Torah in a Time of Plague

Historical and Contemporary Jewish Responses

by Erin Leib Smokler, editor


In stock

About this book

Winner of the 2021 NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

This collection of essays uses Torah – broadly understood to include any canonical Jewish text or tradition – to illuminate, explore, bemoan, or grapple with our current moment of plague.

This is not the first episode of plague for humanity that Judaism has had to figure out how to navigate. But, at least in our lifetimes, this contemporary period presents unprecedented challenges for sustaining Jewish communities and Jewish meaning. Therefore, it is an opportunity for reflection reaching into the reservoir of literature, theology, liturgy, history, sociology, law, story-telling, and Jewish learning to see if there is any light Torah can shed in this dark time.

In this book, a diverse range of thinkers dig into the way that ancient texts have wrestled with mageifah (the Hebrew word for plague that appears in the canon) as a social or legal category; explore theological paradigms that grapple with widespread suffering; examine liturgy or poetry that emerged from prior plagues; investigate how Jewish law is actively reimagining and contesting the limits of community at these times of social distance; or ruminate on the ways quarantine, lockdown, and upheaval will reshape Jewish communal life for years to come.

The hope is that these essays – some scholarly, some homiletic, some personal, some exegetical – will enable discussion within networks of lay people and religious leaders in synagogues, schools, academia, and elsewhere in internet book-clubs worldwide. Many are looking for mooring from the Jewish tradition in this most disorienting time, and this volume may serve as anchor and inspiration.



  1. Theological Vertigo in Proximity to Plague Erin Leib Smokler

The Theology of Plague

  1. Covid-19 and the Theological Challenge of the Arbitrary Shaul Magid

  1. Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune Gordon Tucker

  1. Loving God Through Life and Death: An Embodied Theology of Loss Aviva Richman

  1. The Natural Disaster Theology Dilemma David Zvi Kalman

  1. Between Immanence and Transcendence: Jewish Ideas of God and Suffering Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

  2. The Biblical Plagues and Our Plague: An Anthropocentric Theology Chaim Seidler-Feller

  3. Love in a Time of Absence: Rashi on Song of Songs and Isolation Devorah Schoenfeld
  1. Keter and Corona: Perspectives from the Jewish Mystical Tradition Art Green

Jewish Community and Practice Under Duress

  1. Collective Tragedies and the Politics of Mourning Sara Labaton
  1. “A People’s Multitude is a King’s Splendor:” Communal Practices Beyond Prayer Ayelet Hoffmann Libson

  2. Collectivism and Individualism in the Time of Plague Jon A. Levisohn

  1. Pandemic and the Jewish Household Deena Aranoff

  1. Standing Together: Covid-19, Community and Solidarity Ariel Evan Mayse

  2. Building an Ark in the Midst of a Flood: Mindfulness Practices for Staying Afloat James Jacobson-Maisels

History and Literature of Plague

  1. Praying Away the Plague: Jewish Prayer During the Italian Plague, 1630-31 Yitz Landes
  1. Torah in Troubled Times: Experiencing Epidemic in Prague, 1713 Josh Teplitsky

Quarantine Reflections

  1. The Song of Sirens: A Covid Birth Story Tamara Tweel

  1. (Tractate) Shabbat in Quarantine Ethan J. Leib
  1. Beezus and Corona: Reading our Way through the Wilderness Ilana Kurshan

Time in Unprecedented Times

  1. Receiving the Finite Gift of Life Itself Zohar Atkins
  1. Aging in Place: A Spiritual Fact of Life Michael Fishbane

Contributor Biographies

Deena Aranoff is Faculty Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She teaches rabbinic literature, medieval patterns of Jewish thought, and the broader question of continuity and change in Jewish history. Her recent publications engage with the subject of childcare, maternity and the making of Jewish culture.

Zohar Atkins is the Founder and Director of Etz Hasadeh and the author of Nineveh and Unframing Existence. A Rhodes Scholar and a poet, he writes a weekly Torah commentary newsletter at

