Unknown Unknowns and the Coronavirus

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Unknown Unknowns: A Jewish Version of Confronting Coronavirus Creatively

Rambam opens the Laws of Fasts with a passage many people today find uncomfortable for its forthright certainty hard times hit communities (individuals is a more complex story, depending on our understanding of divine providence) because of sins they commit. Let’s leave his idea for next time, when I hope to suggest a way to engage with Rambam’s view productively, find a way we can hear him as he meant to be heard, the recognition of the source of the trouble as a way to a quicker salvation.

For this time, I want to build on the almost universal instinct among Orthodox Jews, to face a time of crisis by doing better. Many who squirm or fire back at any implication troubles are a reaction to our sins are happy to heed calls to use a crisis as a stimulus to self-improvement. Great, let’s work with that. Next week, should Gd not yet have relieved us of this plague, we can grapple with Rambam and tradition.

Calls to improve seem to me to focus on a predictable (and narrow) set of practices. Study more Torah, pray with more attention, be more kind to each other, give charity, reach out to those in need, find ways to greater love and unity. On the flip side, I hear us adjured to avoid misdeeds in how we treat each other, particularly lashon hara, slanderous speech.

To explain my discomfort with those efforts, I recall Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment during the second Iraq war, where he distinguished known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. To adapt it to service of Gd, there are areas where we already do well but could do better, where we know we are acting badly or wrongly but have not yet managed to overcome ourselves, and then there are unknown unknowns, the areas we do not even yet realize we should be striving to achieve or seeking to avoid.

I am suggesting we err in sticking to the knowns, the usual suspects of where we’re not as good as we could or should be, or have not yet conquered what we know we ought. All true, especially because they are areas where almost every society needs to improve. Except if all we need is a bit more of that or less of the other to earn salvation, wouldn’t it be odd for Gd to step so outside our normal paths and bring a time of such danger?

Extraordinary trouble seems to me to call for extraordinary measures. Faced with a threat plausibly catastrophic, daunted by the possibility of illness and death at fearsome scales, we are in the market for a way to show Gd we have changed radically enough to merit (or to engage Gd’s compassion in such a way as to lead to) a sea change in the course of the world. We see the future we expect, and find it daunting, perhaps terrifying. A bit more this or that, I am suggesting, won’t do the trick.

Maybe you disagree, and if you are confident Torah, tefilla, hessed, and tzedakah are all we need, keep calm and carry on.

I myself believe extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein zt”l somewhere described the experience of reading the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith (I think) for the first time. It wasn’t that he and the people he knew hadn’t had those ideas, he wrote, they hadn’t thought in such terms. I propose we look for the unknown unknowns, the areas of service of Gd we haven’t begun to realize we need to address.

I cannot be very specific, because it will look like finger-pointing; I recently saw the Sanzer Rebbe quoted as saying his tradition was not to point out others’ flaws, but to look to his and his community’s own. I mean to follow his advice; I am here to suggest each Jew, each community of Jews, can find examples, areas of obligation they have not considered as much as tradition tells them they should, or violations they have not put on the agenda (in many shuls I have been in, talking during services would be a relatively uncontroversial example).

My point is we should try to think different, as the Apple Computers commercial used to tell us. If our solution to all troubles is the same, it means we’re locked into the same way of thinking that brought us here. The way out isn’t more of what got us here.

Think of the Jews of Yeshayahu’s time, for an example distant enough I hope no one can take personal affront. Despite calls from multiple prophets, they remained insistent sacrifices was the way to salvation, regardless of their idolatry, regardless of their mistreatment of the poor and defenseless of their society, perhaps murder of such people. Yet they gathered to fast and pray to Gd in times of trouble.

Poignantly or distressingly, they never learned the lesson. Yirmiyahu tells us after the Mikdash was destroyed—after the Jews had stayed on their faulty path all the way to what had been to them an inconceivable destruction—the remnant insisted on moving to Egypt despite Yirmiyahu telling them Gd had said they should stay, and then in Egypt insisted worshipping their old idols was the best path to success.

Idolatry exists today, too, although in less obvious ways than I could point to here; the example aside, we can imagine Jews who have adopted a completely wrong version of the religion, have come to insist some proposition the religion adamantly opposes is actually true. Faced with a time of trouble, would they (would we, to the extent it is true of any of us) accept the need to change their framework?

For most of us, the unknowns unknowns aren’t as radical as all that. But we do, individually and communally make decisions about how Gd wants us to act, and I have met many people, from across the spectrum of observance, who focus on this to the exclusion of that. Talmud Torah, hessed, prayer, community building, all good, each have their place in an observant life. To the extent we have the energy, we should do more. But what are the blank spaces we’re not even considering?

Each community and individual has favorites sins to work harder at eradicating as well (I have heard important rabbis who focus on sexual propriety, others on lashon hara, others on details of Shabbat observance—what we focus on always leaves out other things). The Jews of the First Temple rejected the nevi’im’s call to put aside sins we today consider elementary. For them, the certainty sacrifice would please Gd blinded them to more significant problems.

What about us? What’s a clearly Jewish value/obligation/commandment not yet on our plates? I propose those are the significant questions of the day—what framework changes could we make, where our Father in Heaven would see how we had changed and remove this plague (as the people of Nineveh found their way to doing)? What’s enough to say, before, I/we was/were this, and now I/we am/are something else, remade people, with a broader and fuller approach to the world, in more ways Gd wanted us to inhabit it.

When I was a yeshiva student, a man came around YU every year, who had been waging a decades-long effort to convince married women to go to mikveh (and had succeeded so well by my time there, it didn’t seem as much of an issue). Were there such a woman today, a time of trouble would be a good time to think, hmmm, I’ve never done this mikveh thing before, maybe now’s the time to try. Or keeping Shabbat for the nonobservant. We each, as individuals and communities, need to find our mikveh, our Shabbat.

In those answers—answers not already on our horizons—lie a key way to quicker salvation. I believe, hope, and pray.

About Gidon Rothstein

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