VIRTUE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS
These are challenging times. I agonised about whether I – aged 73 – should drive up to Cambridge today or whether it was better to write the sermon and then ask Mike Frankl to kneel down and impersonate me. This challenge for me has turned out to be a helpful introduction to my challenge to you!
At my last visit – in October 2019 PC (pre-Coronavirus), you very generously launched my book Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues (Bloomsbury, 2019, £18.99 – available from Heffers and all good bookshops).
Two people spoke at the launch – one was my favourite Professor of Nephrology, Fiona Karet. The other was my favourite Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus, David Ford.
As is his wont, David Ford subsequently threw innumerable questions at me and also asked what I thought of a new book by an American Jewish academic on the environmental crisis. I can just about cope with Jewish academics – such us my favourite Professor of Mediterranean History – asking me Jewish questions I can’t answer but the Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus . . . I was deeply embarrassed. I bought the book – which is by a Professor Roger S Gottlieb and entitled Morality and the Environmental Crisis (1) and opened it with a mixture of irritation and trepidation.
I found myself getting more and more angry with every page I turned. What I’m about to say is a tad critical of Professor Gottlieb – but he’s vanishingly unlikely to hear this sermon and even more vanishingly unlikely to be bothered by anything I might say. However, I do acknowledge the risk of shocking members of this community’s academic sorority or fraternity who, I understand, are totally unfamiliar with being critical of colleagues.
Gottlieb’s book is an attempt to establish a proper philosophical basis for the rights of the environment, for all forms of life, animals and trees and the globe itself; for the right to be fully protected independent of most human needs.
I found it only mildly interesting and frequently exasperating. Why? Because I’m not a secularist; I’m a rabbi. And I rest my case for environmental responsibility not on rights but on duty. Judaism always starts with duties – with rights as the corollary – and deploys a different kind of philosophical/theological way of thinking, different but no less valid.
But it wasn’t just Roger Gottlieb’s secular philosophy that wound me up. It was his invocations of Judaism and, would you believe, comparisons critical of Jewish behaviour during the Holocaust (2) that got me disfiguring the book with rude pencilled comments in the margins.
To be fair, Gottlieb emerges as a good human being who has a profoundly challenged child and is a devoted father, someone who practises what he teaches however little reward and much opprobrium it brings him. He’s often right and always sincere.
But his Jewish knowledge is whatever the American equivalent of GCSE is. And that’s the problem and the nub of this sermon.
Let me quote you the midrash which is my personal starting point for looking at the environmental crisis. Not only does it illustrate my philosophy/theology but much more significant for today, a methodology:
In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be God, created the first man, God took him and let him walk in front of all of the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him:
“See my works, how fine and excellent they are. Now, all that I have created I have created for you. Think about this and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it there is no one to set it right after you.” (3)
Where I go from here is to advocate Jewish communities getting together with their Jewish teacher or teachers – people with more than GCSE Jewish knowledge – and discussing, debating and challenging that midrash, interrogating it collectively. Through that process we’ll not only find rich and nuanced support for the obligation it proclaims but also further insight – by using complementary texts and materials and by challenging some of its assumptions (that God only showed the first man; that creation is solely for the sake of human beings). By teasing out the implications of the midrash – introducing other texts both earlier and later, ancient and modern, Jewish and other (4) – we’ll rediscover and reinvigorate (5) the ancient rabbinic process which has given Judaism its particular, distinctive, invaluable characteristics.
We live in disorientating, disturbing, challenging times: the Coronavirus is our latest challenge. In the sidra, (6) we saw the community pulling together, contributing selflessly and that’s the obvious sermon for today. But I’d like to focus instead on the process I’ve just highlighted and my suggestion that communities get together and study the issues, get to grips with the ethics of challenge as well as acting on it.
It’s often said that Reform Judaism is Judaism lite (l-i-t-e) which is sadly but frequently true. But so is much of Judaism today, regardless of denomination – whether it be a mono-focal, obsessive emphasis on identity and community or an equally mono-focal, obsessive insistence that halakhic observance – na’aseh v’nishma, let’s just do it and in so doing we’ll get to hear why (7) – is all that matters.
