American Orthodoxy

Pandemic, Partnership, and Progress: A Vision for a post-Covid Modern Orthodoxy

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Alan Jotkowitz

 

Introduction

The United States and other countries are facing three once-in-a-lifetime crises almost simultaneously. The most obvious, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has changed the way we live, work, and play and has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Partly as a result of the pandemic and its effect on the economy, millions of people are currently unemployed, and economic inequality has worsened around the world. Second, triggered by the killing of George Floyd, systemic racism in the American political, social, and economic systems have been at the forefront of protests across the country.

These events have occurred in the context of the third major crisis, an already unstable world order threatened by an impending climate disaster and an American political system that seems hopelessly polarized and unable to govern.

Theology

Major disruptive events such as the Covid pandemic and racial unrest in America demand a theological response. This is especially true for those of us who believe that God controls the fate and destiny of the physical and temporal world. This much-needed theological response can exist on many levels. It is important to begin by highlighting what a proper theological response most assuredly is not. Rav Amital taught that man can never presume to know the reasons for God’s actions. This is a useless endeavor fraught with hubris. Man cannot even pretend to know or understand God’s motivations.[1] There is one universal response to tragedy and misfortune: teshuvah (repentance). Teshuvah can take place on both an individual and a communal level. I will return to this topic later after proposing a theological framework for dealing with this.

The ferocity and the intensity of the Covid pandemic have left many people feeling powerless and helpless in the face of the death and despair that has come in its wake. I am fearful that Covid may herald a new era in the relationship between humanity and the environment. Not only do new diseases have the potential to spread quickly across the globe, but the impending climate changes threaten to make life more tenuous for many of the world’s citizens. In addition, the scourge of systemic racism, racial injustice, and increasing economic inequality has caused many people, particularly the younger generation, to question traditional values and theologies. An authentic Jewish religious response is urgently needed in response to these new challenges. I propose that the basis for this response can be found in the writings of some of the greatest Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.

Man’s Covenant with Nature

That an appropriate theological response to an environmental crisis should emerge from R. Soloveitchik is somewhat surprising, in light of what he wrote in The Lonely Man of Faith:

Dignity was equated by the Psalmist with man’s capability of dominating his environment and exercising control over it. Man acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment. The brute’s existence is an undignified one because it is a helpless existence. Human dignity is a dignified one because it is a glorious, majestic, powerful existence. Hence, dignity is unobtainable as long as man has not reclaimed himself from coexistence with nature and has not risen from a non-reflective, degradingly helpless instinctive life to an intelligent, planned, and majestic one. . . . The brute is helpless, and, therefore, not dignified. Civilized man has gained limited control of nature and has become, in certain respects, her master, and with his mastery he has attained dignity as well.[2]

However, in his posthumously published work, The Emergence of Ethical Man, R. Soloveitchik strikes a different tone from the glorification of man’s dominance over nature that emerged from The Lonely Man of Faith. In opposition to Christian theology, which, in R. Soloveitchik’s description, portrays man as being apart and alien from nature, R. Soloveitchik forcefully argues, in multiple places throughout the book, that Judaism views man as part of nature.

“The Hebrew Bible is cognizant of man as a natural being found on the same plane as the animal and the plant. Indeed, such an idea is a motivating force in Jewish ethics and metaphysics.”[3]

“Let us first analyze the immanence of man, namely his confluence with nature, Mother Earth.”[4]

“Yet the Halakhah identifies man with the biological form of existence – the dynamic organism.”[5]

“Halakhah considers this purely vegetated form of life, projected upon an anthropic background, as a manifestation of a personality.”[6]

According to R. Soloveitchik, humanity shares many of its essential characteristics with the vegetative world and even more so with the animal world. It is for this reason, he asserts, that the Bible is so opposed to the eating of meat. R. Soloveitchik continues:

Here we grasp one of the most characteristic features of the Jewish anthropological philosophy. The deep feeling of man’s basic harmony with organic nature – a harmony emerging from uniformity – is the most salient feature of that philosophical formula. Man may be the most developed form of life on the continuum of plant-animal-man, but the ontic essence remains identical.[7]

Not only is man identified with plant and animal life, but he is also intimately connected to his environment:

A man is not allowed to tear away from his natural moorings; in this respect, he is more like plant than animal. He takes root, he is stationary and forms one entity with his environment. And like plant, that environment is the soil: both belong to Mother Earth, and both are part of her. . . . the mitzvah of burial indicates the validity of the demand the earth makes on man. She insists upon the return of a part of her own self.[8]

What is the consequence of this tum’ah? As soon as man begins to act in a manner alien to his nature, as soon as he tries to transcend nature’s limitations and bounds, she changes her attitude toward him. He has expressed contempt and disdain for his Mother Earth; nature on her part refuses to promote man’s interests, which are not hers any more.

