Today in #TorahInATimeOfPlague we take a look at chapter 3,
“Loving God Through Life and Death: An Embodied Theology of Loss” by Aviva Richman.
This is a short but intense chapter that also includes discussions of pregnancy loss. (I usually don’t add content notices for pandemic & death because these are kind of assumed by the title of the book itself – but here I felt that this particular topic related to death might be unexpected, so I’m mentioning it.)
Aviva Richman talks about imitating God. The Bible says to walk in God’s ways, but what does this mean? We can’t really do a lot of things that an almighty deity might do, like end a pandemic, for instance.
One traditional interpretation is that we imitate God by acts of chesed (lovingkindness).
This goes back to the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael around 1700 years ago.
“Abba Shaul says: I will be like God. Just as God is merciful and gracious, so you should be merciful and gracious.”
Because it is late at night here in Kansas, I will mention that the question does arise… should we imitate God’s anger too?! Richman says that the traditional sources do not even consider this possibility. E.g., the Talmud lists God’s caring acts as ones we should imitate.
Of course this is helpful in a pandemic. We care for each other and imitate God this way. (Sounds great by me!) But is that the only way we can imitate God, Richman asks. God is described as giving life and death. Ok, we can imitate the giving life part, but what about death?
Now, this doesn’t mean we should literally mete out death, that would be terrible. It means that we should accept and acknowledge death, learn to hold it within us as we hold life.
One traditional concept that relates to this is that the Talmud also calls the uterus a grave (kever in Hebrew).
Pregnancy loss was different in the ancient era than it is now.
“[B]efore the advent of ultrasounds, people would not automatically know that a pregnancy had been lost, and they could have carried a lost pregnancy for many months before miscarriage or stillbirth.”
This can still happen today in certain specific circumstances, and it happened to the author, who relates her experience – which I will not summarize here, but it can be read in the book.
“When we are overwhelmed by loss, rather than bury it out of sight, we can be challenged and comforted to know that part of what it means to actualize our divine potential, our tzelem Elohim, is to participate in the divine work of holding death alongside the life that remains.”
Whew. I felt that this chapter was very deliberately less abstract and more embodied than the preceding ones, but I could immediately relate them to each other and the concepts of plague and disasters.
Now that the holidays are for the most part over, we get back to the theology of the plague! We continue our chapter-by-chapter readthrough of Torah In A Time Of Plague edited by Erin Leib Smokler – today it’s…
“Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune” by Gordon Tucker.
Do you know when G-d last speaks in the Tanach? We’ll find out shortly 🙂
First we begin with a discussion of theodicy; i.e., theologians defending G-d. If he’s so good, why do bad things happen (LIKE A PLAGUE)?
A perennial question, and Tucker points out it implies an aversion to randomness and contingency. Surely G-d knows about all these bad things and has ordained them in some way.
One problem of theodicy is that it imposes our interpretations on G-d, and its aim is to make us feel better.
He quotes Edward Greenstein on the Book of Job that Job’s friends are like this… and it doesn’t work out for them:
“Note the ire that facile theodicies provoke in God (“I’m incensed at your friends” as the New JPS renders it).”
Job’s honesty based on his personal observations, and not his adherence to tradition, goes over much better. Tucker points out that there are several alternative ways traditional Jewish writers tried to get out of this difficulty.
Everything comes from G-d’s will, but this will can’t be predicted
G-d can ordain things and then let them proceed:
“[T]here is an assertion of contingency that God has ordained, but though having ordained it, God can neither override nor control it.”
(Now I see I hyphenated G-d but Tucker doesn’t; I just do it by reflex. Oh well, I’ll leave it this way. It has been ordained!)
And the third option Tucker presents is even more radical:
“the third text will present the most pervasive contingency of all, one that is built into the world, entirely independent of God’s will.”
So let’s see the first option.
There is an absolutely fascinating bit in BT Berakhot 7a –
“a tradition from Rabbi Yosi that Moses made three requests of God, and all were granted. The third of these was to be informed of God’s method for meting out prosperity and suffering.”
BUT WHAT WAS THIS METHOD, I MUST KNOW, you may ask (I certainly did). So did the Talmudic sages.
Well. They couldn’t figure it out. Rabbi Meir finally said that two requests were granted but this third one wasn’t! We can’t really understand the divine will.
“As Job, the book and the character, puts it (Job 9:12): “Who can say to God, What are You doing?””
Well, there we have the first option. (BUT REALLY, G-D, WHAT ARE YOU DOING)
The second option “comes from a medieval work by the older contemporary of Maimonides, Abraham ibn Daud.” He wrote a book called The Exalted Faith (Ha-Emunah ha-Ramah). Side note: He originally wrote it in Arabic, but only the Hebrew translation survives to this day (and has been translated to other languages like English).
He argues that G-d has ordained things to follow probabilities, not the specific outcomes. As he had it, “one ought not recoil from the idea that God knows only the possibilities.”
And the third option involves the Angel of Death.
