Covid-19: A Message from God?

I just read an article in the prestigious bi-weekly journal “The Christian Century” (June 17, 2020) under the title “New poll finds majority of Americans who believe in God see corona virus as divine message” by authors Elana Schor and Hannah Fingerhut. This does not come as a surprise, similar pieces having appeared in other publications.

With over hundred thousand people having lost their lives to the virus in our country alone, it is no wonder that folks speculate. The piece in the journal I am referring to above is based on a poll by the University Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It suggests that many people wonder whether there is a deeper meaning to the deadly outbreak that has become global.

Why bring God into the conundrum of why this catastrophe? This question is easy enough to answer. It is clear that any genuine believer in the ultimate and literal truth of the Bible cannot help but make the connection between what these days is happening to the global population and a text like for instance Deuteronomy 11:13-17 that teaches that if we accept God’s laws his blessings will flow to us, but if we reject God’s laws and thus disobey him, all kinds of punishments will be dumped upon us like illness, famine, military defeat, etc.

The above Deuteronomy text and other similar ones are found in the Hebrew scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament and are addressed to ancient Israel or, as the Jews understand it, to them. The Old Testament’s teachings are, however, also part of the holy scriptures of the Christian Church. There is no reason to think that Jesus the Jew rejected the above cited instruction. Not only does Jesus nowhere question it but everything in Jesus’ life and teaching points to the fact that he accepted it. His healing miracles performed on persons who suffered from various diseases and disabilities are often prefaced by Jesus’ words of forgiveness of these persons’ sins.

No wonder then that modern day genuine believers in God and God-related stories in the Bible, often called fundamentalists, see connections between the present day pandemic of Covid-19 and the biblical theology of punishment responses to human sin by God. Since these folks accept theodicy, i.e., the teaching that God’s judgment is always righteous and just, their response to catastrophe is humility and submission. They bow their heads, acknowledge their sin and pray for God’s forgiveness and healing .

For just a moment I will now focus elsewhere. I agree with what many other contemporary writers have noticed, namely the increased frequency of nature-related catastrophes. While it is true that communication-related technical improvements have shrunk the world, as it were, so that we know much more than our ancestors ever did about what is going on elsewhere on our globe, it is undeniable that vast natural catastrophes have been occurring in our times much more frequently than ever before. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and fire.

Have all these nature phenomena been divine signs and messages within God’s alleged sin/punishment arrangement, as some fundamentalist Bible believers suggest?

Enter into our discussion Martin Buber with his philosophy of “I and Thou.” Martin Buber (1878 to 1965) was a famous German Jewish philosopher. He is best known for teaching the I-Thou and I-It philosophical concepts. He explored these concepts in his German book, titled Ich und Du or I and Thou. His view was that in order for human beings to relate to each other in a truly humane and constructive way it is necessary they do so on the basis of an I-Thou rather than an I- It relationship.

According to Buber it is these two philosophies of radical difference that rule all human relationships. The I-Thou relationship is the relationship between subject and subject. It is a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality. It is a relationship between equals who respect each other. The I-It relationship, on the other hand, is a relationship between subject and object which involves some form of utilization and control of the other. In this relationship the role of the object is passive.

As I read Buber, he applies this philosophy primarily to human social and political intercourse so as to show how inter-human relationships can be improved. Only as we see and treat each other as equals, both as individuals, as religious and social groups, will hostility and  conflict disappear to make room for peace.

It seems that Buber, in his discussion of relationships relegates nature which is a constant vis-a-vis to humanity, into the I-It category. This does not surprise me be cause in doing so, he follows the creation account in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. In the first biblical account of creation the Hebrew text reads: “And God said, let us make a human, in our image according to our likeness and let them dominate [Hebr. veyirdu] the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies…” (Gen. 1:26). Two verses later, we read, “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and dominate (Hebrew: vekhivshuha uredu) the fish and the birds of the skies…(Gen.1:28) This is followed by, “And God said, “Behold, I have placed all the vegetation that produces seed that is on the face of all the earth for you and every tree….(Gen. 1:29)

While this wholesale generosity clearly suggests that God’s created nature is a gift to humanity, it does NOT imply that humans are free to abuse the earth, the flora and fauna that are given to them. The above texts are a command of God to the first male and female to rule over the Garden of Eden in a sensitive and conscientious manner as any good gardener worth the title would understand.

