Action/Reaction: A Framework to Think About Our Religious Response to Crisis

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I promised you a Rambam, and I intend to fulfill my promise. Before I do, consider the conundrum in which Gd might find Himself should He want fundamental change, framework change, in a time when our sins have distanced us from prophecy. How should Gd send the message?

Blessings aren’t likely to work, because when life goes smoothly, few of us imagine we need to reconsider foundational assumptions of our lives; after all, all’s pretty much well, only a curmudgeon would complain. On the other hand, when tragedy or crisis hits, many of us roll into a ball and angrily object to any hint it’s a sign of needed change. What’s Gd to do?

As you ponder the problem, let’s turn to the Rambam I owe you. Our contemporary experience of fast days might convince us they are mostly about commemorations of the destruction of the Temple; Rambam’s Laws of Fasts suggests it’s incorrect, because four of the five chapters are about fasts for times of crisis. His opening paragraph to those laws reminds us the Torah mandated a response to all forms of distress, calling out to Gd and, in the time of the Temple, blowing the hatzotzerot, the trumpets.

The next two paragraphs make a claim widely accepted by traditional scholars, resisted or rejected by the general public. I review it here because I believe it holds important keys to the most effective response to our current struggle with a fearsome plague, the way we can most likely merit Gd’s tilting the scales towards giving us quicker relief.

Rambam tells us the Torah obligates us to call out in times of trouble as a path of repentance, a way to acknowledge troubles come to communities because of our wrongful deeds. (A good friend and former havruta pointed out Rambam elsewhere seems to view divine providence differently, an issue too complicated to engage here. I can say I believe Rambam thought communities have more intimate providence than ordinary individuals, because they, like more righteous people, are more attuned to and part of Gd’s overall plan for the world. It’s for another time, but reminds us Rambam in the Guide seems open to the possibility some personal tragedies can be a matter of the physical world malfunctioning. I do not believe he thought so regarding tragedies for the public at large.)

To open ourselves to what Rambam wants us to learn, we have to brush away the wagging finger many of us sense whenever we’re told we have to do better. Notice Rambam explicitly says identifying the source of troubles will cause or help its removal. More, Rav Yosef in Baba Kamma 60a adds the important point, once destructive forces are unleashed, they do not distinguish the righteous from the evil. When tragedy affects a community, all members can be implicated, without any implication each affected individual was culpable. The Rosh’s son, R. Yehudah, passed away during the Black Death.

In the next paragraph, 1;3 of Ta’aniyot, Rambam warns of the dangers of denying his idea, in words chilling for how easily we could imagine them happening today. He says, should a community say this trouble is the way of the world, it just happened to us, the attitude will lead the people to ignore the trouble, to continue their paths and actions as they had before, will lead to a worsening of the trouble. He relates it to Vayikra 26;24’s warning against walking with Gd be-keri, a word Rambam reads as “happenstance.” The Jews might dismiss Gd’s wake-up calls as events that just happen of their own, without reason. Worse, the insistence they are keri, happenstance, will mean people will not change, will continue acting in whatever ways Gd is calling them to abandon. Troubles will worsen, the hamat keri, the furious rage, Vayikra 26;28 predicts will come.

Clear and simple, Rambam tells us repentance (for which one needs to recognize sin) is the best way out of communal troubles. For us, it’s not enough to know how to respond. First, because teshuvah, repentance, is such an open word. Those who reach for all the usual types of change we discussed last time also think they are calling for teshuvah. I think a) that is insufficient and b) I can point in more fully productive directions.

I start with Sanhedrin 90a’s unchallenged statement Gd acts middah ke-neged middah, measure for measure, Gd’s reactions a match to the cause (for good as well as not). It suggests troubles will reflect whatever Gd seeks to call to our attention. Given the human condition, we can always study more Torah, slander our fellow Jews less, do more acts of kindness, and so on. Gd sends troubles middah ke-negged middah, to make a more specific point. Financial crises, drought, war, and illness, I suggest the Gemara means us to understand, each call for different teshuvah reactions, where the nature of the trouble shows the specific change called for at the moment.

I have had rabbis, academics, laypeople, friends, colleagues, and complete strangers reject the idea I just suggested, and cite two comments by people whose views clearly outweigh mine. The people I know read those comments as absolving us of the need to think as I am proposing. I think they have misread them.

My revered teacher, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, more than once noted Berakhot 7a’s mockery of Bil’am for claiming to know the mind of Gd when he did not know the mind of his own animal. He said it in our contexts, upset with those who confidently claim to know why Gd sent this or that.

