If we have learned anything from history, especially pandemics in the past, it’s that plagues cause significant change in completely unexpected ways. As the saying goes: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes” (incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain). It’s worth considering the effect of some previous pandemics on religious authority to understand where Jewish religiosity might be headed in the coming years.
The first major recorded pandemic (Bubonic Plague) started in Egypt in 541 CE and quickly spread to Constantinople a year later – the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, controlling part of the West as well. But so many people died from the plague (that only ended in 750 CE) that this empire was soon mortally weakened: Rome itself was left with only 30,000 people! The consequence: 70 years later, a new religion called Islam was able to subjugate the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe within a few decades – one of the fastest empire conquests the world had ever seen. Thereafter, Christiandom was under theocratic (and political) threat from Islam for close to 1000 years.
In Western, Northern and Central Europe, the Catholic Church still maintained its dominance. And then the next major pandemic arrived in 1348 (from China!): the Black Plague. This decimated fully one-third (!) of the European population. Among other ramifications: a severe decline of the Church’s authority. After all, despite prayer and supplications, the Church fathers were unable to prevent the plague’s devastation. In the minds of many believers, this raised the major question of theodicy: how could Christ allow this to happen to innocent people? The result was the rise of significant, early “protestant” movements: John Wycliffe (an English reformer) rejected papal authority for secular power in the 1370s, translated the Bible into English, and preached against the Catholic Church; a few decades later the reformist Hussite movement gained traction in Eastern Europe, defeating five continuous crusades proclaimed against them by the Pope. A century afterwards, Martin Luther started the “official” Protestant Reformation.
Simultaneously, a very different sort of “authority” began to gain adherents: “science”. When the Bubonic Plague returned in the early 15th century, the Venetians established the first “quarantine” – 40 days of enforced living on a nearby island for all sailors arriving from overseas. The number “40” wasn’t chosen at random; in the Bible it denoted “cleansing”: 40 days of the Flood (physical removal of all life); 40 days for Moses on Mt. Sinai (spiritual cleansing); the Hebrews sojourned for 40 years in the desert (generational change). The ultimate result was the beginning of “institutionalized public health” policies – instead of prayer and supplication.
Not of the same magnitude, but still indicative of pandemic influence on religiosity, is the interesting case of the Aztecs and Mayan in what became Central and South America. When the European “conquistadores” colonized the continent, the local natives were decimated by smallpox – which the Europeans had unknowingly (at first) brought with them, and for which the native population had no immunity. Close to 95% of the natives died in the post-Columbus era, most from plague and not from military battles. Those who did survive soon converted to Christianity because their own Gods couldn’t save them from the plague, whereas the Christian God was obviously more powerful. To this day, the Americas south of the U.S. border are devoutly Christian.
Returning to our contemporary Corona pandemic, one can already foresee what might happen along these lines. For instance, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and in the U.S. suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, mainly because they accepted their rabbis’ orders to continue studying in yeshivas where hundreds of students are packed into large auditoriums for many hours a day (or were not ordered to refrain from weddings with thousands of attendees). Part of the reason for the rabbis’ “policy” was to ensure their students continuing to be under rabbinical close watch, and not “wasting their time” in forbidden activities such as internet surfing or other forms of informational contact outside the Haredi, self-imposed “communication ghetto”. But if history is anything to go on, such a policy is in the end counterproductive as it lays bare the religious authorities’ critical errors in judgment, even to the extent of ignoring the most important value in Judaism: preserving life itself.
Even “worse”, there is a different authority that managed to get it right: science and scientific practitioners. Jews in Bnei Brak and Borough Park are not so insulated as to be unaware of what happened outside their own neighborhood among the “goyim”. Mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccination (many ultra-Orthodox are anti-vaxxers too, for “halakhic” reasons not clear at all) significantly reduced Corona mortality compared to the “antis”. If already one authority loses altitude, another has to take its place. Just like what happened during the Venetian experience, the Corona heroes were Dr. Fauci in the U.S. and Dr. Bar-Simon-Tov in Israel – not the politicos or fundamentalist theologians, whether Evangelical or Haredi.
Of course, none of this is to say that religiosity will disappear or that science will become the new “Bible”. Yet reports have surfaced that the number of ultra-Orthodox youth in Israel seeking help to leave the fold has jumped by 50% during the pandemic (https://www.zman.co.il/148758/). That could be merely the tip of a slow moving but very large future sociological iceberg. As we have seen again and again in history, pandemics leave not only physical destruction in their wake, but also massive change in fields as wide-ranging as policymaking, human behavior, and perhaps most surprising of all: theology and religious behavior.
Note: This post was written before the tragedy on Mount Meron and does not in any way suggest a connection.