Nonetheless, it is the human who falls into Buber’s category of subject, while the garden, given to Adam and Eve, is seen by him as the object or the It. It would be foolish to suggest that the authors of this portion of Genesis had the same understanding of ecological responsibility we have today.

Given the above discussion, I raise the question whether Buber’s relegation of nature into the It category makes sense. I venture to say that nature, while not speaking the language of humans, has its own language by which to communicate with us. When our gardening is irresponsible in that we fail to protect the earth from uninvited invaders; when we neglect to properly feed/fertilize the earth, there will be consequences; when we do not see to it that the earth is properly irrigated, the lack of growth and possible death of seed and seedlings will communicate to us where we have failed. It is no accident that the earth’s epithet is Mother Earth. All this to suggest that Buber by seeing nature as an It might just be wrong. I submit that the earth and all of nature deserves to be recognized not as an object to be used but as a subject and that it should be treated as such.

Now to a bit of theology. I believe that those who suggest that the increase of natural disasters, including perhaps Covid-19, might not be all wrong in considering them as messages and warnings. This said, let me, however, hasten to say that by no means do I consider the message and warning coming from some kind of supernatural divinity. It is at this point of our discussion that I call upon the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza to enlighten us.

Baruch Spinoza, his Latin name Benedictus Spinoza, of Portuguese background, was born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He died in 1677 in The Hague. He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher, a rationalist and a seminal figure, some would go so far as to say, the founder of the Enlightenment.

Spinoza is best know from his Latin statement, deus sive natura, meaning  “God or Nature.” The word “or” in this statement does not suggest choice as it often does and therefore has been misunderstood. For Spinoza the “or” meant equality or better, identical-ness. In other words, where in spoken or written discourse the word God is being used, one could just as well use the term nature. Let us keep that in mind.

In Jewish worship we attest to God’s ultimate uniqueness, sacredness, and set-apartness in every area of being by singing kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot; melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, meaning “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is filled with his glory,” (Isaiah 6:3) With this statement, in my opinion, we come close to identify the biblical God with all that exists, i.e., nature. Paul Tillich (20th cent. famous German anti-Nazi theologian) held the view that God is the “Ground of all Being.” This view can be understood as being virtually the same as that of Spinoza. Many modern day non-fundamentalist Jewish and Christian theologians make no secret about their understanding of the concept of God as being a metaphor for all that transcends our understanding, of a power beyond us, a kind of elan vital (expression originating with the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson) that drives our planet and the whole universe we are a part of.

If then we accept Spinoza’s teaching of deus sive natura, does it not make sense to suggest that the severe catastrophes we have been experiencing might just be nature’s message and warnings that if we do not reform our ways relating to nature, the latter will have no other choice than to visit upon us suffering and destruction This down to earth concept is expressed by our sages in the Talmud (Av.Z. 54b)) in the sentence haolam keminhago noheg or “the world [or nature] pursues its natural way of functioning.”

In other words, it is nature that tells us in its own language that our rape of natural resources will have to stop. Our pollution of earth’s space by our poisonous gas emissions must be halted. Our proliferation of space junk circling the earth must come to an end. Our mindless exploitation of the earth below our feet by destructive methods of mining must be ended. Fracking methods that extract fossil fuel from under the earth by drilling into great depths and replacing the extracted materials with polluted water will have to be stopped. Defilement of our waterways and oceans with debris and all kinds of human discards such as plastics that resist decomposition will have to be cleaned up and banned. Fishing methods will have to be modified so that the heavily impacted global fish population may recover. The list of such needed actions by humanity is very long.

