We are living through a truly historic moment. Cataclysmic events of similar magnitude to the current coronavirus pandemic are rare. For all the tumultuous upheavals of the 20th century, there is hardly anyone alive today who can remember a similar global crisis. Its full political, economic, social, and even spiritual ramifications remain to be seen. Needless to say, our world is in deep turmoil. While some aspects thereof are apparent, such as the medical and economic crises, it is very likely that deeper changes will unfold in the fullness of time, ones that may profoundly alter the modern human experience.
Modern media bombars us daily or even hourly with information, news, social media updates, and the like. Yet, much of the COVID-19 coverage remains utilitarian in some sense: numbers of confirmed cases in each country, practical medical guidance, the various prognoses for when normal life might resume. Missing in all this noise, much of which is unquestionably important, is any serious attempt to situate these events in a deeper conceptual framework. A crisis of this magnitude demands attention beyond the practical. And yet, the resounding silence around the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of this experience is unmistakable.
A crisis of this magnitude demands attention beyond the practical. And yet, the resounding silence around the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of this experience is unmistakable
Hesitation to broach these issues is not restricted to the secular media or public discourse. Myriad voices within the Charedi community attempt, explicitly or implicitly, to identify the “cause” of our current tragedy. Such speculation assumes that if I can successfully isolate the cause of my troubles, I might readily be able to “fix” them. This sort of spiritual calculus is not entirely distinct from the secular conversation. Both are pragmatic, seeking to stem the bleeding and restore order to our lives. On the one hand we have practical guidance and material efforts to combat the disease; on the other hand, l’havdil, we look for the “root cause” – the sins responsible for the crisis that must be corrected.
While I do not wish to overstate the comparison – obviously there are important differences – I think both approaches share a common underlying conceptual view of the world. Secular or religious, we all live under the influence of modern Western thinking, in which the world is refracted through the prism of cause and effect. Everything must have a reason, and, to some extent, every problem can therefore be solved. Admittedly, it is also likely that we are all still somewhat shell-shocked by these staggering and rapidly unfolding events. Our coping mechanisms default to thought patterns and modes of analysis that are most familiar to us.
Either way, I wish to outline below several thoughts on the religious and spiritual dimensions of the events we are all experiencing at this very moment. Blaming the pandemic on one religious infraction or another is a convenient religious response, and one can generally predict which are the sins that specific religious leaders will highlight. Ironically, high up on the list (alongside immodesty and lashon hara) is Internet use, while the current period has hugely increased the volume of Internet use among Charedi society. But the current situation we face is anything but predictable, and perhaps it behooves us to develop a more original approach.
Hoarding Toilet Paper
At the root of our present distress is an abiding sense of helplessness. On the individual level, anxieties are not for the most part being driven by a direct imminent danger to life. Public health experts agree, and data show, that the vast majority of the population will emerge from this crisis unscathed. And yet, so many of us are consumed with fear, as manifest in the somewhat bizarre emptying of grocery shelves of virtually any product that might combat the most innocent germ. There is no compelling rationale for such behavior, which is being driven by primitive psychological impulses. Our entire ecosystem has been compromised. Governments, healthcare systems, economies, and the media are paralyzed and helpless in the face of an invisible enemy. More than a threat to human life, the virus has upended world order as we know it. Most of us are not grappling with a life-threatening existential crisis; our distress is rather that of being in an unfamiliar and unordered environment.
More than a threat to human life, the virus has upended world order as we know it. Most of us are not grappling with a life-threatening existential crisis; our distress is rather that of being in an unfamiliar and unordered environment
Western man today lives in a modern, sophisticated, and data-driven world. As a part of this world, we take great comfort from the complex local, national, and international systems that function incessantly on our behalf. Basic human needs such as food and medical care, security and defense, the economic stability of pension systems and workers’ rights, are all taken for granted in the advanced world. So confident are we that our basic daily needs are met and that we face no imminent threats, that we have directed our concerns to ecological questions and the sustainability of Earth well beyond our own lifetimes. Generally speaking, civilization itself affords the modern citizen an unprecedented degree of stability and confidence. One can apply for and receive a passport, and proceed to fly across the world and back, with little cause for concern. Complex and data-rich bureaucratic systems ensure personal security and safe passage, and do so seamlessly for millions of travelers each day across the world. In fact, the individual citizen in any developed country need not concern himself with many of the most basic needs of human survival. Any participant of civil society who follows a relatively normal course of life can operate under the assumption that broadly speaking, many of his essential needs are taken care of.
Our present situation upends all of this. Society faces the possibility that one or many of the systems we take granted may indeed fail. Even the possibility of such an outcome stirs raw and powerful survival instincts within us. An unusual experience of such magnitude is profoundly destabilizing, and fear of the unknown drives the panic and chaos we see around us. Our stable and secure ecosystem has been compromised; it is the resulting confusion that has us running for the hills in disarray, irrespective of any reasonable expectation that we might actually outrun the virus itself. Little wonder then that conspiracy theorists and apocalyptical seers thrive in such moments.
Modern man, so accustomed to a secure life of comfort and convenience, is obsessed with ensuring that he does not run out of toilet paper
Our instinctive response to the new threat is of course to fight back, mustering all available resources in efforts to vanquish the enemy and restore order as we know it. Of course, seeking to curb transmission and find cures is quite the appropriate response. But the manner of our reaction indicates a particular mindset that underlies the measures. Hordes descending on a supermarket and emptying its shelves of hand soap are clinging to a sense of stability, to the familiar world order where such nuisances as germs can be addressed with a bit of Purell. Modern man, so accustomed to a secure life of comfort and convenience, is obsessed with ensuring that he does not run out of toilet paper. Even the terminology employed by government and public health authorities belies an attitude that this is something we should have under control. Fighting back is our means of assuring ourselves that we are still what we think we are: a sophisticated and robust civilization.
The stability we normally experience is of course a great and unprecedented blessing. No longer fighting for his daily survival and subsistence, man is elevated to higher aspirations and accomplishment. Only a mind free of concern for existential survival can turn its focus to the larger questions of life’s meaning and purpose. In delving into these quandaries, one uncovers deeper layers in the human psyche and paves the way for the development of spiritual and psychological systems that meet the needs of man’s inner life. And yet, our present crisis suggests that the very security and comfort we have been blessed with also caused us to forget what it means to experience – and, indeed, to fight for – life itself.
Fighting For Life
Our comfortable existence can indeed degrade our awareness of life itself. Simply put, we are spoiled by modern life. The resulting distortion is not individual in nature; it envelopes all of humanity. As an unsurprising consequence of material excess, our decadent and complacent society directs endless resource in pursuit of ever-addictive luxury and aesthetic perfection. We are drugged by our own success, lulled into blissful complacency and shallowness. A simple peasant’s encounter with his own mortality might very well be a more profound engagement with existence than the musings of a philosopher in his air-conditioned study. What is fear, if not a menacing encounter with the unknown? To be sure, we should be careful not to unduly romanticize the primitive and simple life devoid of modern conveniences, a life that has its own (large) set of unique miseries. Nevertheless, our point stands: have we so successfully filled our surroundings with comfort that we simply avoid confronting life itself?
Not only does man not see himself in need of an encounter with the Divine; the very possibility of such an engagement is threatening and destabilizing. One’s innate drive for closeness with Hashem is suppressed by his material comforts, his daily experience characterized by an implicit, if unarticulated nihilism
If our physical experiences are overall shallow and dull, our spiritual engagement is likely to share the same fate. Modern systems are designed to provide stability and power, shielding man from the tenuousness of life itself. When all is well, when life is flowing smoothly and our ecosystem is well organized, we and inclined to ignore the deeper, inner elements that go lacking. Not only does man not see himself in need of an encounter with the Divine; the very possibility of such an engagement is threatening and destabilizing. One’s innate drive for closeness with Hashem is suppressed by his material comforts, his daily experience characterized by an implicit, if unarticulated nihilism.
As noted above, recent times have sparked conversations in our community about the greatness of God, punctuated by an urgency to “decipher the reason” for our current crisis. A central presupposition of all such discussion is that events of such magnitude demand that we engage in deep introspection and correct areas of our lives in which we may be deficient. This will serve, in some way, to bring things back to normal.
But without demaning the value of self-improvement, I am afraid these efforts fall short of supplying real meaning to the events that have overtaken us. Meaning is not synonymous the art of identifying causes, nor can it merely entail finding spiritual avenues to “fix” what may be in need of correction. Answers do not supply meaning. As I argue above, the project of securing a religious “solution” for the virus is hardly distinguishable from material efforts to vanquish it. Both represent attempts to impose order on a world that has become unfamiliar and unstable; neither are attempts to internalize the events and contemplate how they should change us.
