Rabbi on the ‘Jewish response’ to coronavirus: ‘Is God doing this?’

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has forced many synagogues and places of worship to close their doors, it has opened up a lot of questions for people of faith.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman, founder of the Jewish Executive Learning Network and an internationally recognized Torah scholar, shares how Judaism views the questions many are asking around the COVID-19 outbreak.

“As a rabbi, I’m no stranger to being on the receiving end of these questions from adults, like ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?'” Bregman told Fox News, but now the entire nation– from young to old — is grappling with questions about God’s role in all of this.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman doing prayer service at home because the synagogues are closed.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman doing prayer service at home because the synagogues are closed. (Courtesy of Rabbi Bregman)

If God is kind, then why is this happening?

Bregman, an ordained Orthodox rabbi and practicing lawyer, answers these “tricky and emotional matters” from a classic Torah perspective, something he has already shared with his own family in Miami, Florida.

“First, the Torah makes it clear that everything God does is for the ultimate good and has meaning,” Bregman explained. “Of course, it should be noted that something can be ‘good’ for you and for your benefit, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily feels good in the moment.”

Take surgery, for example, he adds. It can be extremely painful but for your ultimate benefit.

“Second, we find throughout the Torah, Talmud, and Midrash examples whereby God will sometimes make use of natural phenomena and current events to get our attention,” he said. “Especially when we’re asleep at the wheel of life.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman with one of his daughters, playing inside because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman with one of his daughters, playing inside because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy of Rabbi Bregman)

Bregman notes that in the modern world, according to the Torah view, prophecy no longer exists, as it ended with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi thousands of years ago.

“As such, it is impossible to know the precise reason why God did X, Y, or Z … and that includes pandemics,” he said.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that the most we can do is use these moments as opportunities to reflect, introspect, and improve as human beings,” he said. “The call of the hour is to bring our lives into conformity with the divine will, and what God desires spiritually proper and ethical human beings to look like.”

The Jewish scholar says the Bible is full of “clues” as to what this looks like, in trying to find the reason for the suffering, but Bregman is repulsed by some explanations he has seen posted on social media, with people claiming the coronavirus is God’s “punishment for voting for Trump” or “because the people in China are sinners,” or “this is God’s wrath in response to homosexuality.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman, 42, of Miami, Florida.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman, 42, of Miami, Florida. (Courtesy of Rabbi Bregman)

“How do you know?” Begman asked. “Did God send you a text message from heaven? If so, please send me a screenshot! That would be the most shared post on social media in the history of the internet!”

Bregman says Judaism is “source-driven” and he points to the example of the story of Queen Esther in the Torah, after prophecy had ended, to show how she guessed wrong on why God’s presence left but the Talmud says she did a good job anyway.

“After 4,000 years of Jewish history, one thing is certainly clear,” Bregman said. “To be a Jew at times requires us to embrace and feel at ease with uncertainty. There’s always meaning in life, but you are expected to find the right one.”

How do Jewish scholars view the coronavirus outbreak?

Torah scholars generally describe massive economic collapses, the Holocaust, tsunamis, and the coronavirus pandemic as “contractions” leading up to the Messianic era, believed to be no later than the year 6,000 on the Jewish calendar, which is currently in year 5,780.

“The Talmud compares this to a woman who is close to giving birth, and the contractions she experiences,” he said. “As she gets closer to delivering the child, both the number and strength of her contractions increase.”

The rabbi also pointed out that many Jewish scholars are discussing the parallels between the current outbreak and the upcoming holiday of Passover, which looks back on Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman pictured with his religious Jewish parents, saying goodbye until the coronavirus pandemic passes.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (Sam) Bregman pictured with his religious Jewish parents, saying goodbye until the coronavirus pandemic passes. (Courtesy of Rabbi Bregman)

“Some scholars have noted that the ‘gods’ of ancient Egypt came to a halt and lost their power during the plagues…we seem to be having a bit of that going on today, with the world of sports and entertainment has come to a complete halt, and with the economy…stuck in quicksand.”

Similar to the plague of darkness, where everyone was tuck in their homes and frozen in place, forced to look at their own deeds and missteps, today, many are given the chance to use this time to look in the mirror.

“If you’d ask me to pinpoint one area that the religious Jewish communities are trying to strengthen themselves in, as a response to coronavirus, I would say it’s the mitzvah, or commandment, to refrain from gossip and slander,” Bregman said.

But he quickly added, “Nobody in the Jewish religious community is saying ‘God is causing coronavirus in the world so people will go into their homes and learn to quit gossiping.”

“However,” he concluded, “the traditional Torah scholars have been reminding their congregations, ‘Hey, at a time like this it would be a good idea for all of us to redouble our efforts to take care with our power of speech. We need to be as careful with what comes out of our mouths, as we are with what goes in our mouths.'”