Michael Fishbane is Nathan Cummings Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His writings span from the ancient Near East and biblical studies to rabbinics, the history of Jewish interpretation, Jewish mysticism, and modern Jewish thought. Among his many books are Text and Texture; Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel; Garments of Torah; The Kiss of God; and The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology. Both Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel and The Kiss of God won The National Jewish Book Award in scholarship. His commentary on the prophetic lectionary (Haftarot) in Judaism was published in 2002 (Jewish Publication Society Bible Commentary), and his book Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking was published in 2003 (Oxford University Press). Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, was published in fall 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. In 2015, Fishbane published a multileveled comprehensive commentary presenting the full range of Jewish interpretations on the Song of Songs (Jewish Publication Society). In that year, a volume on him and his work appeared as part of the Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers, entitled Michael Fishbane. Jewish Hermeneutical Theology. He is presently working on the poetics of Jewish liturgical poetry and topics in Hasidic mystical theology. Professor Fishbane received a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other major grants, and has twice been a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University. He is a member of the American Academy of Jewish Research, and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in Textual Studies by the National Foundation of Jewish Culture. An entry on him and his work appears in the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Fishbane is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Arthur Green was the founding dean and is currently rector of the Rabbinical School and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College. He is also Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University. Both a historian of Jewish religion and a theologian, his work seeks to form a bridge between these two distinct fields of endeavor. He is the leading figure of Neo-Hasidism in the contemporary Jewish world, seeking to articulate a contemporary Jewish mysticism, based on the Hasidic model. His most recent writings include the two-volume A New Hasidism, co-edited with Dr. Ariel Mayse (JPS 2019), a translation of the Hasidic class The Light of the Eyes by R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (Stanford 2020), and Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale 2020).

James Jacobson-Maisels is the founder and spiritual director of Or HaLev: A Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation ( and the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Romemu Yeshiva (, a new contemplative yeshiva combining study and practice. He has taught Jewish thought, mysticism, spiritual practices, and meditation at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Haifa University,Yeshivat Hadar, and in various settings around the world. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press and winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She has translated books of Jewish interest by Ruth Calderon, Yemima Mizrachi, Benjamin Lau, and Micah Goodman, as well as novels, short stories, and children’s picture books. Her book Why Is This Night Different From Other Nights was published by Schocken in 2005. She is a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine, where she is the Book Reviews Editor, and her writing has appeared in The Forward, The World Jewish Digest, Hadassah, Nashim, Zeek, Kveller, and Tablet. Kurshan is a graduate of Harvard University (BA) and Cambridge University (M.Phil.). She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five children.

Sara Labaton is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She has a PhD in medieval Jewish thought from NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and has taught in various Jewish educational settings.

Yitz Landes is a PhD candidate in Religion at Princeton. His research focuses on the reception history of rabbinic literature and Jewish liturgy. His first book, Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah, was published in 2018.

Ethan J. Leib is the John D. Calamari Distinguished Professor of Law at Fordham Law School. He is the author or editor of five books – the most recent two about loyalty and friendship – and teaches courses about contract law and legislation.

Jon A. Levisohn is the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Associate Professor of Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University, where he also directs the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

Ayelet Hoffmann Libson is a scholar of Talmud and Jewish law and is an associate professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. In 2017-2018 she was the Gruss Visiting Professor of Jewish Law at Harvard Law School. She teaches courses on rabbinic literature, the history of Jewish Law, and the intersection between religion and human rights. Her publications have appeared in journals such as the American Journal of Legal History, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, AJS Review, and Jewish Quarterly Review. She is the author of Law and Self- Knowledge in the Talmud (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. His forthcoming book Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical will appear with Princeton University Press.

Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute ( Previously he was the Director of Jewish Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Mayse holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el in Israel. He is the author of Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of the Maggid of Mezritsh (University of Pennsylvania Press), and co-editor of the two-volume A New Hasidism: Roots and Branches (Jewish Publication Society, 2019). He is working on a forthcoming monograph examining the relationship between spirituality and law from the dawn of Hasidism to the eve of the twentieth century.

Aviva Richman is Rosh Yeshiva and faculty member at Hadar Institute in Manhattan. Her doctorate from New York University is in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, with a dissertation on sexual consent and coercion in the Babylonian Talmud. Aviva is a graduate of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and also a graduate of the Center for Jewish Law at Cardozo Graduate Fellowship in Jewish texts and legal theory. She received private ordination following a traditional course of study in Jewish law, from Rabbi Elisha Ancelovits and Rabbi Danny Landes in Jerusalem.

Devorah Schoenfeld teaches Judaism at Loyola University Chicago. She received her PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in 2007, and received ordination from Yeshivat Maharat in 2019. She has written on Jewish-Christian relations, medieval biblical interpretation, and comparative theology. Her previous book Isaac on Jewish and Christian Altars (Fordham University Press 2012) compares Jewish and Christian medieval interpretations of Isaac’s near- sacrifice. She is currently working on a book on the theological implications of the Song of Songs in medieval exegesis.

