To One Jewish Philosopher, the Coronavirus Epidemic Demonstrates Humanity’s Vulnerability—and Its Moral Potential

May 7, 2020 | Moshe Halbertal
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In an interview by David Horovitz, the philosopher, ethicist, and theologian Moshe Halbertal explores how Jews, and Israelis in particular, should think about COVID-19:

We are experiencing our utter, utter vulnerability. As [Ashkenazi Jews] say in the [High Holy Day prayer] Un’taneh Tokef, we’re “like a passing shadow, like a fleeting dream.”

There is no inherent rationale to [the epidemic]. But there is an inherent message: here we are, horribly vulnerable. . . . But vulnerability doesn’t mean fatalism. And now I am talking Jewishly, from the deepest impulse of tradition.

You can say we are vulnerable and we are in the hands of God, and resign from the world . . . or move to some kind of stoic withdrawal. [Jewish tradition rejects this response.] Rather than fatalism, vulnerability should breed introspection and self-reflection. Moses Maimonides says that in times of calamity, the community has to repent; apathy to calamities is “the cruel path.” [Calamity] should breed reflection that, in turn, has to bring about action.

One other thing: there is something admirable about the global reaction [to the crisis]. Really admirable. And that is the prioritizing of life over the economy. Whether the response is right or wrong, even in terms of saving lives, is a different question. We don’t know yet. But we do know the numbers; we know the patterns. And resisting leaving the weak and deserting the elderly, the vulnerable, is really an amazing moral moment.

It’s all mixed in, as usual with humans, with very dark aspects [of human nature]. In Jewish tradition, but not only Jewish tradition, what is the test of respecting human dignity? It is seeing humans not merely as instruments. That is why the relationship to the elderly is always an interesting, deep test of the respect for human dignity, because the elderly don’t have a function in many ways. It’s as if they are superfluous. [The behavior of many countries is] a great moral moment, because it’s not only a rejection of Darwinism, but also of utilitarianism as a form of moral calculus.

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