We may conclude from these premises the following:

(1) The metaphysical confluence of man and nature is a postulate of Judaism.

(2) This coexistence results in co-responsibility. . .

(3) Thus, man is not a universal abstract being who roams along the infinite lanes of the cosmos without finding any attachment to any part of it. He is confined to a determinate finite world; he must, like the plant, be rooted in an enclosed part of the soil and live together with nature.[9]

R. Soloveitchik then asks the obvious question: is not the notion of man’s partnership with Mother Earth at odds with the Biblical notion of man’s dominion over nature? He answers:

Man’s dominion of nature is not that of an alien autocrat over a people subjugated by force, but that of a loving father over his young son, or of a devoted son over an incapacitated old mother. Nature surrenders voluntarily to man’s control and rule, she entrusts man with her most guarded secrets. It is more cooperation than dominion, more partnership than subordination. . . There is some sort of covenant between man and nature. The prime condition of such a contractual relationship is man’s living up to certain natural standards. By the slightest error, man forfeits his rights to dominate and becomes an outcast. This is man’s freedom: either to live at peace with nature and thus give expression to a natural existence in the noblest of terms, or to surpass his archaic bounds and corrupt himself and nature. Man’s freedom is embedded in his confinement to his environment, in his coexistence with nature.[10]

Man should create new life; he should plant trees and engage in such creative work. The intimate close contact with the environment was recommended and approved by Judaism. The Jew whom God called upon was a worker, a farmer, a shepherd; men who lived in harmony and at peace with nature and saw God not in transcendent heavens, but descending from infinity into finitude.[11]

It is obvious that modern Jews living in Teaneck and Bet Shemesh cannot be expected to return to the pastoral lifestyle, but the partnership and covenant with nature that R. Soloveitchik describes can still be a value to strive for. Man is charged with being a protector of the environment as opposed to a destroyer of the environment.

Yoram Hazony has asserted that The Emergence of Ethical Man “has drawn little attention since its publication” and that it is a “bombshell of a book.” Hazony worked to draw much-deserved attention to the work, and his efforts have generated discussion about the book in certain quarters. However, the discussion has focused mostly on the second half of the book, in particular its rejection of the supernatural element in religion and its implication for immortality, redemption, prayer, and miracles. I am much more concerned with the beginning of the book and its description of the relationship between man and nature as a partnership as opposed to one of domination. The well-being of man is intimately related to the well-being of nature and the health of the planet. In addition to protecting his environment, man must have the humility to know that he can never dominate nature and to be aware of his own limitations. According to R. Soloveitchik, there is a covenant between man and nature, and we have to make sure we do not break that covenant. The idea of partnership with nature and the environment should also instill in man a sense of humility that nature cannot always be conquered and sensitize each human being to the fragility of his or her environment. R. Soloveitchik’s insistence that man is part of nature as opposed to set aside from nature should empower man to be a protector of the environment as opposed to a destroyer of the environment.

The Dignity of Man

The thought of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is also relevant in developing a theological response to the rapidly changing world in the face of Covid and the demands for racial equality. He also uses the first chapters of Genesis to develop his theology. However, as opposed to R. Soloveitchik, he is much more concerned with the relationship between one person and another rather than man’s relationship with nature. He asserts that the opening chapters of Genesis are an attack on the idea of universalism and one truth. R. Sacks views the story of the Tower of Babel as a turning point in human history.

It ends with the division of mankind into a multiplicity of languages, cultures, nations and civilizations. God’s covenant with humanity as a whole has not ceased. But from here on he will focus on one family, and eventually one people, to be his witnesses and bearers of his covenant – a people in whose history his presence will be peculiarly transparent. . . . The question is, why?. . . . To this I suggest a radical answer. God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different, teaching humanity to make space for difference.[12]

R. Sacks continues that “the challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”[13]

The greatness of R. Sacks’s idea is not the religious but the ethical or moral lesson we should learn from the Torah. Our Torah may be unique and singular, but that should have no impact on how we view our fellow human beings. He continues:

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his. . . Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognize that we are enlarged, [not diminished,] by the 6,000 languages that exist today, each with its unique sensibilities, art forms and literary expressions?[14]

