Theology is not merely the futile exercise of debating how many angels dance on the head of a pin. It is not mere ‘pilpul’, legal or esoteric minutiae, of interest to people who believe that the unseen has more sway than the tested. Theology informs our world view and drafts our response to the moral issues of our day.
Theology can save lives or condemn them. And in a time where toxic theology can have real-world consequences, it is more important than ever to provide theological clarity.
As the saying goes, ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ (foxholes referring to the trenches of the battlefields in the First World War). This maxim is often used to argue that belief can become a crutch during moments of peril and crisis, but we can understand this differently. It can mean that during times of peril, each one of us is asked to (re-)evaluate our personal theology. In times of plenty and blessing, it is easy to be spiritual and thankful, and crafting a fine-tuned world view feels far more intuitive. But how about in times of scarcity and challenge? What we believe (or not believe) is important. How we view God informs how we view ourselves and others.
A pandemic like the one we face today is a world-changing event. But also causes spiritual plate tectonics. A relentless question would be ‘where is God in this pandemic?’ Does God cause illness, disease and disaster? And where is God in the response to suffering and evil?
I think it is easy to fall into a double trap. The first part of the trap is to say a wholehearted ‘yes’. There are communities of all faiths – including in the Jewish world – who consider this pandemic a divine decree in punishment of sin and who resign themselves to that reality. The outcome can sometimes be unsafe practices, like keeping churches, mosques and synagogues open, or attending weddings and funerals with scores of people in attendance. The determinist fatalism of this first response is often characterized by religious fundamentalism and literalism. After all, as this week’s Parashah and Haftarah illustrate so tellingly: God commands us to keep God’s commandments. If we stray for God’s commandments, we will suffer the consequences. It is a prescriptive theology easily served as a bitter side dish with the main course of judgment. It is always striking that once it is us who are afflicted, we refuse to sup at its table. In this case, toxic theology can have dire consequences beyond the walls of insular communities that hold on to them. As a theologian, it is my mission to call out this type of theology for what it is: blasphemous.
Yet, the other part of this double trap is to say a passionate ‘no’. God is not in this pandemic. This can lead to moral impotence and spiritual nihilism. As committed as I am to liberal theology, I often fear that our liberal theology is spiritually anemic. We are quick to distance ourselves from toxic, prescriptive, coercive theology – and rightly so. But the answer is not to meet their judgment with our withdrawal. If our theology cannot speak to the issues of the day, then what value is our theology? If our theology remains vaguely metaphorical and ethically non-committal, then how will it confront the reality of our lived experience, and more importantly, call to account power and trumpet the charge of justice?
I am not saying that all of us must believe in a certain way. I reject descriptive theology categorically. But, a time like this does make demands to fill our spiritual lives with the breath of life; to create a Jewish religious response that is red-blooded, passionate and vigorous. We need all the strength we can get. And we need an image of God that is reflective of God’s image of humanity: loving, passionate, powerful, merciful, kind. We need a theology that accompanies us on this walk through the valley of death. It is not my place to say how this will be shaped in each of our own hearts; it is only my place to encourage you to grapple with the underlying questions.
This week’s Torah and Haftarah reading offers us various theologies. The portion, Tzav, is compelled to great and meticulous detail. It is Leviticus at its most Priestly. It grapples with questions of commandedness, purity and danger. There are sacred protocols that keep us ‘safe’; processes of distancing and drawing close that keep the cosmic balance intact. Holy obligations that ground us in patterns of connectedness; to our community, ourselves and God. In a time where the pandemic is forcing us to live and act with exactitude, we can take comfort in the rigors of Leviticus, and sanctify our homes, hearths and hands as we sanitize, wash and socially distance. I don’t think it is coincidental that Parashat Tzav is read right before Passover each year, where we seek a paradoxical liberation through the application of domestic discipline and dietary rigor; where we feel more keenly the mission of being ministering Priests at our tables and in our homes. Where we tend to the fires on our altars – our internal fires – ‘kol halailah ad haboker’ – ‘all night, until morning.’ (Lev. 6:2)
And then there is the theology of the Haftarah, of this ‘Shabbat haGadol’, this ‘Great Sabbath’. Traditionally named for the ending of the Haftarah that offers our future Redemption, the Haftarah is assigned to the Shabbat preceding Pesach where we commorate our past Redemption. The Prophet Malachi chastises the Israelites for violating the Divine will. As is common with Prophetic scripture, there is no artificial separation between the ritual and the ethical. The ritual – tithing, prayer, sacrifice – are meant in full support of the ethical. The Prophet, channeling God’s voice, states:
“I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire and who subvert the cause of the widow, orphan and strangers, says the Eternal of Hosts.’ (Mal. 3:5)
If this is a ‘strong opinion’, not suitable for social media, I’ll take it!
The Prophets knew that crises present us with instability and moral compromise. We see this in our own reality too. We see opportunism, cruelty, folly, superstition, price gouging – there are a legion of examples pixelating our screens. At the moment of crisis, we do not loosen the reign of what is right, we do not cut the cords of love. On the contrary: we double down on what is good, moral and right. We must stand our ground to stop profiteering and cruelty and to provide for those who are vulnerable. It is the theology of kindness and courage, of not forgetting the widow, orphan and stranger.
God may not be in the pandemic, but God is in our response to the pandemic. I truly do believe that God is the Source of strength, love and grace but also justice and accountability that we can tap into in order to strengthen our arms in the face of this pandemic. God is in the fires of our souls, burning upon our altars, from evening to morning.
God does not just exist in the universe of metaphor, but is present in the real world, the world of our experience, the world of ‘gashmi’ut’. No metaphor will protect immigrants and the millions of the newly unemployed, the healthcare workers who desperately need personal protective equipment and the delivery workers who need to be protected against the vagaries of the gig economy, the elderly who are isolated and the victims of domestic abuse who are trapped with their abuser.
Our theology is not one of moral impotence. Our theology is one of life.
Read the Haftarah. Weigh Malachi’s words in your heart, relate them to the issues of our day and know that our life-giving theology is as relevant as ever. The Torah portion offers us discipline and fortitude, the strictures of keeping us safe and the flames of courage and connection. The Prophet finally offers consolation, of course. There is hope and redemption.
“V’zarchah lachem yirei shimi shemesh tzedaka umarfe bichnafiah” – “But for you who revere My name, a sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 3:20).
Healing in our wings. This is the kind of theology we need. May each of us be empowered to make it so.
Ken yehi ratzon, amen.