In the case of the non-Orthodox community in Britain today, we often galvanise community into action by labelling things – tikkun olam, (8) social justice, caring community – and then send people off to embrace liberal secular values in the name of Judaism.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with liberal secular values but fidelity to Judaism asks considerably more of us than that. We Jews don’t have a monopoly on wisdom and virtue. Judaism is just one religious tradition amongst others. But it is a valuable tradition, one that can make a distinctive contribution to wider society, to the world out there. And we – I insist – have a responsibility to maintain it, to refine it and to add to it.
The Coronavirus tsunami presents us with an example of exactly what I mean. First, let’s start with our history, our narrative. What do the considerable number of instances in our history have to say about how we behave when confronted with imminent threat and mortal danger and how should that prompt us to behave ourselves and understand others? What was demanded ethically of Jews threatened by the Spanish Inquisition or the Black Death or in the death camps? Is there behaviour in the face of danger we could model, copy and adapt?
There’s a second thread to follow. In a column in The Times last week, (9) Danny Finkelstein raises an ethical issue familiar to the Talmud and subsequently: that of what is now called the Trolley Problem (10) – saving four people tied to a railway line by allowing a fifth to be killed. Finkelstein not only points to the triaging that the National Health Service is currently and inevitably engaged in but raises some very provocative additional issues.
We’re throwing enormous resources at defeating Coronavirus: we’re hoping that the young – relatively few of who will die – will develop “herd immunity” in order to protect the elderly – like me and my mouthpiece – who are more vulnerable. There are ethical judgments involved in that decision. What does the very sophisticated and extensive Jewish ethical tradition have to say?
And Finkelstein goes on: it is conceivable that by spending fifteen to twenty percent of GDP – perhaps more in the end – our country will be significantly impoverished (as Britain was deeply impoverished by its spending during the Second World War). Finkelstein argues that if there is less wealth, if we are less able to spend resources in the future, the result may be that a larger number of young people will die in the future as a consequence of the long-term impoverishment caused by our present actions.
Which brings me to a third and final thread to be explored. Professor Sir Michael Marmot is the country’s leading expert – probably the world’s leading expert – on the relationship between health and economic policy, on what he calls ‘the social determinants of health’ (11). Until quite recently, he and I studied monthly together for an hour and a half on a Saturday morning before I went on to shul and he went out for a healthy bike ride. Michael is a secular Jew but one utterly committed to the creation of a just and compassionate society. I’m pretty sure he would respond to a request from this community to provide some of his own reflections on the present epidemic – what I would call modern Jewish texts – for group discussion.
And now to the big plus amongst all the shocking minuses: the great advantage that we have today over all past generations is that we don’t have to be physically present in order to debate, discuss, disagree and turn our responses from being mere labelling, Judaism lite (l-i-t-e) into something richer, more nuanced and distinctively Jewish. We can engage online and though more and more of us are confined to our homes, compelled to self-isolate, we still have the opportunity, having begun with action, to study and modify that action in the light of the fruits of our study and debate. Let’s call it: ‘Virtual virtue in the time of Coronavirus (12). Authentic Reform Judaism at a time of widespread Judaism lite.
1. Roger S. Gottlieb, Morality and the Environmental Crisis. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
2. Gottlieb reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s report of the Eichmann trial in which she not only referred to the ‘banality of evil’ but threw in far-reaching criticisms of the Judenraten, the Jewish councils set up by the Nazis to implement their evil decisions in the ghettos. Hannah Arendt was undoubtedly one of the truly great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century – but her decision to criticise the Judenraten was, at the very least, tactically unwise with regard to conveying her message.
3. Ecclesiastes Rabbah VII.28.
4. Because we don’t have a monopoly on insight and God – however God is to be understood – has surprising ways of addressing us
5. And democratise.
6. Exodus 35: 20-35.
7. Exodus 24:7 as frequently interpreted.
8. See Prof. Marc Saperstein cited in Being Jewish Today. p. 271.
9. The Times, Wednesday 18th March 2020.
10. Trolley is the American term for a wagon on rails.
11. Michael Marmot, The Health Gap: the Challenge of an Unequal World. Bloomsbury, 2015.
12. The reference is, of course, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.