.

People who still gravitate to this as operative theology forget that since it was first espoused, whatever merit or purpose it may have once had, or continues to have as a motivator for acting with goodness, as a theology it failed to accommodate the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked.  After all, some insightful ancient author once wrote a book called Job!  And its central lesson, as Edward L. Greenstein recently demonstrated in his magnificent new edition, is that Job spoke truth to power, and repeatedly cried to God that his suffering was unjust.  In the end, even God proclaims that Job’s approach to suffering is the correct one (Job 42:7).

So, how, then, might our religions and sacred writings help us at this time?  I believe that true and good religious responses must eschew all facile answers and, first and foremost, must help all who suffer do so in dignity and with compassion.  We don’t know why there is suffering in the world, but we do know that there is suffering.  As R. Yannai taught in the Mishnah:  “it is not in our hands (to understand) either the tranquility of the wicked nor the tribulations of the righteous” (Avot 4:15).  But if religion is worth anything in such circumstances as ours, it must offer help and not degrade the experience of sufferers as fitting into one or another system or theology.  Every one of us is obligated to help alleviate human suffering, in whatever way we can, in the most existential ways at our disposal.

Nonetheless, I know that the faithful, including both sufferers and those not afflicted yet attuned to the suffering of others, still turn to our sacred Scriptures with the hope that they might provide guidance.  Therefore,writing as a rabbi who is humble enough not to claim any particular, actual knowledge of the workings of God, I note that the Torah contains a verse, or rather a part of a verse, that might help us in our search for meaning — and yet this part of a verse seems to have been somewhat overlooked by the interpreters of many schools:  “God blessed them [i.e., the first human couple] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28).  Many are aware that rabbis have considered the command to procreate as a Divine prescription; some are aware that the second phrase, to “fill the earth,” underlies the sin of the Tower of Babel narrative, when humankind sought to stay in one place and not “fill the earth” (Genesis 11:1–9, especially verse 4).  But what implications does the last phrase, that humankind is bidden to “subdue” the earth, hold for us?  For the most part, the ancient rabbis connected the final verb in the verse to the first command, and interpreted it with respect to the imperative to procreate.  In the Middle Ages, the famed interpreter R. Abraham ibn Ezra correctly interpreted the command “subdue it” to refer to God’s directive that humankind “subdue the earth”; Nahmanides effectively expands this interpretation to mean that God has given humankind the power to do with the earth, its flowers and fauna, as we wish (and God knows that we have not always or often done that with enough respect for the world’s ecology). But it does not appear that any classic era or medieval interpreter connected the final verse of the verb as a means through which to explicitly wrestle with questions of theodicy and human suffering.

Indeed, one modern scholar, Jeremy Cohen, wrote an entire book on the history of interpretation of Genesis 1:28 (“Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”:  The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text) and he did not reference a single interpretation that directly connects the verse with the question of human suffering.  However, he does extensively quote one medieval scholar, Saadia Gaon (whose exploration of the verse Cohen regards as an outlier in the history of interpretation), who I believe provides the beginning of an answer.  As Cohen writes, “the words of Genesis 1:28 struck Saadia as an ode to human inventiveness and technological achievement, the distinctive ability and privilege of humans to overcome and to harness the diverse constituents of the natural environment for their benefit” (p. 186; Cohen also cites some analogous Christian interpretations on p. 227).  As Saadia interprets, the command to subdue the earth incorporates that entire range of human ingenuity and innovation that contributes to the healthy dominion of humankind over the earth.

Thus we may see in the final phrase of Genesis 1:28 a Divine admission that God has created an imperfect world, a world that requires human “subduing” in order to perfect it and complete it.  In this regard, humankind truly does become, in the words of the ancient rabbinic sages, “God’s partners in the creation of the world.”  In that sense, the work of doctors, nurses and other health professionals to heal and treat the sick fulfills an important part of “subduing the earth”; the work of scientists and engineers and business innovators to develop vaccines and viral suppressive drugs and bring them quickly and safely to market is another important part.  The work of wise political leaders to guide all in this effort is yet another.  And, finally, the work of all of humanity to act with kindness, selflessness and compassion would truly complete this Divine-human partnership.

With respect to all of those who are working on behalf of human suffering, everyone from the cutting-edge scientist and doctors and nurses, to the men and women who are risking their lives to stock our stores with food and supplies and/or to deliver them to our doorsteps, let us remember the prayer of the Psalmist and adapt it for all of them: “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon them; let the work of their hands prosper, O God, prosper the work of their hands!” (after Psalm 90:17).  And at this sacred season, may we all find meaning in our religious traditions and may they inspire us to do good.

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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