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Coronavirus: Is it an act of God?

If we say the catastrophes have been caused by God, we want to know His motives.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken the whole world and raised the deep theological question of whether to blame God for the catastrophe.
Disasters have attacked human beings and nations – not least the Jewish people – throughout history. They tended to come in two forms: “natural” and moral.
Moral disasters are hard to cope with but at least we know that they are the result of human beings wrongly using their free will to harm other people (and themselves).
“Natural” disasters are another matter. They include the three Fs – flood, fire and famine – as well as tsunamis, earthquakes and pandemics. There are sophisticated lines of reasoning and research in relation to some, but the lawyers look for one-liners and call them “acts of God.” Our problem is how literally to take this rather strange phrase, how seriously we should view its theological undertones, and whether to aver that these are tragedies which man should directly attribute to God.
If we say the catastrophes have been caused by God, we want to know His motives. At the very least we want to know whether He could have prevented the evil. If He lacks that power, it seems we are thrown back upon the old dualistic theory that there are rival forces outside (and opposed to) Him, so that there is an eternal struggle between light and darkness: sometimes one force wins, sometimes the other, and we are left (as Arnold Toynbee wrote in A Study of History, as victims of a cosmic joke.
Either this implies that He has been defeated in combat, which contradicts the psalmist’s doctrine that “the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24), or that He has decided to abdicate and withdraw from the scene of history and no longer bears responsibility for the world, which contradicts the equally constant religious tenet that He is the Lord of history and the world, which to use the rabbinic phrase, is not hefker (ownerless, rudderless).
Isidore Epstein points out in The Faith of Judaism that God’s hand in history is “the dominant note of Biblical history.”
Isaiah 45:7 is adamant that God creates both what we perceive as good and what we perceive as evil. Even what we perceive as evil is from Him, and somewhere, somehow, it has its place in His plan. In the Torah, everything He made is called “good” or “very good.” Targum Onkelos translates tov me’od, very good, as stable and firm, part of the pattern of a functioning universe.
SO WHAT are we to say about the pandemic? Let’s consider eight possibilities:
1) The evil is God punishing us. Too harsh. The world is guilty of many kinds of mischief but He has promised not to destroy it (Genesis 8:21-12). Eliezer Berkovits, the modern theologian, writes concerning the Holocaust that anyone who suggests that we are sinners and the Holocaust was our punishment, is simply being obscene.
2) God has no control over the disaster. Impossible. By definition He is all-good – He wants the best for His world. He is also all-powerful and is capable of preserving His Creation.
3) Man is at least partly responsible because he didn’t protect the world properly. True, man could and should work harder to tend the universe, but why absolve God of His share of blame?
4) We cannot explain the evil but we can alleviate the pain and lessen the suffering. True, we should care better for other people, but this is a moral judgment and challenge which still leaves the problem intact.
5) God shares our pain (as Psalm 91:15 says explicitly). But doesn’t He do more than feel bad about it? Harold Kushner says in When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God sits shivah with us. But maybe there is a case for saying that sometimes God has to use the Yom Kippur phrase Himself and say Hatati aviti pashati, I too have sinned.
6) Maybe it’s not a perfect world. The philosophers agree that God has no duty to make a perfect world, but the beginning of Genesis says that everything He made was good. Nothing is said about defects or flaws.
7) Disasters must be seen in perspective. Is there is more good than evil in the world? We should constantly count our blessings, but can we let God off the hook?
8) We have to keep believing, praying and hoping for the messianic redemption. True, and God will help us along. But the psalmist is right to ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
One day we will come closer to an answer to the current pandemic. In the meantime, the human mind, implanted by God, is capable of even greater bursts of effort to overcome this grave medical, social and economic problem. We hope that God will arise and assure us – in the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev – so that our suffering is for His sake.

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.