There is a story in BT Chagiga 4b-5a where Rav Beivai bar Abaye (who had other occult dalliances as well, not discussed here) had a falling out with the Angel of Death. The angel got the wrong person by accident! Now, Rav Beivai bar Abaye complains at the angel in good Jewish fashion. (“Have you permission?”) The angel complains back. Etc.
The interesting part is that G-d is nowhere in the equation. Tucker quotes David Kraemer’s commentary on this:
““Have you permission?” is a broad question, and the angel’s response makes it clear that he feels he has the overall right to take lives prematurely. If there is any limitation on this power, it is not spelled out.”
Tucker likes this third option the most – but does it have textual support? He proceeds with a lengthy close reading of the ending of the Book of Job to show that it does. Which part I will NOT summarize, because my goal is to get you to read the book. 😀 (The Book of Job or Torah in a Time of Plague? Obviously both! ) BTW, the Book of Job – infamously ambiguously phrased in Hebrew – just got a new English translation and Tucker definitely made me want to pick that up too.)
To entice you about this, here are two nuggets.
The ending of the book of Job is the last moment of the Tanach where G-d speaks. After this, it’s all done! G-d doesn’t speak anymore. So it is probably quiiiite important… (Tucker argues that it is)
This quote I really like:
“What makes this understanding of God particularly apt as we ponder the ineluctable randomness in the world is that randomness is precisely the mechanism by which evolution proceeds and, in this vision, by which the divine reveals itself.”
Whew! Randomness is awesome. Allow me to quote another famous Jewish expert on this question:
“Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.”
John von Neumann
If this was interesting / entertaining / terrifying, you can get the book!
On Twitter we have been discussing rediscovered Jewish authors, and it’s time to bring those discussions to the blog as well – let’s find out about Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares and his work!
He was one of the early Zionists, got disillusioned and became an anti-Zionist, but he also disagreed with most of the other anti-Zionists…
Hopefully the above indicates that controversial content is going to follow. Really, he disagreed with almost everyone. In the process, he said some things that still read as eerily timely and present-day.
(He also liked trees)
He wrote several books of essays and sermons. Some of them pseudonymously, as “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis” – because of the political content of his work.
We also know quite a lot about his life and inspirations, because he composed a lengthy autobiographic essay, upon request from a lexicon (!) of Jewish literature – and this essay, while unpublished during his life, can be found in the YIVO Institute Archives. It has also been translated into English, so you can read it – alongside a selection of his sermons and his political work.
So let’s see how he lived (among trees!) and thought and what he meant by pacifism. It’s going to be surprising!
He was born in 1869 “just outside the town of Maltsh” (today in Belarus) in a rural area. His great-grandfather was known as a tzadik and “the Maltsher Maggid”. Even as a child, he really liked nature – in his own words (he wrote his autobiography in the third person):
“Outdoors, he became so enchanted by a beautiful tree or a grassy hillock that he could not tear himself away.”
This went on to influence his life considerably, because he refused to live in a big city.
He had a formative experience as a child. He spent a lot of time studying Talmud in a neighbor’s courtyard while the neighbor did various tasks around the house. (He wasn’t a Jewish neighbor and there were few Jews in the village.) The neighbor’s son was a soldier in the Russo-Turkish War. One day, as Tamares was in the courtyard, news arrived that the son had fallen in battle. Tamares sat with the mother who was desperately weeping and mourning her son, and cried with her. At that point he decided that war was “the epitome of evil”. He also came to understand that not only Jews were oppressed in the world.
He grew up and at 19, went to study in Kovno. He determined he would “fight against slavery and evil”, which are both manifested in war. He thought about how to do this, and determined that he would fight war by educating people.
He also studied in Volozhin, where he first became exposed to secular ideas. He became a rabbi in 1893 in the village of Milejczyce (today in Poland), inheriting the job of his father-in-law. He didn’t make any effort to get this job and he was somewhat at a loss what to do as a rabbi. He gave sermons to the villagers, but soon determined that he’d need to write to reach a larger audience. So he started to write for the newspapers.
This also proved difficult. He wanted to write in Hebrew. He didn’t know how to do that… He had no training, never studied Hebrew formally, but he really wanted to get his ideas out, so he persevered.
He ended up studying these topics and also got more secular education. He wrote the autobiographic essay the lexicon requested in Yiddish, so he could clearly write in Yiddish too, but he wanted to write in Hebrew. (This is important – some people like to conflate Hebrew revival with Zionism, and he ended up writing anti-Zionist work in Hebrew.)
When Zionism started to appear in the late 19th century as a movement, he was enthused at first. The Zionists called for justice, surely that has to be good, he thought.
“Unfortunately, he was not yet equipped to appraise the value of these antics” he wrote about himself. He described what he liked about Zionism:
The calls for freedom and justice.
The style of early Zionist writers, who were very eloquent.
The fact that “the old guard of Orthodoxy” was opposed to Zionism (YES, REALLY, that was a plus for him, as an Orthodox rabbi himself…!)