My impression is that the individuals and business groups who are responsible for the irresponsible activities outlined above have no idea of the damage they are doing to our holistically interrelated ecosystems. Driven by greed, the major motivation for their damaging activities, we are drawing ever closer to a point of no return in the process of ruination of our beautiful life sustaining nature on planet earth which, on second thought, is not an It but a Thou to be respected and loved.

Summarizing, let me suggest that it is nature and not some divinity that sends us messages of warning. The time for us has come to carefully listen to the message nature is sending to us, albeit not in the language of humans but in its own language, a language that is accessible to us if we but choose to listen. The message to us is simple enough: change the way you treat me before it is too late.

For all those who search for God and have not yet found him.

Shabbat, two weeks ago, I heard a remarkable sermon by Justin, our rabbi. He introduced it by saying that this time he would be sharing his “theology” with us. I am not aware that he ever gives a title to his sermons but were I to give a title to that sermon it would be “Beware of Jewish hubris or chutzpah.” I told him afterwards that I had been waiting for this sermon for 26 years – the number of years that Gail and I have been members of this congregation.

It takes courage to say what he said, namely, if I understood his words correctly, that it is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our faith is superior to other faiths. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our service of God is superior to that of non-Jews. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that we know more about God than other religions. To think and to voice these kinds of attitudes is proof that our thinking is flawed.

Who are we Jews to make such statements given that we are an infinitesimally small portion of the world population? How is it that we have come to such a conclusion? According to the rabbi, this thought pattern of superiority has been handed down to us by our rabbinic predecessors who voiced this flawed mode of thinking for centuries.

I must make a confession: I am always appreciative of being honored by an aliyah, but the words of the blessing before the Torah reading tend to stick in my throat because of their intimation that we Jews are a “chosen” people.

I once shared this feeling with a rabbi-friend who suggested, “Why don’t you say instead of asher bachar banu mikol ha’amiym, “chose us FROM all the peoples,” asher bachar banu im kol ha-amiym, meaning, “chose us with all the peoples?” While “from all the peoples” sounds to me like a lot of chutzpah, somehow with all the peoples” does not quite make sense.

I always appreciate the honor of an aliyah but I am stuck with this portion of the blessing which goes against my belief.

But my problem is even more deep-seated than what concerns these few words.

As a Holocaust survivor, thinking just about daily about the murder of the Six Million among whom were fourteen members of my family, can I say the opening words of every b’rakhah as well as those of the Amidah, barukh atah adonay – Praised are you Adonay? And then continue honestly proclaiming, haEl haGadol, haGibbor vehaNorah, El Elyon– the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome God, the highest god?

The late Elie Wiesel suggested in his writings that during the Holocaust the “onlookers” who saw the tragedy and did not raise a finger to protest, let alone to stop the slaughter, were just as guilty as the perpetrators of the murders. I totally agree with Eli Wiesel. Now this raises, of course, the frightening question about him who, in the Amidah and in many other biblical texts, is called “great, strong,and awesome.” We encounter in English Bible translations the word el-shadday, translated as “Almighty,” as a title and an attribute of God. After the murder of the Six Million, the frightening question arises why this almighty God did not intervene, but let the smokestacks of Auschwitz belch out the smoke of hundreds of thousands gassed and cremated innocent persons.

In short: was the God whom we worship the most guilty of all bystanders by letting this tragedy and many other tragedies happen?

Who is this God, really? What kind of god is he? Or, is there such a god at all?

I have been chasing after the reality of the biblical God pretty much all my life long because I want to know!

The fact is that we know nothing about this God, just as the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isa. 55:8-9:

“for My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, says Adonay. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

This said, I would think that all human speculations about God, preceding Isaiah and following Isaiah’s pronouncement, are human words and human characterizations of this very God. They are guesses – they are human responses to human feelings about events we humans are unable to explain at the present.

