A rabbi, a pastor, and an imam walked into a pandemic — and realized it was not a joke.
They paused to consider the circumstances.
“There’s a very powerful statement by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. He said: When God wants to punish someone, he takes away his faith and belief,” mused the rabbi. “It’s even more than faith and belief, the word bitahon, assurance.
“When a person is sure that everything is going to be good and is going to turn out well and he has this positivity, this optimism… this is actually the best medicine,” added the rabbi, who went on to develop a mild case of COVID-19.
“I had to face the reality of fear,” reflected the church leader, “because you can’t see where this is coming from. I’m not normally a fearful person, but you start thinking, supposing I get this, what might happen…”
“The first personal reaction was needing to recognize that I’d become too self-sufficient. I was not trusting God. I was seeking my own resources and responses.”
“We cannot yet see what we have to see from corona,” said the Muslim leader. “And that is that humanity is one. Humanity is one — but we believe that we are not one. We believe that we are different and some of us have more rights than the others.”
The reflections — by Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, respectively — are part of an online interfaith initiative dubbed “Coronaspection” that has seen prominent faith leaders of a variety of religions grapple with the thorny theological questions underlying the pandemic and dwell on the prospective shifts to worship and community in a world of digital congregations.
The project by the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute “brings the wisdom of all religions to members of all religions,” said its director, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein.
When the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, Goshen-Gottstein, looking for a way to help, realized he possessed a resource to help others find meaning in the spiraling crisis, namely his ties with some of the world’s leading religious figures.
What emerged is an archive of 40 conversations between Goshen-Gottstein and religious leaders on the virus and its aftereffects, including a contribution from the pope. It offers an “immersion process into the spiritual life of humanity,” he said, and has drawn tens of thousands of active users.
The dialogue between Goshen-Gottstein and leading scholars of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and the Bahá’í faith focuses on everything from practical advice on how to conquer fear and build spiritual resources, to making the home and family the center of worship, to the power of prayer and questions of whether religious authenticity is eroded when religious practice moves online.
The debates also do not shy away from the central question preoccupying millions of believers of all faiths as the virus skips across continents, infecting millions: Is God doing this to his world? Is it a punishment? What, in heaven’s name, does it all mean?
Is the virtual mosque the new mosque?
The “Coronaspection” project touches on the challenges and opportunities for religious communities in the absence of in-person gatherings and worship, with the pandemic rapidly changing how religious practices are observed.
Thanks to technology and with most of the world socially distancing for the foreseeable future, “new forms of community are emerging,” noted Goshen-Gottstein, including religious groupings.
The coronavirus “is deemphasizing the physical dimension and exemplifying the non-physical dimensions of our interconnectivity,” said US imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in a conversation with Goshen-Gottstein. “So now we can think of communities digitally, in ways we could not have thought of before.”
“Is a mosque, or a church or a synagogue going to be continued to be defined by its physical presence or is it a community presence and now that we can do this digitally, how does this counterpoise the actual physical dimensions of things?” he wondered.
Rome’s Chief Rabbi Ricardo Disegni, by contrast, compared the experience of in-person communal worship to seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, with the online version like seeing a print of the iconic painting in a book.
In the interviews, some religious leaders also reported an explosion of interest in spiritual matters since the pandemic began and services moved online.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy or felt so pressurized… We’ve closed all the churches in England, for the first time since 1208,” said Welby, the UK archbishop.
“Strangely enough, we got 10 times as many people meeting together online to pray as we had together physically, which is quite interesting. I mean literally ten times. We have about 12 million at the moment.”
‘Holy randomness’ or punishment?
The religious leaders are also split on God’s role in the pandemic and the reasons for the plague, with scholars within religions voicing theological differences on the question.
“The coronavirus is not a curse. God Almighty witnessed that man is deviating from the right path of nature. So, he has given a warning. The present situation is just a warning. We have to take lessons and we have to correct our path. Then everything will be good. I pray to God that man should take it as a lesson rather than a curse,” said Indian Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, 95.
“People must spend this time to understand how to again adopt a God-oriented life, so that God’s blessings can return to us again and that God may bring us back within his mercy as he already had earlier,” Khan said in a video message.
Though many echoed the assertion that God sent the pandemic, others were reluctant to attribute the virus to divine sources, instead pinning it on nature or human folly.
Rabbi David Wolpe, of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, argued the pandemic was a manifestation of what he and Goshen-Gottstein settled on calling “holy randomness.”
Said Wolpe: “I believe that God deliberately creates a world of randomness… When people say, for example, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Think about if it were not that way, if only good things happened to good people. So people would be good, but the good wouldn’t be for goodness’ sake, it would be instrumental — why am I being good? So that good things will happen for me. It’s pure schar and onesh, it’s pure reward and punishment. I’ll do these mitzvot [good deeds], and when I do these mitzvot, I won’t get cancer; since I don’t want to get cancer, I will do this.
“But if it’s random and you know that it’s random, and you do something good despite the fact that there may never be a reward, then it’s real goodness. And so the only way you can create a world, I think, of genuine goodness is if you create a world of genuine randomness.”
To underline his point, Wolpe said he had had cancer several times, and people would ask what it meant.
“My answer was: ‘I don’t think that God looked down and said, you know that Wolpe could use a little lymphoma. It would be good for him’… I really do believe that God can be with you as a strength in the struggle, but not that God gives you a specific test, so that’s what I hold by.”
Added the archbishop of Canterbury: “I have a caution about getting too close to saying God sent the coronavirus to help people of faith get deeper faith, if you see what I mean.
“It is part of the space that God gives us in the world to live our lives. And as we live our lives, we live them through terrible disasters, through great triumphs, through moments of joy, through the most banal and mediocre moments.
“Whatever it is, we are always accompanied by God, we are always in the presence of God. We need only stretch out our hand to know that we are watched over by God,” he said. “I hesitate very much to say it’s sent by God, or caused by God. It is the result of the whole brokenness of our creation, which God redeemed.”