Covid: A Natural Matter, or Divine Punishment?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Why did God send the Coronavirus? In an article, you wrote that God caused the coronavirus pandemic. This seems sensible to me: we consider all other tragedies to be caused by God, not because He is evil but because of our sins and for no other reason. 

However, there are some who disagree. Rabbi Slifkin, for example, wrote, “God did not send the coronavirus. After all, what is the message God sent us, not to go to shul?” Wouldn't Maimonides say that the reason we are currently facing a global pandemic today is that China’s government and WHO (World Health Organization) lied about the spread of Covid 19? As a result, Europe and the US were not medically prepared for a medical emergency. Similarly, the Romans destroyed the Temple because Jews focused on bad theology, not military preparations. He writes: “This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the stargazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry.  They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts” (Maimonides’s letter to the Jews of Marseilles). Maimonides (taking a rationalist approach) felt that there is no such thing as spontaneous reward and punishment, rather God set the world up to where good actions generally lead to beneficial things and bad ones lead to consequences, which is part of the natural law that God created.” True, Maimonides wrote (in his Mishneh Torah) that we should pray and fast, but these procedures do not change nature. They prompt us to find ways to remedy the situation and because it leads to introspection and contemplation of what we did wrong, in this case neglecting medical preparedness, a sin. We can only perform teshuva if we truly believe we can change for the better (Maimonides). As the Sages say, "Who is wise? He that foresees that which will happen." Thus, Covid 19 is a natural event. God did not send the coronavirus. It is not a punishment, Rabbi Slifkin wrote, but "the consequences of ignoring God's laws of the universe." 

Would you agree with him?

Turk Hill

Rabbi: Rabbi Slifkin wrote as follows:

Maimonides, following the rationalist approach, held that there is no such thing as spontaneous reward and punishment, which God each time chooses to insert into the world. Rather, the mitzvot are the path to intellectual, moral and societal perfection, while sins detract from that. To the extent that there is reward and punishment, it is the natural consequence of one's actions. Thus, Maimonides's view is that the people were pursuing astrology—which he explains to be the root of idolatry—and as a natural consequence, did not engage in the material, worldly efforts that would have helped them have a defensible kingdom. Maimonides is not arguing with the idea that the Roman destruction was a punishment for idolatry; rather, he is explaining what, in his view, this actually means: they lost because they were militarily weak, and they were militarily weak because they focused on bad theology rather than on genuine wisdom.

Rabbi Slifkin makes a wrong deduction: “and they were militarily weak because they focused on bad theology rather than on genuine wisdom.”  Maimonides critique of the Jews for following astrology does not mean their astrological pursuits over military preparedness definitively caused their defeat. 

Good created time, and therefore He does not operate in time, that He might “interact” with Earth in our space and time. How then does God govern nature, man and administer reward and punishment, which occur in time? In Avos 5:6 Maimonides says that all miracles—which include the 10 Plagues, the splitting of the Reed sea, i.e., punishments—were built into the universe during the 6 Days of Creation, in their respective days. For example, the miracle of the sun and moon standing still which occurred in Joshua’s days (Joshua 10:13) was built into Day 4 when God set the luminaries. God knows mankind’s future needs and perfectly timed future miraculous concessions to human nature. They were scheduled to occur at the precise split-second, thousands of years later. “Perfectly timed” means these miracles were spontaneous: they were intentional, unnatural, and unavoidable. By definition, aberrations are not “natural” consequences of man ignoring prudent planning, and Torah demands we treat them as unnatural and divine. Rabbi Chait quoted Maimonides quoting Torah:

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to sound trumpets for all troubles that come upon the community (Maimonides, Laws of Fasts 1:1).

And this thing is from the ways of repentance. For when a trouble comes and they yell out about it and sound [trumpets], everyone will know that it was because of their evil deeds that this trouble was done to them, as it is stated, “It is your sins that have caused these things, your sins have withheld goodness from you” (Jeremiah 5:25). And this is what will cause them to remove the trouble from upon them (Ibid. 1:2)

Calamity must not be viewed as natural:

But if they do not cry out , but instead they say , “What has happened to us is mere nature,” it is surely the way of cruelty, and it causes them to stick to their bad deeds. And to this trouble (God) will add other troubles. About this is it written in the Torah, “But walk arbitrarily (dismiss) Me, then I will (also) walk arbitrarily with you in fury.” That is to say, “When I will bring upon you troubles — if you will say that it is mere nature and not a sign from God, I will increase the fury of this arbitrariness” (Lev . 26: 27-28). (Ibid. 1:3)

Rabbi Slifkin writes further:

Maimonides is not arguing with the idea that the Destruction was a punishment for idolatry; rather, he is explaining what, in his view, this actually means: they lost because they were militarily weak; and they were militarily weak because they focused on bad theology rather than on genuine wisdom.

The Jews whom Maimonides speaks of who occupied theirs time with astrology, would not have saved themselves from the Romans—God’s punishments—even had they studied war to the greatest degree. Their sins earned them spontaneous, unavoidable punishments. Similarly, when the Jews followed Torah, a handful of Maccabees defeated 72,000 Greeks. One cannot say such odds were due to natural military prowess, devoid of God’s intervention. The miracle of the oil lasting 8 days revealed that the war was won through God.  

Rabbi Slifkin adds:

So, following Maimonides's approach to the Roman destruction, here we would say similarly. There's no need to view Covid-19 as a punishment, in the popular understanding of the concept, but rather to see the consequences of ignoring God's laws of the universe. 

As Maimonides stated, since “troubles that come upon the community” are punishments, viewing them as natural violates Torah. Rabbi Slifkin said, “To the extent that there is reward and punishment, it is the natural consequence of one's actions.”  This is incorrect. The Egyptians did not receive the 10 Plagues as “natural consequences of one's actions,”  which, they could have avoided with different actions: becoming expert hunters would not have saved them from the plague of wild beasts (Arove), for example. One cannot avoid God’s punishments; they were miracles, the opposite of natural phenomena. 

Similarly, Rashi on Exodus 21:13 discusses God’s punishments:

Scripture discusses two men, one of whom killed a person with premeditation and the other killed inadvertently, and in neither case were there witnesses to the deed who could testify about it. Consequently, the former was not put to death and the latter was not forced into banishment to a city of refuge. Now, God brings them together at the same inn. He who killed with premeditation happens to sit beneath a ladder, and the other who killed inadvertently ascends the ladder and falls upon the man who killed with premeditation, and kills him. Witnesses now being present testify against him, so compelling him to be banished to one of the cities of refuge. The result is that he who killed inadvertently is actually banished and he who killed with premeditation actually suffers death.

Rabbi Slifkin’s principle “reward and punishment is the natural consequence of one's actions” cannot be reasonably applied here. For the actions of these two killers did not “naturally” bring them together at an inn, or “naturally” orchestrate the presence of a ladder, or that the murderer sat beneath the ladder and the inadvertent killer ascended it, and then also fell directly on the murderer. God carefully orchestrated this because use they sinned, as the verse says, “but it came about by an act of God” (Ibid.).