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COVID-19 and the Theological Challenge of the Arbitrary by Shaul Magid

We are busy converting our chapter-by-chapter Twitter readthrough of Torah in a Time of Plague (edited by Erin Leib Smokler) into blog posts. Please imagine little cogweels turning!

Today’s chapter is “Covid-19 and the Theological Challenge of the Arbitrary” by Shaul Magid. (Who just had an incisive book review in +972 Magazine!)

Torah in a Time of Plague, deposited on a pillow with animal print sequins.
The pillow returns!


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.

You can order the book in the meanwhile:

Or check out the previous chapter, the introduction!