A recent headline on Times of Israel highlighted the challenge of our world-wide pandemic for people of faith: “Slammed by COVID-19, ultra-Orthodox Jews try to understand what God hath wrought.” The article went on to note that “many observant Jews have found themselves forced to confront the theological implications of a plague that has subverted popular assumptions regarding reward and punishment.”
But it is not only very Orthodox Jews who are asking these questions. Many people – of all faith traditions – have articulated the same spiritual concerns. Essays from a variety of faith leaders have populated the Globe and Mail, CBC, the New York Times, Huffington Post and other international media outlets. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote: “So much death and suffering! So many hopes for a better life, destroyed by pandemic. Such an incalculable amount of trust — in government, in the future, and in God — undermined or irreparably lost.” Why would God permit such pain, suffering, social disruption and death?
In Jewish mystical teaching, one of the terms for God is Keter, Crown, referring to Divine sovereignty and understood as an aspect of divinity beyond human comprehension. In our time, it also evokes an association with a microorganism known as Coronavirus. Is there a connection between Corona and Keter, disease and divinity? Ishay Ribo reflected this concern in a song recorded shortly after Purim, as he and other Israelis were placed in confinement: What does God want humanity to learn in order to give the Holy One “Keter Melukhah,” the Crown of divine sovereignty?
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto).