Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel, the author of ten books, has made a fascinating, enlightening, and much needed contribution to our understanding of the Corona Virus pandemic and Jewish and other views on the subject in his book “God and the Pandemic.” He gives readers a thorough very readable analysis of the many pandemics, earthquakes, plagues, and other occurrences that killed many people. He addresses the ideas of many ancient and modern thinkers of many countries and many religions, including atheists, such as Epictetus, Rousseau, Voltaire, Darwin, Camus, Kant, Jung, Victor Frankl, Menachem Begin, Hillel, Biden, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, for the truth is the truth no matter what its source. He examines questions that people have pondered for millennia, such as: Does God become angry, strike out, and kill people? Do prayers help avoid death by pandemics? Does living a pious life do so? How should we practice our religion? He subtitles his book “A Jewish Reflection on the Coronavirus,” but this is not his only approach. He examines the views of virtually all religions ancient and modern as well as science. The book is comprehensive, very informative, and eye-opening.
Two of the many people that Rabbi Dr. Samuel discusses are Maimonides (1138-1204) and Pascal (1623-1662). The two are pole opposites. Maimonides and many others contended that God is not involved in human affairs. Pascal, who experienced a mystical experience, on the other hand developed a wager that he suggested people take to assure the best afterlife experience. He suggested that people should believe in God otherwise we may be punished. Which view is correct?
People have suffered from many different pandemics resulting in millions losing their lives. So many that he can only mention some of them. Pandemics and natural catastrophes changed history. A pandemic brought the mighty Roman Empire to its knees, and it never recovered. Among others were the epidemic of 165-180 CE followed by 249-262, followed by 541-542, and the death of the Empire. In one plague as many as 5,000 Romans died daily. Should people ask God to forgive their sins?
What do most people think?
Many if not most people in the past were convinced that bad things happen to people because God is punishing people for their improper behavior. Many still believe this today. They rush to their houses of worship and pray to God to stop the punishment. In essence they plead, just as children do, “God, please stop it. I will be good. I promise.” There was, for example, an earth quake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1775 and the famed well-meaning English Christian cleric John Wesley (1703-1791) attributed the destruction to Portugal’s supporting the Spanish Inquisition expelling its entire Jewish population. Among Jews, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi asked Jews to stop kissing mezuzahs attached to their door posts because of the coronavirus; yet some Jews ignored his advice because they felt they need to appease God. It is no surprise that while Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up only 12 percent of the total Israeli population, they are nearly half of the coronavirus patients at four major hospitals.
Is God involved?
One of the many purposes of Rabbi Samuel’s book is to show that pandemics are natural disasters and they need to be handled as taught by science. “Epidemics, plagues, and pandemics have been around since the dawn of civilization.” We need to learn how to react to them. He shows how the San Francisco fire and the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina, among all too many disasters, were mishandled and transformed a grave situation into an epic calamity. This is the same claim made against China in regard to Covid 19. He tells us that the Jewish view is that God did not create a perfect world. God created a good world. “It is up to mortals to improve upon the flaws of creation.” The German philosopher Gottfried W. Leibnitz (1646-1716) wrote, “God created this world to have the potential to be the best of all worlds.”
But this is not the only thing that the rabbi stresses.
Pandemics can lead to anti-Semitism
There was a cholera outbreak in India in 1817, a second flareup occurred in 1831. It affected Europe from 1829 to 1837. One of the great rabbis during the time of the second outbreak Rabbi Akiba Eiger (1761-1837) established social-distance guidelines for his synagogue that prevented large numbers of worshipers from perishing. Why did other non-Jewish clergy and governments not adopt his view? Was it because he was Jewish? Similarly, Jews wash their hands in the morning and before eating and this saved many Jewish lives during the Black Plague of 1347-1351, when up to 200 million people died, but instead of copying the procedure, the masses of non-Jews used the fewer deaths of Jews as proof that they caused the Black Plague.
Dr. Martin Luther King summed up this message, “We can’t pray for God to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.”