Mar 122020

Fear and Faith: On Coronavirus

Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva, Ph.D.
Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies
Senior Faculty Fellow, InterReligious Institute
Chicago Theological Seminary

March 12, 2020

The coronavirus is spreading. Fear is spreading even faster, and it may be deadlier. Asians around the world have been harassed, insulted and assaulted. On a train in LA, a man ranted that Chinese people are filthy and every disease ever has come from China.  A hotel in Indiana did not want to provide lodging for two Hmong guests, claiming that anyone from China needs to be quarantined.  Chinese restaurants are empty.  A heartbreaking hashtag has emerged, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus.)  Recognizing the profound dangers of scapegoating, over seventy U.S. Jewish organizations recently signed a letter of support to Chinese-Americans, decrying the xenophobia.  (Antisemitism has gotten stirred into the mix, as usual, with some bigots on social media hoping the virus will kill lots of Jews, and others claiming that it is a Jewish plot.)

Fear is a natural human instinct, but it easily twists into hate.  It has such power to disorder society that Micah’s vision for a future time of peace explicitly eliminates it: nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and people will be able to sit under their vines and fig trees with nothing to make them afraid (Mic 4:3-4). Hebrew Bible frequently urges people not to fear—as when Hagar and her son are dying of thirst in the wilderness (Gen 21:17), when Egyptians pursue the Israelites and trap them at the sea (Ex 14:13), when the nation suffers in exile (Isa 41:10).

These assurances are often read as simple reminders of God’s saving power, but Maimonides (a leading medieval Jewish thinker), taught that “do not be afraid” is actually a commandment.  How can that be?  Rabbinic tradition is clear that God wouldn’t ask of us something we can’t control. I understand it this way: we must not allow fear to overwhelm our moral compass, succumbing to hate or discrimination.

And so what of God’s saving power? I have never been comfortable praying to God for cures, as if God would ever withhold healing when it is possible. I prefer Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that it is not God’s job to make sick people well.  Doctors do that, along with the wondrous resiliency of the human body. God’s job is to make sick people brave.  He quotes Maya Angelou: “Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.”  We could all use a dose of that.