Chaim Seidler-Feller recently celebrated his fortieth year of working with students and faculty as the Executive Director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA; he is currently Director Emeritus. Chaim received Rabbinic Ordination in 1971 at Yeshiva University, where he completed a Masters in Rabbinic Literature. Chaim has been a lecturer in the Departments of Sociology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA and in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University. He is also a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He was the founding director of the Hartman Fellowship for Campus Professionals and a founding member of Americans for Peace Now. In 2014 he initiated a fact-finding mission for non-Jewish student leaders to Israel and the Palestine Authority that is now offered on sixty campuses across the country.

Erin Leib Smokler (ed.) is Director of Spiritual Development and Dean of Students at Yeshivat Maharat Rabbinical School, where she teaches Hasidism and Pastoral Theology. She is also a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She earned both her PhD and MA from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and her BA from Harvard University. Rabbi Dr. Leib Smokler previously served as Assistant Literary Editor of the New Republic, and her writing has appeared there, as well as in other publications. She is currently at work on a book, Torah of the Night: Pastoral Insights from the Weekly Portion.

Joshua Teplitsky is an associate professor in the Department of History and the Program in Judaic Studies at Stony Brook University. He specializes in the history of the Jews in Europe in the early modern period. His current work explores public health, Jewish life, and epidemics. He earned his PhD from New York University’s Departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies and has held fellowships at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies of the University of Oxford, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Library of Israel, and Harvard University. His first book Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (Yale, 2019) was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

Gordon Tucker is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Jewish Thought at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA). From 1984 to 1992 he was the Dean of the JTSA Rabbinical School. He holds an AB degree from Harvard College, a PhD from Princeton University, and received Rabbinic Ordination from JTSA. He is the author of scores of articles on Jewish theology and law, and published Heavenly Torah, a translation of, and commentary on, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s three-volume work on rabbinic theology. Most recently, his new commentary on Pirkei Avot was published by The Rabbinical Assembly in 2018.

Tamara Mann Tweel is Director of Civic Initiatives at the Teagle Foundation. Previously, she served as the Director of Strategic Development for Hillel International’s Office of Innovation, where she founded and directed Civic Spirit, a multi-faith civic education initiative. She currently teaches in the American Studies Program at Columbia University, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and serves on the Advisory Council of The Princeton University Office of Religious Life. Dr. Tweel received a master’s degree in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in history from Columbia University. In 2009, she received the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Her work has been published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Journal of World History and Inside Higher Ed.

Advance Praise

When we Jews suffer, we seek wisdom from our tradition; and the perverse paradox that has sustained our tradition for a long time is that periods of loss and fear – as Dr. Erin Leib Smokler so eloquently chronicles in her opening to this powerful volume – are also fecund moments for theological and intellectual creativity. We respond to crisis with the generative work of memory, mining our past and our present for the wisdom to face an uncertain future. This book is full of gems, in the form of Torah, philosophy, social criticism, poetry and prayer; it is to be kept close by not just to understand the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic, and not just for the spiritual guidance we need to survive it, but also to inspire us to write the Torah we will need when we face the next crisis.

–Yehuda Kurtzer, president, The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

Erin Leib Smokler has achieved something remarkable with this volume. Moving swiftly to gather an extraordinary collection of voices while still in the throes of the pandemic, she has created a much-needed space for reflection that is strikingly un-rushed, subtle, serious, and spacious. The essays in this collection – theologically modest, intellectually rigorous, historically grounded, and emotionally honest – will be deeply nourishing to anyone seeking language that bravely stands between speechlessness and spin, and slowly, tenderly, searchingly begins to offer us a way forward through the still unfolding losses of this time.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president, Hebrew College

If the hallmarks of this difficult time have been loss and isolation, then TORAH IN A TIME OF PLAGUE offers a modicum of consolation and repair with the multifarious voices that it convenes. By turns scholarly and lyrical, contemplative and bracing, this volume invites readers into a tender community of thought and feeling, helping us to make sense of the year we have just experienced in Jewish terms. Appealing to theology, history, and literary reflection, these essays locate our plague year in the long Jewish arcs of grief and devastation, as well as consolation and hope.

–Dr. Miriam Udel, editor and translator, Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature; Associate Professor of Yiddish, Emory University

Torah in a Time of Plague: The subject seems a sad one, but the volume is full of delights. Essay after luminous essay from a dazzling array of scholars, rabbis, and writers explores diverse facets of the theological vertigo that comes from confrontation with the fragility of life. The result is an engaging volume full of learning and also of wisdom, a book that helps us both to think about precarity and pandemic, and also to live in the midst of it.

–Dr. David Nirenberg, dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago, author, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

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