A prominent rabbi in Australia published an op-ed Sunday examining the question of whether the global COVID-19 pandemic was sent by God.
Raymond Apple, who is rabbi emeritus of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, wrote in The Jerusalem Post that “the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the whole world and raised the deep theological question of whether to blame God for the catastrophe.”
“Disasters have attacked human beings and nations – not least the Jewish people – throughout history,” Apple continued, explaining how catastrophes that befall humans tend to come in either “natural” or “moral” forms. The latter are “hard to cope with,” he asserted, but conceded there is some consolation in knowing it was mankind’s fault.
“Natural” disasters, on the other hand, bring up a host of theological questions, Apple argued. Explaining how lawyers often call such things “acts of God,” Apple said, “our problem is how literally to take this rather strange phrase, how seriously we should view its theological undertones, and whether to aver that these are tragedies which man should directly attribute to God.”
Apple went on to examine the complexity of the question of suffering:
If we say the catastrophes have been caused by God, we want to know His motives. At the very least we want to know whether He could have prevented the evil. If He lacks that power, it seems we are thrown back upon the old dualistic theory that there are rival forces outside (and opposed to) Him, so that there is an eternal struggle between light and darkness: sometimes one force wins, sometimes the other, and we are left (as Arnold Toynbee wrote in A Study of History, as victims of a cosmic joke.)
Appealing to the Psalms and Isaiah, Apple further argued in favor of God’s sovereignty over human affairs, even in events that appear to be evil. After examining several possible explanations for the pandemic, Apple writes that “messianic redemption” is the world’s only hope, quoting Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?”
“One day we will come closer to an answer to the current pandemic,” Apple concluded. “In the meantime, the human mind, implanted by God, is capable of even greater bursts of effort to overcome this grave medical, social and economic problem. We hope that God will arise and assure us – in the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev – so that our suffering is for His sake.”
In a March interview with Spectator USA, Fox News host Tucker Carlson opined that the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the theological weakness of the United States and the inadequacy of the West’s secular materialism to answer humanity’s deepest problems.
“I actually think part of the problem and the root of the public’s fear — and my fear, too, I’m not judging anyone — is an unwillingness to acknowledge that, on the big things, we are not in control,” said Carlson, who is an Episcopalian. “And that’s basically a theological precept that we’re not comfortable with because we don’t ever talk about anything that’s not rooted in materialism.”
Acknowledging that prevailing secular materialism is useful for a culture that only values economic prosperity, Carlson said, “What it doesn’t do a very good job of is explaining death. That’s really where it falls down. And so, our response has been to basically ignore death and put poor people in homes, and then, they just kind of disappear, and no one talks about what happened. But in a time like this, death is at the forefront. You can’t ignore it. We’re all brooding about it.”
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