by R. Gil Student
As we contend with the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, we pray, we learn and we grow as Jews. In the past, people saw epidemics as divine punishment. However, nowadays we know the medical causes of the disease. We can trace the virus and, to some degree, its spread. If epidemiology explains the spread of this deadly disease, where does God fit into it?
This might seem like a modern question but it dates back centuries, if not millennia. As long as people in general thought they understood medicine (even if now we know their understanding was wrong), they could ask the same question. If disease is caused by an imbalance in the humors or by putrid air or by any other ancient medical explanation, where does God fit into the picture? In fact, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 29a) asks, “did the serpent kill or give life?” Rav Moshe Ibn Chabib (17th cen., Greece) is surprised by this question because in truth, of course a serpent kills. On the other hand, a different Gemara (Berakhos 33a) says that poison does not kill; God kills. This complex relationship of dueling causes appears in the Talmud. As medicine advanced during the Renaissance, these types of questions gained steam and leading rabbis addressed them. Perhaps these answers can help us see God’s role in light of contemporary medicine. (This is not to say that those affected personally by an epidemic deserve their illness. This subject requires lengthy discussion but as a start we can note that the Sages are clear that communal punishment sometimes strikes the righteous. See, for example, Malbim to Gen. 18:24.)
I. Beyond Nature
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 9:2) attributes earthquakes to a variety of spiritual causes. R. Nehorai says they happen because people fail to separate terumos and ma’asros, the portions of produce that must be given to Kohanim and Levi’im. R. Acha says that they are due to homosexual activity. Other rabbis say that they are due to machlokes, disunity. (See also Berakhos 59a.)
Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (16th cen., Constantinople; Yefeh Mareh, Berakhos 9:14) asks how the Sages could offer spiritual reasons for earthquakes when science explains the causes for such natural disasters? He answers that the Sages were referring to earthquakes that lack natural causes. God created the world and designed the course of nature. Within this creation, earthquakes will happen for natural reasons. However, God also intervenes in nature to reward and punish people. Some earthquakes are natural while others are the result of divine intervention.
II. Within Nature
The Gemara (Sukkah 29a) says that solar eclipses are a bad omen for the whole world. Additionally, the Gemara says that four things cause solar eclipses: 1) a deceased head judge who is eulogized insufficiently, 2) a betrothed woman who is attacked and not saved, 3) homosexual relations and 4) twin brothers killed at the same time.
Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Toras Ha-Olah 1:8) asks how the Sages can attribute reasons to a solar eclipse, which is a natural occurrence. Whether or not people sin, the solar eclipse will happen. What are these reasons? Rema explains that a solar eclipse can be a bad omen even though it is a natural phenomenon.
The basic premise of astrology is that there are times of the year that are good for certain things and bad for other things, which can be understood by examining the stars. While great rabbis debated the legitimacy of astrology (e.g. Rambam was against, Ibn Ezra was in favor), Rema explains that a solar eclipse is no different. It is a natural phenomenon like the movement of the stars, which those who accept astrology recognize as meaningful to people. God created the world such that these things happen and uses those times as an opportunity for judgment. (See also Arukh La-Ner and Ben Yehoyada, Sukkah 29a)
III. Beside Nature
In 1797, Rav Pinchas Horowitz of Vilna published an influential book that combined Torah and science, titled Sefer Ha-Bris. In his discussion of earthquakes (vol. 1, ch. 10, sec. 1), Rav Horowitz asks: If earthquakes are part of nature, how can they carry messages of divine punishment? Rav Horowitz explains that whenever natural disasters affect people, they must be guided by divine providence. Earthquakes normally serve as a divine tool for punishment, which is a good purpose. And if an earthquake risks the safety of someone undeserving of punishment, which would be a bad result, God can protect him from harm.
Where does punishment fit into a natural phenomenon? Earthquakes occur naturally and God determines how any individual will feel its impact. Someone could be in a safe place when the earthquake hits, or his home could remain standing despite the shock. He could be out of town when everything happens. There are many ways in which God can protect someone from harm or refrain from protecting him. This is the divine punishment aspect of the natural disaster.
IV. Putting It All Together
We can apply these approaches to an epidemic. According to the first view, sometimes an epidemic will happen naturally, as science explains. But sometimes it happens through divine intervention, as a punishment. According to the second view, God knows when and how epidemics happen and will use them for punishment, as appropriate. According to the third view, epidemics will happen naturally but how each person is affected — how some will catch it and some will escape — is determined by the complicated calculus of divine providence.
According to the first view, God lies in the unpredictable. Effectively, what we understand and can predict — that is nature. Everything else is God. The danger with this “God of the gaps” theory is that as science progresses, as medicine becomes more accurate and comprehensive, the gaps may be filled completely leaving no more room for God. According to the second view, God works within nature, using it for His purposes. And according to the third view, God lies in the individual impact, in the uncertainties of life, which cannot be changed with scientific progress.