This ideology, which R. Sacks professes, can be revolutionary in how we relate to the other and what we teach our children and students. These two ideas of R. Soloveitchik and R. Sacks can be the beginning of a new Jewish theology built upon the twin pillars of a covenant with nature and a recognition of the equality between all people before God. Man’s impulse to dominate nature and his environment and the idea of Jewish superiority should not be the basis of a Jewish theology. There should be an awareness of the interdependence of mankind and of the absurdity of believing that man can dominate nature solely through scientific and technological advancement. Instead, we should strive for partnerships with both nature and our fellow man. Ideologies that trumpet ethnic superiority and domination of the environment are not reflective of the current climate and, I would dare say, do not speak to many of our youth. Notwithstanding the fact that there is certainly room in our tradition for competing ideologies, if a mistaken interpretation of our ideology has even inadvertently contributed to environmental catastrophe or the fostering of racial injustice, then an authentic Jewish response also necessitates communal teshuvah.

Rambam beautifully articulates that teshuvah has three components:[15]

  1. Recognition of the sin;
  2. Embarrassment and regret of the sin;
  3. Commitment to the future to never return to the sin.

If we, as a community or as part of a community, have broken our covenant with nature or willingly (or unwillingly) failed to see the dignity inherent in every human being, race, or culture, then we need to do communal teshuvah. We have to teach our children how we have sinned, feel embarrassed for our actions or complicity with immoral behavior, and implement concrete plans to ensure that we never return to our old ways. In addition, if sins were committed against our fellow man, forgiveness from them is also required. This may sometimes even include financial restitution.

Ahashverosh’s world

The disruptive events of the past year also present an opportunity to reflect on another scourge affecting the Jewish community: the excessive cost of living a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. The astronomical cost of private Jewish education, particularly in the Diaspora, has been a frequent discussion among parents, educators, communal leaders, and philanthropists.[16] Many innovative solutions have been proposed with varying degrees of success. Philanthropic efforts have increased substantially, but this may become even more difficult in the post-Covid economic era.

In addition, many Modern Orthodox communities, either by choice or necessity, are located in neighborhoods where home prices are prohibitive for the average working couple. The costs of having extravagant weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs have put considerable financial strain on many families. It is unconscionable that financial considerations should be part of the equation in choosing whether to live a committed Jewish life. Initiatives to decrease the costs of affairs and limit the number of celebrants have been developed, but they have been mostly unsuccessful in the Modern Orthodox community. In addition to weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, there are the obligations of gift-giving for bridal showers, engagement parties, graduation parties, birthday parties, baby showers, and anniversary parties. All of these expenses can be daunting for a young couple just starting out or a middle-age couple trying to keep up.

The time has come for rabbis and communal leaders to take the initiative and set examples. They, along with the lay leadership, must help communities realistically plan long-term communal financial stability and self-sufficiency. This would include serious efforts to respectfully limit the extravagance of our modern semahot, encourage growth of communities in lower real estate markets, and collectively endorse significant change in the economics of Yeshiva tuition. It will not be easy and will require strong leadership, but nothing less than the economic viability of Modern Orthodoxy is at stake. With the Covid recession and many people out of work, the current situation is even more untenable, and brave communal leadership to change the reality is sorely needed.

The spiritual dangers of these pursuits, which are steeped in materialism and hedonism, were already pointed out in a Purim discourse that R. Lichtenstein delivered in 1990. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse since then. The Gemara (Megillah 12a) maintains that the reason the Jews of Shushan were punished is because “they participated in the banquet of the evil [Ahashverosh].” In asking what exactly the sin was, R. Lichtenstein answers:

The claim against Israel for which they were deserving of destruction, “because they partook of the banquet of the evil one,” is based on their immersion in this enjoyment. It is founded upon their absorption into a society of continuous pleasure, a society whose existential character and lifestyle – not to mention the practical ramifications which result from it – are completely removed from creative labor, manual work and activity. This settling into the intensive and all-embracing voluptuousness of Achashverosh’s banquet is the reason for which Israel was deserving of destruction. What a society; what a world! The extent of the corruption cries out from between the lines describing the “floor of alabaster, marble, pearl and precious stones.” Can a society live like this? Is this what political leadership should be? Is this the face of the ruling cadre of a hundred and twenty-seven provinces? Yet another party and more reveling [sic.], week after week? Is this the example which should be set? This is more than societal injustice crying out for correction; more than a loss of internal discipline and ability of self-restraint; deeper than a settling into wine and licentiousness. The very dedication to a life characterized principally by pleasure seeking, and on such a scale, is the reason for the decree of destruction.

