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Coronavirus: a Jewish perspective – ‘Taking no chances’

Friday, 1 May, 2020 - 2:43 pm

WalkingWalking in the supermarket in Oxford covered with a facemask to protect against covid, a fellow shopper with a strong Irish accent walks past me and says: ‘Taking no chances? It’s all in G-d’s hands!’ I followed him round the shop and told him that Maimonides says: ‘you need to be healthy to serve G-d.’ He began telling me that he’s 15% Jewish, probably from his Irish ancestry who travelled to America a few centuries ago and then returned to Ireland. We exchanged contacts and I said I would be happy to share my thoughts on this profound question. The point of this short article is to try and explain both his question and my answer from a Jewish perspective.

 

The question posed was: is not all in G-d’s hands, so why worry? This echoes a number of key teachings in Judaism. The Talmud says:[1] ‘Rabbi Ḥanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.’ This is also found in the teaching[2] that before a child is born it is already decided what will happen to the person, including their livelihood. The only thing that is not decided is morality.[3]

 

Regarding health, we’re told that G-d ‘will remove sickness from your midst.’[4] Commentator explain this refers to diseases caused by polluted air or climactic conditions,[5] diseases caused by drinking polluted waters[6] or contaminated foods,[7] and other illnesses that may not be visible on the surface of one’s body.[8]

 

On the other hand, we’re told we must take care of own health, as Maimonides writes:[9] ‘The maintenance of the body in a healthy and sound condition is a G-d-chosen way; it is necessary for man to distance himself from things which destroy the body, and accustom oneself in things which are healthy and life-imparting.’[10] Similarly, the Talmud[11] informs ways a person can avoid intestinal disease and other maladies.

 

One may thus delineate two perspectives to matters of health: the visible and invisible; that which is within our control and that which is beyond our control. For the former, like how to avoid intestinal disease, one may do so by not eating contaminated food; to avoid disease that is invisible and beyond our control, we are however reliant on G-d. This delineation is relative, and may change over time with medical technological advances. In this view, even the invisible, what is within our control to avoid harm, we shall do all that we can to mitigate the harms of such invisible diseases to the best of our ability.

 

This does not however answer our first fundamental question: isn’t everything in the hands of G-d besides morality? This question may in fact be pressed further: does G-d not have foreknowledge, as the early rabbinic sages taught, and therefore everything is predestined?[12] Jewish thought reconciles this latter question in numerous ways, but fundamentally, they are not contradictory. A bedrock principle in Jewish thought is that free choice, despite G-d’s foreknowledge, is validated. Thus, we may choose what food we eat and what behaviours we do that may make us susceptible to certain illnesses. A classic way to explain this conundrum is that knowledge is not the same as coercion. One may know about something but that does not have any bearing on the actual occurrence.[13] A further explanation is to say that we are judged for our intent that cause certain events to happen, independent of whether a particular event would happen in any event in some other way.[14]

 

Regarding the first question: is not everything in G-d’s hands besides morality? This is only pertaining to matters that we have no impact on, like what colour our skin is, the build of our body, our mental capabilities, and the socio-economic stratum we may be born into. Many aspects of our lives are indeed beyond our control and predetermined. This does not remove our ability to ensure our well being in every other way.

 

In conclusion: Jewish thought recognises that our morality is in our own hands, as is our own health and wellbeing, whether physical, mental or spiritual. At the same time, there are impacts on our life that is beyond our control, including certain invisible diseases that spread, though this may vary throughout history, based on scientific advance. In such cases, Jewish teaching inspires us to be introspective and ask G-d to remove all sickness from our midst so we can be healthy and serve G-d and be there for our family and friends in need in only the best of health.  We are hopeful, however, this covid virus is well within our control and ability to eliminate and we should do everything we can, personally and as a society, to take no chances, stay safe and protect the most vulnerable amongst us.

 


 

[1] Talmud Berachot 33b. Megillah 25a.

[2] Talmud Niddah 16b.

[3] This is based on Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you other than to fear the Lord your G-d, to walk in all of His ways, to love Him and to serve the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.”

[4] Exodus 23:25.

[5] Sforno on Exodus 23:25.

[6] Rashbam on Exodus 23:25 and Exodus 15,25-26.

[7] Tur on the Torah, Exodus 23:25.

[8] Rabeinu Bahya on Exodus 23:25.

[9] Mishneh TorahHilchot De’ot 4:1.

[10] The reason Maimonides writes is because ‘for, lo, it is impossible that one should understand or know aught of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator when he is sick.’

[11] Talmud Gittin 70a: 'Rabbi Ḥiyya teaches: One who does not want to come to a situation whereby he contracts intestinal disease should become accustomed to dipping his food in wine or vinegar, both in the summer and in the winter. He also teaches: You should remove your hand, i.e., stop eating, from a meal that you enjoy so that you do not overeat. And do not delay yourself at the time when it is necessary to relieve yourself.'

[12] Ethics of the Fathers 3:15.

[13] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance.

[14] This is known as the Frankfurt theory that is similar to Jewish views on the reconciliation of free choice and foreknowledge. This argument is presented to explain why the brothers of Joseph were punished for selling Joseph, even though it was predetermined, to allow the exile and exodus to occur.

 

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