Renown Rabbi Jehudah heChassid or Judah the Pious of Regensburg who died in 1217 during the time of the deadly Crusades, in his beautiful shir ha-kavod or “Hymn of Glory” that in some synagogues is sung when the Torah scroll is taken from the aron ha-kodesh, proclaims:

“Without having seen you, I declare your praise:
Without having known you, I laud you and your ways.
They have imagined you, but never as you are;
They tell of your deeds, to portray you from afar.”

This, in my opinion, is precisely what you and I are trying to do here: we imagine and we portray from afar.

And this is precisely what the folks and practitioners of other religions are doing as well and honestly so. So, it is very much wrong to see ourselves as specially favored to know and to do better. Doing so is chutzpah.

Having heard these my words, you may wonder, what I am doing here in this Jewish congregation. So let me explain.

I am here for several reasons.

  • I believe in community and especially in Jewish community. The term synagogue, a Greek word, means (lead-together) and this means “community.”
  • I love the people of this community, past and present, – who have been providing for Gail and me a spiritual home and all that goes with it, namely friendship and fellowship and care.
  • I love the Hebrew language which I have taught for decades, the language heard in this place very often .
  • I have made peace with the words I do not believe-in because they are beautiful and well-intentioned words, albeit fallible and flawed.
  • I am able to use the word “God” with all its adjectives FINALLY again, and it is here that enters my theology I want to share with you.
  • I love Judaism because of its teaching-values which I admire and consider indispensable for the ongoing life of our planet. So – -when we sing al-shlosha devarim haOlam omed, al ha-Torah, veal ha-Avodah veal gemilut chassadim, “The world stands on three principles: on Torah, on work avodah (which in Hebrew also means worship), and on good deeds,” I believe this with all my heart and try to live by these values.

But this change in my attitude became possible thanks to my many years of study and reflection on biblical and other so-called holy texts. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the term GOD is really a metaphor for these great Jewish values that I admire and try try hard to live by, the greatest of which is LOVE which I consider to be a synonym for the word God.

Now a few words about God and LOVE.

How do you and I define God and love??

If I were to ask you individually how YOU define God, I’d probably receive as many answers as I would ask people – perhaps a few more, because we are Jews.

Now if I were to ask you to define LOVE, I’d also receive many answers, And this makes sense, because all I would receive are definitions couched in human words.

It is virtually impossible to define either Love or God by means of words because words are unable to express all that the nouns”God” and “love” contain.

How do you express with words an emotion like the breaking of your heart when you stand at the grave of a beloved person or when I see on TV the little skeletal kids in a coma or dying of starvation, say in Yemen? This kind of experience makes my upper chest to physically contract – cave in – to the point that it hurts physically.

How do you describe with words the laughter that wells up in you? How do you describe in words your sexual attraction to a person? How do you explain your fear standing by the bed of a person fighting for her life?

There simply are no adequate words for any of these emotions.

But does that mean that the lack of our ability to adequately express our feelings or emotions suggests that these emotions are not real? I do not think so and I am sure you probably agree with me. In fact there is nothing more REAL than these feelings that well up within us on such occasions.

What I am suggesting then is that the word G-O-D or the word L-o-v-e are realities that defy description and definition.

Neither one of them are NOUNS! Grammatically – YES, of course. In their truest and deepest sense – NO!

Here then is my theology —

The word GOD is a metaphor. It expresses for me the values of Judaism. When I say adonay , I do not think of a person or some embodied spirit. Instead, I think of the biblical values such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” which have come to us from our ancestors in the faith, to be shared with the rest of humanity.

The words “God” and its synonym “Love” – are not static expression. Words can never convey what they really mean. They have to be lived and only by living them can we hope to transmit their life-giving richness to others.

And so, in my opinion, both Love and God, while grammatically nouns, are in their deepest and truest sense verbs.

Love and God-liness is something you do.

Shabbat shalom!