 He continues:

Another factor was involved here as well: not just prolonged eating and gluttony, but gluttony in the context of the banquet of such an evil person. This identification with the environment reflects an assimilation into the surrounding society; a moral neutrality regarding Achashverosh’s world. However, even without this additional aspect – even if they had partaken in a similar banquet hosted by someone who was not evil – they still would have been deserving of destruction. Chazal’s message here is a sobering one, and it makes very stringent demands on the Jewish nation. Chazal’s words are pertinent and applicable to every generation, including our own, in our times and in our place. . . . To our great sorrow, a significant and serious decline has taken place in this area in recent years. The decline from a philosophy and lifestyle of creativity to a world of pleasure-seeking, of “partaking of the banquet,” is a regrettable process, for which we can only hope for God’s forgiveness. This is a process which is overtaking us and which is beginning to characterize our society. . . .

The question concerns our outlook and our aspirations. Do we see labor as a burden, such that our ideal is to minimize it and thereby to reach a maximal level of pleasure (reminiscent of the ideal which characterizes to such a great extent the culture which exists overseas in the western world, to which we are exposed and which influences us)? According to this view, work is boring and one should try to escape it. If this escape were in the direction of a Beit Midrash or a synagogue, it wouldn’t be so bad. But the escape is more often in the direction of clubs and pubs. People try to “forget” the world, and thereby to escape from constructive, creative work to a world of pleasure, desire and revelling. And we know only too well that this pleasure becomes an aspiration; the ideal is to keep work to a minimum and to raise the pleasure level to the maximum. This represents [a] problem with one’s value system. But in addition there is also a moral problem – from the point of view of social justice, which could not tolerate such a philosophy even if Israel ever reached a level of “luxury,” of a great abundance of everything, such that the state would no longer rely on the generosity of the Jews of other countries.

We have to ask ourselves honestly, both in Israel and in America, whether we have enthusiastically and wholeheartedly embraced the values of “Ahashverosh’s world.” Is the lifestyle for which we are serving as role models for our children, in addition to making it financially impossible for them to live a Modern Orthodox lifestyle, a corruption of Jewish values and ideals as R. Lichtenstein admonished thirty years ago? If this is the case, then for this we also have to do communal teshuvah.

Pikuah Nefesh: The Watchword of Judaism.  

In addition to the issues raised above, an authentic Jewish response to the Covid pandemic is to recognize and reaffirm the importance of pikuah nefesh from a theological perspective as well as a halakhic perspective, as R. Soloveitchik so beautifully articulated in Halakhic Man:

The teachings of the Torah do not oppose the laws of life and reality, for were they to clash with this world and were they to negate the value of concrete, physiological–biological existence, then they would contain not mercy, lovingkindness and peace but vengeance and wrath. Even if there is only a doubtful possibility that a person’s life is in danger, one renders a lenient decision [to violate the Sabbath]. . . This law that [saving a life] overrides all the commandments and its far-reaching effects are indicative of the high value which the halakhic viewpoint attributes to one’s earthly life—indeed they serve to confirm and nurture that value.[17]

According to R. Soloveitchik, this law is the “watchword of Judaism.”[18] Being overly zealous and prudent in preventing the spread of Covid is not a halakhic compromise but an absolute halakhic mandate. It is tragic that many in the Orthodox community did not immediately grasp this basic halakhic truth. 

Rabbi Meir Twersky, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, has been the most vigorous expositor of this position.

One who makes light of the mandate of pikuach nefesh is not only making light of one isolated halacha. Rather, he is guilty of distorting and perverting the entire Torah. His flippancy depicts the laws of the Torah not, r”l, as “merciful, kind and just,” but as vengeful and vicious. It goes without saying that such a distortion constitutes a chillul Hashem.

When the doctors with relevant expertise — some of whom are observant, God-fearing Jews — alerted us to the dangers of this extremely contagious, frightening disease, their warnings initially went unheeded, and we did not all immediately listen to their pleading. Baruch Hashem, we did merit that some gedolim and other rabbonim of stature acted to enforce social distancing with all due haste. It is, however, a matter of public knowledge that many prominent, leading rabbonim did not act in this manner. To compound matters, even when we belatedly heeded the calls for social distancing and isolation, we then characterized our compliance with these measures –regretfully!– as a concession to outside entities instead of our complying with the mandate of pikuach nefesh. This (mis)characterization of our motives also caused distortion and perversion of the Torah.