Given the collapse of the basic infrastructures of our daily lives – schools, businesses, and the like – we find ourselves charged with confronting a new reality. Do we have the requisite tools to analyze it? Do we possess a vocabulary for these discussions?
I believe we urgently need to develop a conceptual framework within which we can process our present situation. Given the collapse of the basic infrastructures of our daily lives – schools, businesses, and the like – we find ourselves charged with confronting a new reality. Do we have the requisite tools to analyze it? Do we possess a vocabulary for these discussions?
Our daily preoccupation with the news and its myriad factoids is a convenient distraction from the deeper implications of the subject matter. We are accustomed to analyzing issues by properly framing a problem and then seeking solutions to it. Perhaps at this moment, when in many respects we find ourselves devoid of solutions, it is time to work on an alternative approach. Perhaps not every problem is meant to be solved; perhaps we are called upon to process events through a less rational and pragmatic framework. We should know this language already from the call of our own faith; it might be time to give a fuller expression to its subdued voice.
A New Prayer
Once we free ourselves of the intensive search for causes and solutions, we can begin to think about the strange experience of humanity being at odds with the world, a world that feels tainted and in need of cleansing. Social distancing and avoiding contact with other people (and even surfaces) suggest a world that is unclean. Our newly developed cleansing rituals further reinforce this sense. And while we may be unaccustomed to thinking about our world this way, the Torah and Chazal most certainly communicate to us a vocabulary for these experiences in the laws of Tum’ah and Tahara, ritual purity and defilement.
Similarly, we suddenly find ourselves talking about isolation. Whether one is technically required to self-isolate or not, practically speaking, it is what we are all experiencing as we maintain appropriate social distancing. Of course, one might immediately associate “isolation” with the Torah’s laws governing the Metzora, an individual suffering from a unique spiritual malady, manifest in physical symptoms, which requires the subject’s distancing from his family and society. But the implications go much further, on every level.
Developing a schedule, one in which the familiar hectic routine of getting out the door and going about our daily business is replaced with a prolonged stay at home, means more than just surviving the weeks or months ahead with minimal suffering
Shutting our doors on the outside world, quite literally, forces us to confront ourselves and our families anew. Developing a schedule, one in which the familiar hectic routine of getting out the door and going about our daily business is replaced with a prolonged stay at home, means more than just surviving the weeks or months ahead with minimal suffering. It is an opportunity to reengage with ourselves and our loved ones. With our relationship with the outside environment as disrupted as it is, can we refocus on the people closest to us and on our own inner lives? Do we have the internal spirit to truly confront life, or are we to discover that we are merely propelled forward by the forces of our routine and surrounding culture? Can we be alone for a moment without experiencing terror at the very confrontation?
Understandably, these moments are opportunities for us to examine our relationship with Hashem. Helplessness drives us into God’s arms: are we doing so as His children or as His servants? To put it more harshly, are we prepared for or even interested in such an encounter? How will such an encounter, which forces an acknowledgement of our frailty, impact our lives?
Experiencing these events through such a lens will change the way we think about prayer in this moment, assisting our prayers to transcend the rather transactional supplication that God relieve us of this terrible crisis. Instead, we will imagine and pray for a more fundamental cleansing of the world and the human experience. In a refined and purified new reality, we will become more sensitive and attuned to life and what it demands of us. Rationality and utilitarianism, our modern conceptual framework, have the inevitable effect of clouding our sensitivity to Hashem’s presence. Perhaps the current situation, harsh though it is, gives us an opportunity to reestablish a dimension in which God can present Himself to us.
Our instinct is to deny or attempt to escape the chaos swirling around us, spiritually as well as materially. But if we only allow it, peraps the same chaos can direct us toward a meaning and purpose that may have eluded us when things were normal
Such reflections should be the building blocks of a vocabulary we can use to process our experiences, one informed by our faith and tradition. Our instinct is to deny or attempt to escape the chaos swirling around us, spiritually as well as materially. But if we only allow it, peraps the same chaos can direct us toward a meaning and purpose that may have eluded us when things were normal.
Certainly, I do not mean to deny the great advances of modernity. A reframed awareness and language should not replace real-life efforts to find a solution to the crisis. These are parallel tracks, in which our real-life labor to find solutions is infused with a sense of meaning that might be lacking in our pursuit of a perfect aesthetic experience. Civil society organized around rational principles remains a desirable way of life; its temporary disruption is an opportunity for us to take a fresh look at its underlying purpose without the distractions of a daily, noisy routine.