He felt that what we would now call the right wing of Orthodoxy was obsessed with finding sins in other people. He called them “God’s policemen”, because they were excessively policing people’s behavior. So if they were opposed to Zionism, that made him all the more interested.
He started to write a series of articles about Zionism, in which he enthused about it. This led to the Zionists inviting him to a large Zionist convention in Vilna. He went and had a very confusing experience.
First of all, everything was in Russian, even though many of the present (especially the rabbis) only spoke Yiddish. (Tamares did speak Russian too.) He thought, OK, probably the authorities only allowed this conference to go forward on the condition of it being in Russian… He was also surprised about the content of the discussion.
“They were honing their bureaucratization skills, preparing to lord it over their constituents in the future Zionist state…”
he wrote about this convention later. Then a policeman randomly showed up and everyone fled! Tamares was perplexed. The entire gathering had been illegal after all. But then why have it in Russian? Let alone with all the bureaucratic phrasing…
He went home. He was starting to have doubts about the Zionist enterprise, but decided to give it one more chance. He went to the Fourth Zionist Congress in London as a delegate. This was in the summer of 1900 and he found it more of the same:
“emptiness, bureaucracy and officiousness.”
He went home again. A Zionist group was already asking him to reprint his articles, and he mailed them a no. He said in his autobiography that he was “devastated”.
He wrote himself into a corner! He had loudly decried the Orthodox opposition to Zionism in his essays. Maybe those rabbis were right after all???? And now he’d gone ahead and alienated them. (Gevalt)
This is a great cliffhanger to stop on, and next time we can continue with Rabbi Tamares’ adventures with hardline Orthodoxy, entirely secular Socialism, and more… Also we’ll eventually, G-d willing, get to what he thought about nation-states.
We are further ahead on Twitter, so you can take a peek:
(You might start to suspect what views he developed about nation-states.)
In the meanwhile, if this is beginning to sound interesting, you can get the book:
Did people think plagues were a punishment? Magid points out that in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud the usual assumption for a famine is that it’s G-d’s punishment for something the people did. But is a plague also such a punishment? That seems to be much much less clearcut…
The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 60b discusses plagues and:
“is almost entirely concerned with ways to best protect oneself from contagion. There is no mention there of praying, repenting, fasting, or engaging in other devotional acts to ward off the disease” – !
Medieval commentators on this section emphasize the arbitrariness of plagues. Not every natural disaster is G-d’s punishment. But why is this especially important?
At least partially because Jews don’t live in isolation with no other people around them.
As Magid says,
“Without the notion of the arbitrary as extra-covenantal, Judaism becomes vulnerable to making all disasters, even those that equally affect non-Jews, the fault of the Jews, which could easily, and understandably, evoke negative reactions.”
There is a tension here, because if we say OK, how about “everything is arbitrary?”, that would be heretical and not something traditional commentators would like. (Though we as a press are always interested in people’s heretical thoughts 🙂 )
The Talmud doesn’t outright say “this is arbitrary!” either. But it seems to treat it as an assumption.
The sages also discuss how to avoid the plague and not how to nullify it. Later commentators also focus on this (including ones who lived during plagues!)
So there is this tension between G-d ordaining what happens in the world, but some things affecting people seemingly indiscriminately. Different authors try to resolve this tension differently, and in the chapter you’ll see how they go about it!
Next time, we’re planning on discussing the following chapter: “Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune” by Gordon Tucker.
Let’s talk about our latest book, Torah in a Time of Plague! It’s now available in our webstore, and we have been discussing it chapter by chapter on Twitter under the hashtag #TorahInATimeOfPlague, and now – as requested 🙂 – we will also make these discussions into blog posts.
There are many interesting, unique and/or lesser-known ideas in this book, and now we’ll be able to share them with you!
We begin with editor Erin Leib Smokler’s introduction that talks about “Theological Vertigo in Proximity to Plague”.
The term “theological vertigo” is from Avivah Zornberg, who uses it to discuss situations of being near death.
“[T]he reaction is a sense of theological vertigo, of asking what does anything mean in that case. If it’s really just a matter of a millimeter—it could go this way, it could go that way—how do we understand God’s providence?”
Zornberg points out that it’s a common Biblical interpretation that this was the cause of Sarah’s death, because of what happened to Isaac. Sarah did not think Isaac was killed, but she knew that he was almost killed, and she couldn’t live on knowing that.
Smokler points out that this is now our shared experience because of COVID-19, and now we’ll also need to deal with that.
(She also gives a Talmudic example about the destruction of the Temple related to how to go on in a situation like this, but you’ll see that in the book,)
The book has five sections: 1: Theology of Plague 2: Jewish Community and Practice Under Duress 3: History and Literature of Plague 4: Quarantine Reflections 5: Time in Unprecedented Times
and we’ll gradually make our way through these!
Hopefully by so doing, we’ll have a new understanding of what it means to have lived through something when we were near death – and also how our ancestors lived through those times, and what they thought about them.
…They thought some surprising things, as we’ll see next time in Chapter 1: “Covid-19 and the Theological Challenge of the Arbitrary” by Shaul Magid!