As an example or extension of his point, I note the old TV show line, there are eight million stories in the naked city, let alone in a worldwide pandemic. Any claim to find the cause of a crisis affecting thousands, millions, or billions of people cannot but be insultingly simplistic. Gd doesn’t send such a big event for one reason, nor should we think we will find the reason. I suggest we might still be able to find some messages the middah kenegged middah characteristic indicate.

R. Lichtenstein’s father in law, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, in Kol Dodi Dofek, said our reaction to trouble is not to ask “why” but “how should I respond?” Most people have understood the Rav to mean we should not think in terms of what led to this, just think of positive ways to react. Which, in many cases, lead to the generic kinds of teshuvah I claim is not enough.

Except. When the Rav says we have to figure out how to respond, I wish I could have asked him how we figure out our response. Could he have intended us to take all crises the same way? Why would Gd send differing ones? I need not disagree with him about our inability to find the reason for a time of trouble, or the futility of claiming to know why, to point out his idea still leaves us with work to do.

My teachers were students of the Rav, and they emphasized the precise definition of a phenomenon as the best way to know what it is. Here, I wonder if being sure we know what the crisis is would be a Rav-endorsed way to arrive at how we should respond. We are not saying anything about why, we are seeing what, and where that leads us.

I am hoping, in other words, the Rav and R. Lichtenstein clarified our endeavor rather than proscribed it. We seek our best next moves when Gd sends a crisis, using a tool Gd gave us, middah ke-negged middah. Whatever we conclude, it will not be an assertion of why Gd did this, we will be saying, humbly and hopefully, our best efforts to hear Gd’s message at the current time led us here. Nor will we stop at one reason or facet of the problem, we will look for as many as we can find, and put them all on our agenda.

As I quoted last time, the Sanzer Rebbe noted his own laudable tradition not to point at others. Were I to think an element of a crisis showed what other communities ought to change, it would not be my place to tell them (unless they asked me, of course, my email is grothst, and it is a gmail address). Here, I will muse on only well recognized aspects of the coronavirus.

Many have already drawn our attention to the social isolation, the forced breakup of communities, the virus has forced. What should be the response to a closing of communities?

The Breakdown of Community: I have seen many argue this shows we need to work harder at being social, be more aware of those lonely or isolated. I find the sentiments admirable, but unconvincing. First, I question whether that has been a significant area of weakness for society, in particular the many Orthodox Jewish societies hit hard by the coronavirus. The Jews I know, the charitable organizations I see raising funds, work hard and tirelessly to identify and help those on the fringes of society, those in need. Could we do better? Of course, just like we could study Torah better. More, if that was one of the points being made, it seems odd for Gd to do it by splitting up society, making the lives of those poor and needy harder, possibly tipping over those on the edge, consigning them to the ranks of the poor.

We also have two precedents for what it means when Gd denies people a communal connection. The Tower of Bavel and Beit HaMikdash were both central and centralizing institutions, and were clearly destroyed for different (multiple) reasons. Musing on what kinds of responses would have been most proper for those disasters, I suggest, can bring us to a better set of ideas about this one. R. Marc Penner (full disclosure: a friend) has mused in exactly the kind of way I am hoping more of us do. His is not the whole or only story, it is an example of where we could all do well.

Medical Capacity: It seems clear the absolute numbers of this plague are not the main problem. Every excess death is a tragedy, but the problem is exacerbated by a lack of capacity, health systems being overwhelmed in beds and ventilators (increasing deaths, too). What would be our proper response to realizing we left ourselves underprepared for emergencies? (That’s not to Monday morning quarterback reasoned decisions about allocation of resources, when a “black swan” is inherently unpredictable. I am wondering what our response should be if we realize we see black swans more often than once in a century, for which we are repeatedly massively underprepared).

Rules Following: Before the authorities mandated closing down shuls, rabbis who were already closing theirs told me they could not trust their congregants to adhere to any standards they set—fewer than twenty at a minyan, no one in the high risk categories attending, no one who felt at all coronavirus-like attending. Lehavdil, after the governor of California issued a shelter in place order, the New York Times had a picture of a beach full of people. What should be our response to a crisis made worse by ordinary people’s refusal to follow rules? What should be our response to knowing many people were hurt by governments’ feeling they had to shut down the economy because they could not rely on people to properly distance if businesses stayed open?

And more and more. It’s not one crisis, it’s billions of crises, with greater and lesser overall truths. In these three columns, I have sought ways we can think more productively, can see where Gd is pointing us, guiding us less gently than usual, to fundamental framework changes we would be well-advised to make.

Next time, I’ll take up Pesah a little bit, still in the context of coronavirus, because the rhythm of the plagues in Egypt, and the Egyptians’ resistance to learning the lessons Gd was teaching them, can be a model for us to learn from history, the history of the past as well as of the moment.

About Gidon Rothstein

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