Where was God When Millions Died of the Coronavirus?
This April, my new book, “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell,” will be published. The book recounts how, in 2017, I took my family on a European holiday. But instead of seeing the sights of London or Paris, I took our reluctant — and at times complaining — children on a harrowing journey through Auschwitz, Treblinka, Warsaw and many other sites associated with Hitler’s genocidal war against the Jews.
My purpose was to impress upon my children the full horror of the Holocaust, so they would know it deep in their bones. In the process, my children and I learned a great deal about the scope and nature of the Holocaust and the continuing effects of global hatred and anti-Semitism. But the question that most troubled my children as we toured was the most obvious: how did God watch all of this in silence?
Even if the stones of the Warsaw Ghetto cried out at the murder of children, there was no response from God. It follows that God was either a) dead, b) no longer imposing His will in human affairs the way He did in the Torah or c) angry at the Jews for sin and only mollified by the slaughter of six million of them — but no one can figure out why.
While the Holocaust is a unique and unprecedented tragedy, we can ask the same question about God’s silence regarding the coronavirus. Where was God when over 500,000 people died of COVID-19? This is an especially relevant question given that last week was the Sabbath of Remembrance, where we read of Amalek’s attack against the Jewish people when they emerged from Egypt. Like Amalek, COVID-19 mostly attacks the weak, the vulnerable and the infirmed. We are obligated to annihilate Amalek, to annihilate any enemy that attacks the most defenseless. So why is God allowing the coronavirus?
Jews had three responses to the Holocaust:
- Abandon God, in the belief that God abandoned man.
- Submit to the idea that God is always right, and we are always wrong. We brought the destruction on ourselves through — pick your poison — a lack of sufficient piety, a substitution of secularism for faith, a pursuit of the Zionist dream of a Jewish State before the arrival of the Messiah or a desire to assimilate among the Germans.
- Engage God, even if it involves expressing righteous indignation. Continue a relationship with God, but one that had substantially changed.
Before the Holocaust, He was God, and we were His obedient servants. Now, there was greater equality in the relationship. We were no longer obedient. Rather, we were furious. We believed in You. We continue to believe in You. So how could You? How could You just watch the crematoria? We’re not going to simply let You off the hook by pretending You don’t exist. So where were You? You told us the righteous would prosper, and yet they were not protected from the Nazis. Is it any wonder people question Your existence and essential goodness if You do not seemingly live by Your own moral code?
Of all the possible responses, only the last makes any sense to me, and I have dedicated two books to fleshing it out. The first, written while I was rabbi at Oxford University, is called “Wrestling with the Divine.” The second, penned just a few years ago, is “The Fed-Up Man of Faith.” Both titles capture the essence of righteous religious indignation in the face of the Holocaust and any cataclysmic event.
The very name Israel means He who wrestles with God. Whereas Islam means to submit and Christianity, in the words of Kierkegaard, demands “a leap of faith,” Judaism teaches us to challenge and wrestle with the Creator. After the Holocaust, we remain a people of deep, uncompromising faith. But we are fed up with a God whom we love and to whom we have been particularly devoted, while He has allowed terrible atrocities to befall His people.
And we demand that God correct the injustice, just as we demand that he banish the coronavirus.
We reject the theodicy of the simple-minded and the religiously arrogant, who would somehow find divine casual meaning in a terrible catastrophe. There is no conceivable place in the universe where the murder of six million innocent people would make sense. And there is no theology that would somehow find redemption in the coronavirus.
THERE IS NO THEOLOGY THAT WOULD SOMEHOW FIND REDEMPTION IN THE CORONAVIRUS.
There is no God worthy of the name who could ever wish for such immoral destruction. And there is no sin that would warrant death by gassing of millions of people. Likewise, there is no sin of which the elderly in the United States, Brazil or Europe could be guilty that would lend meaning to the coronavirus’s vile effects.
For my son, Yosef, even this theological response to the holocaust was inadequate. The only thing that makes sense to him is the creation of a Jewish Army. “We need Jews who know how to defend themselves,” he told me after the trip. Last year he moved to Israel to join the IDF.
I responded by telling Yosef he’s right. We cannot rely on faith alone when there are Hitlers in the world. But our faith in life and its infinite value inspires us to fight evil in the first place. Likewise, it is my Judaism that prevents me from letting God off the hook for the Holocaust. My faith commands me to put God’s children before God Himself, as every parent would want. The Holocaust gives us a reason to show righteous indignation toward God — but not to abandon Him.
Likewise, our love of life inspires us to create hospitals and search for vaccines to defeat a deadly virus.
My daughter, Rochel Leah, had a crisis of faith in the killing fields of Europe. Ultimately, she came to terms with God and said she recognized that the Holocaust was not some form of punishment. Rather, she felt that those who continued to believe in God after the Holocaust were forced to alter their theology. “They had to decide God isn’t so powerful and that morality is in their own hands.” But after first feeling theologically defeated by the Holocaust, Rochel Leah would later embrace a defiant faith that would see Judaism flourish against all odds. I am proud that Rochel Leah is now, along with her husband, a Chabad emissary in Florida teaching Judaism. She is also the creator of “The Thirsty Souls” series, where she inspires people with life-affirming spirituality by making sure people know God is with us and by teaching Torah to the masses.
For Orthodox Jews, whose theology insists on God’s omnipotence, a diminished god who was powerless in the face of the Holocaust is not in the cards. Nor can there be a diminished God in the face of the coronavirus. God is fully and obviously capable of defeating the virus, whether directly or through the agency of heroic medical professionals to administer and develop a vaccine.
For what is a God who stands powerless in the face of evil other than pathetic and unworthy of worship? No, God is omnipotent. God is good. And God, therefore, should never have allowed the Holocaust to occur. The same God who destroyed the legions of Pharaoh should have annihilated the Gestapo and the SS before they could annihilate the Jews.
God’s omnipotence obligates Him. If you’re all-powerful, then you have to protect the weak and the vulnerable. God had the same obligation during the Holocaust. We have a right to demand that He uphold the same moral standards that He imposes on His world.
It follows that a global pandemic — not an evil caused by human agency but similar in its vast scale of deaths — can be vanquished by God.
We humans must demand of God that it be so.
The coronavirus has killed 500,000 too many. It’s time that God remove this plague from the earth and return us to a world filled with laughter, love and hope.