Religious Responses to Plague, 28th March 2020, Rabbi Marc Saperstein

A confession about the content of my message. The verses selected by the Reform Movement from the opening chapters of Leviticus strike me as totally inappropriate for a sermon to be delivered under our current situation, and I have therefore decided to ignore them. Instead, I draw from my academic background as a historian who studies and teaches medieval and modern Jewish history, to present some of the earlier sudden, widespread interruptions of normal life with devastating consequence, and to explore how Jewish and Christian religious leaders have communicated to their congregants in times of harrowing fear.

The most famous example, of course, was the “Black Death” that devastated Europe in 1348. It has been estimated that one-third of the population of Europe died during the months when the plague struck – a proportion that is almost impossible for us even to imagine. Boccaccio lived through the plague in Florence, and his Decamaron contains powerfully terrifying descriptions, stating that “It is believed without any manner of doubt, between March and the ensueing July, upward of a hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of the city of Florence

There are no known texts written by Jews during the actual period of the plague. But Jews did play a major role, because in many Christian communities, the Jews were blamed as the source of the plague, and they were tortured to the point where they “confessed” that they were responsible for poisoning the wells. This inspired the Pope Clement VI to issue two papal bulls condemning such persecution, stating: “Let no Christian dare to wound or kill these Jews … In light of the fact that this plague has struck different parts of the world, both amid the Jews themselves and also among other nations where Jews do not dwell at all; and it is raging in accordance with the hidden will of God, it is absolutely unthinkable that the aforesaid Jews have performed so terrible a deed.” This is one fine religious response to the Plague.

In 1630-1631, the plague in northern Italy is described by a modern scholar [Jonathan Israel] as “the most devastating epidemic in the history of early modern Europe.” In the autobiography of Leon Modena, we learn that “From that time on the pestilence began to spread all over. The hand of God weighed heavily on the Jews throughout Italy, bringing war, famine, and plague. The sorrows that befell the holy community of Mantua had not been felt since the time of the destruction of the Temple…. Then it reached Venice, and then it  began in the Ghetto Vecchio .. It spread further, until [eventually] 170 people [not Jews] have died. There has been great panic in the various congregations, and many especially the Sephardim, have left the city for the Levant or for Verona….” Modena insists that at first Jews did not die in the new ghettos of Venice, and that “we Jews did not appreciate the miracle wrought for us, and our people or communities continue to do evil in the sight of God by quarrelling, slandering, stealing, cursing, lying, and swearing falsely. Therefore God’s anger was kindled against his people, and they began to be afflicted by the plague.”

Turning to the early 18th century, here is a report of a plague that attacked the great Jewish community of Prague.

In the year 5473 [1713] since the creation of the world, from the moment it began, the plague fell upon us because of our many sins. In the community, we at first had no one ill nor bad air in the country. Unfortunately, a great change came about on 22 Tammuz….

(165:) I cannot be silent about what happened then, how people began [to tear] each other to pieces. People’s minds did not perceive the warning, and the dead multiplied because of all our sins. More than eighty, ninety, even one hundred eighteen persons died in a single day. …. Day after day great fires were lit in the empty streets and the poor flocked around them. There, people cooked several hundred pounds of meat and fowl for the poor. And on the Sabbath as on other days of the week….

The pious chief rabbi Taini Neueschatl was not spared by God’s terrible wrath. He, too, was lost in this misfortune. And he was a man of the Torah! In all the community there was no better man than he….

(166:) No one can distinguish rich from poor; everyone goes around with their heads covered. No one knows whether we will be allowed [to live] until tomorrow….Nearly eleven hundred children, who had committed no sin, were taken because of [the sins of] their parents. Were our sins, then, so great? Infants perished at their mothers’ breasts!

(167:) Holy community of Prague, you must do penance!… You can escape almost any punishment, but not this one, for it is death.[1]

We come now to the plague that killed more people in late 1918 and early 1919 than all the casualties of the First World War, mainly young adults…

I would like to conclude by sharing brief passages from three American preachers responding to the plague in October 1918, often called “the Spanish flu.”

(Roman Catholic priest) Thomas J. Walsh. “Message of Faith, Encouragement and Sympathy,” written while Walsh himself was deeply anxious about his brother’s illness, which eventually proved fatal.[2]

To the citizens of the city and diocese of Trenton, NJ: A mysterious lethal epidemic stalks in our midst and numbers thousands in its toll of human lives. Our civil and medical authorities are using every human scientific means within their power to arrest and banish this dreadful pestilence.

We, a God-fearing, God-loving people, should now  … raise up our minds to Almighty God and humbly beg Him with clean lips and confident hearts in fervent daily prayer, to stay and destroy this invading plague in its present living victims, to forbid its continuation and to console all the bereaved and saddened by its past ravages….

[paragraph specifically for Catholics]  – prayer was not enough:

All citizens of unafflicted homes can win the blessing of God and man by offering their services and goods privately or through civil and ecclesiastical agencies to all in the throes of this new, vicious, mortal malady….

This communication is inspired by my conviction of duty to do all in my power to soften and shorten these days of tribulation.