Moreover, mischaracterizing our compliance with social distancing as a mere capitulation to the standards of outside entities had significant practical ramifications. The standards of all outside entities do not value life as absolutely as does the Torah. Tosafos (Yoma 85a) comment, “‘You shall live through them and not die due to them’ [means] that we must under no circumstances allow for the death of a Jewish person.” Woe is to the eyes that saw, the ears that heard, what transpired in our midst. How can it be that others recognized the reality and hastened to save lives, while some of us were avoidant and resistant? How is it that some of us eventually had to be compelled by others to fulfill the Torah’s mandate of “v’chai bohem?” Isn’t our charge “lishmor v’la’asos — to guard and carry out” mitzvos? What of the Torah’s depiction of a universal recognition (an organic result of scrupulous performance of, and fealty to, the mitzvos) that Hashem‘s nation is a wise and discerning one, am chacham v’navon? This, too, has intensified the chillul Hashem. In addition to a perversion of Hashem‘s Torah, there has been a perversion of the image of Hashem‘s nation.

While nothing else compares to the gravity of chillul Hashem, we must not ignore other severe consequences of our failures on this front. The chillul Hashem stemmed from the flippant attitude adopted to an immense danger to life. Who can possibly measure the dreadful ramifications of this attitude? Only God Himself can truly know.

R. Twersky makes a number of salient points: First, the supreme importance of pikuah nefesh from a halakhic perspective; second, the fact that the Torah has a more expansive definition of what is considered pikuah nefesh than secular authorities; third, the distortion of the Torah which occurred because of not truly understanding the Torah perspective; and fourth, the hillul hashem that occurred. These are serious charges, but they highlight the theological position that unapologetically places pikuah nefesh at the top of the pyramid of Torah values.

 Conclusion

What will a post-Covid Modern Orthodoxy look like? If we accept the theologies of Rabbis Soloveitchik, Sacks, and Lichtensten that I presented here, we must be accepting and welcoming of people who are different from us and treat them as equal partners before God in our common mission to redeem and elevate the world. To this end, we must work to eliminate racism and strive for more economic equality and fairness in our increasingly interdependent world. Additionally, we must renew our covenant with nature by working to protect the environment and nature from further human-inflicted damage. We must approach the natural world with humility and respect, and we must work with the world’s citizens to be better prepared for future health and climate catastrophes.

On the communal level, a Modern Orthodox lifestyle must be much more economically viable. Some education, particularly in the older grades and high school, can take place online, allowing less frontal class time and more pooling of digital resources and curriculums. This will lessen the needs for physical space and its associated costs. The Orthodox community must make a concerted effort, guided by its rabbinic and lay leadership, to lessen conspicuous consumption, particularly with regard to the extravagance and number of semahot. Life during the Covid pandemic has shown us that we can celebrate our semahot with fewer people and less extravagance and still commemorate and mark these important life cycle events. We should not miss the opportunity to exit from this pandemic with adjusted values. Although it may have been a government edict that limited the attendance and invitations of our semahot during Covid, we can use this opportunity to establish a new reasonable, self-imposed limit for our community.[19]

The prestige and authority of our rabbinic leaders will be enhanced by their concentration on our spiritual, intellectual, and ethical matters as opposed to areas outside their expertise, respecting the expertise of medical professionals in the critical halakhic area of pikuah nefesh. Covid will certainly impact the future practice of Judaism in many ways, and the challenge at hand is to use this opportunity to build a stronger, more committed, and economically viable Modern Orthodoxy for us and our children.

Written in honor of one of the shining lights of our generation, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Yaakov Tzvi ben Liba), with the hope that he merits a speedy and complete recovery.

The author would like to thank Dr. Benjamin Taragin, Rabbi David Fried (Lehrhaus editor), and Ashley Stern-Mintz (Lehrhaus copyeditor) for their helpful comments and insights.


[1] Yehuda Amital, “Forty Years Later: A Personal Recollection,” appendix to Moshe Maya, A World BuiltDestroyed and Rebuilt (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2005), 138–40.

 

[2] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2012), 10-11.

[3] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2005), 7.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Ibid., 57-59.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ibid., 63.

[12] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum, 2004), 52-53.

[13] Ibid., 60.

[14] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum, 2004), 201.

[15] Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:2.

[16] See for example the following two websites: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-high-cost-of-jewish-continuity-affording-a-jewish-day-school-education/ and https://jewishaction.com/religion/education/tuition-squeeze-paying-price-jewish-education/.

[17] Joseph b. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983), 34-35.

[18] Ibid., 34.

[19] We should learn from our Haredi brethren, many of whom have already taken this step both in Israel and in the U.S. See for example this recent initiative in the following article: https://vosizneias.com/2020/05/20/karlin-rebbe-presents-israeli-simcha-initiative-low-cost-minimalistic-weddings-one-singer/.