With cordial sympathy and profound condolence to all our citizens visited and made sorrowful by the terrible plague, soon to pass, I hope and pray, from our city diocese, state, and nation, I am,

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Thomas J. Walsh,  Bishop of Trenton

American Israelite (Reform Movement, Cincinnati, OH), Thursday, October 24, 1918, p. 4
To contemplate the death lists of the names of those who have fallen victims to the epidemic of Spanish influenza, which is now raging all over the country, is something appalling, especially in that the large majority of the deaths are those of young people, mainly between the ages of 18 and 35. The entire country is plunged in mourning and the abatement of the plague is not in sight. The physicians appear to be at sea as to the origin or prevention of the disease, and are confining themselves to symptomatic treatment. The epidemic, next to the war, is the great calamity of this horrible year.

[Reform Rabbi] Harvey B. Franklin, sermon to be read while churches and synagogues are closed, in Oakland Tribune, Oakland, CA, Saturday, 26 Oct 1918

We feel the war at home. Who can deny it?… It is a sad truth but the world has always become united in sorrow. Let there be suffering in one part of the earth and it will travel with human beings all over the globe…. We now feel the scourge of disease over here; what must it be in Belgium and Northern France and Serbia, where they have endured suffering so long already? We thought that civilization had outgrown these plagues. One might be discouraged to see a repetition of what happened in the dark and middle ages;   but after reflection we will point with pride to the noble efforts being made to combat the pest, the wonderful way in which modern man, schooled by past experience, sends forth the ultimatum that the destroyer shall go so far and no further….

The influenza epidemic makes us realize how human life must be safeguarded and protected. No one will fail to respond to the call that will be sounded ‘ere long here in Oakland.

I conclude: with a passage from a sermon delivered by a Protestant preacher in Washington DC, on the first Sunday [November 3, 1918], when Church services in DC were again permitted. The Reverend J. Francis Grimke preached a powerful sermon that was later published.

We know now perhaps as we have never known before, the meaning of the terms pestilence, plague epidemic, since we have been passing through this terrible scourge of Spanish influenza, with its enormous death rate and its consequent wretchedness and misery. Every part of the land has felt its deadly touch—North, South, East and West—in the Army, in the Navy, among civilians among all classes and conditions, rich and poor, high and low, white and black. Over the whole land it has thrown a gloom, and has stricken down such large numbers that it has been difficult to care for them properly, overcrowding all of our hospitals—and it has proven fatal in so many cases that it has been difficult at times to get coffins enough in which to place the dead, and men enough to dig graves fast enough in which to bury the dead. Our own beautiful city has suffered terribly from it, making it necessary as a precautionary measure, to close the schools, theaters, churches, and to forbid all public gathering within doors as well as outdoors. At last, however, the scourge has been stayed, and we are permitted again to resume the public worship of God, and to open again the schools of our city.

Now that the worst is over, I have been thinking as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing—thinking of the large numbers that have been sick,  the large numbers that have died,  the many, many homes that have been made desolate,  the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind—and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all?… Surely God had a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what the purpose is, and try to profit by it.

[Following discussion of four other themes, he turns to a fifth, with which I will end:]

“Another thing that has impressed me in connection with this epidemic is how completely it has shattered the theory, so dear to the heart of the white man in this country, that a white skin entitles its possessor to better treatment than one who possesses a dark skin. … Did the epidemic pause to see whether his skin was white or black before smiting him? Of what value has a white skin been during these weeks of suffering and death? What possible advantage has accrued to any one because of the whiteness of his skin?

During these terrible weeks while the epidemic raged, God has been trying in a very pronounced, conspicuous and vigorous way, to beat a little sense into the white man’s head;  [God] has been trying to show him the folly of the empty conceit of his vaunted race superiority, by dealing with him just as he dealt with the peoples of darker hue. For once a white skin counted for nothing in the way of securing better treatment—in the way of obtaining for its possessor considerations denied to those of darker hue….

In this terrible epidemic which has afflicted not only this city but the whole country, there is a great lesson for the white man to learn. It is the folly of his stupid color prejudice. It calls attention to the fact that he is acting on a principle that God utterly repudiates, as He has shown during this epidemic scourge; and as He will show when He comes to deal with him in the judgment of the great (8:) day of solemn account….[3]

As must be clear to anyone who is still listening, this sermon was delivered in Washington DC by a highly respected African–American Protestant preacher. It is a powerful and poignant reminder that in many ways we all stand together—or fall together—as human beingsthroughout this great planet; that the differences between us are less important that what we have in common; that we must continue to help each other in times of disaster—and in better times as well.

[1] Moses ben Hayyim Eisenstadt, Ayn naye Klaglied (Oxford MS), in Sylvia-Anne Goldberg, Crossing the Jabbok (translated by Carol Cosman), pp. 163-70

[2] published in Trenton Sunday Times, Oct. 13, 1918, reported in Catholic Union and Times, Buffalo, NY, 24 Oct. 1918 (

[3] Grimké, F. J. (Francis James)., Butcher, C. Simpson. (1918). Some reflections, growing out of the recent epidemic of influenza that afflicted our city: a discourse delivered in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Sunday, November 3, 1918. [Washington, D.C.]: , p. 6 (quote).