What does it mean that Judaism posits a God who is the God of creation, but also the God of revelation? The God of creation is the God of a natural world that gives us great bounty - and also COVID-19. Judaism also attributes to God a system of revelation - holidays, ritual requirements, and all that this entails - which is separate from the natural world.
For the rabbis, this was an important question, because the Roman society in which they lived asserted that for something to be Divine, it has to mirror the created world. There is intrinsic value to the way things are in the world, and to know what Divine law is, just look to natural law - what any rational human being would understand. The rabbis went in a very different direction, and understood nature and revelation to be separate systems.
At this moment of pandemic, we may wonder: What does this mean for moments when we are fighting against divinely created nature? What exactly is the connection between the world that we can view through science, and the world of obligation that is part of revelation? What responsibilities does each system place on us?
This class looks at three different conversations that are imagined to have happened between the great Rabbi Akiva, who represents rabbinic thought and the paradigmatic Roman official, Turnus Rufus. He lived in the late first an early second century, and was directly involved in trying to put down some of the rebellions in which Rabbi Akiva took part.
In this conversation, Turnus Rufus has a clear perspective on the relationship between the natural world and the metaphysical world. If Shabbat is a special day, he argues, it should be apparent in nature that it is different from other days.
Rabbi Akiva argues back by saying that just as the position that Turnus Rufus holds in the empire is merely an expression of the will of the ruler, so too, is the observance of Shabbat.
Turnus Rufus presses his point, and asks again: How do you know that this is the correct day? In other words, he wants empirical evidence that this day is different from all others.
Rabbi Akiva claims that the Sambatyon river offers proof: it moves rocks on every day but Shabbat.
This river appears in both Rabbinic and Roman writings, and Pliny the Elder says it flowed six days a week, and on the 7th it rested. They referred to it as a Jewish river, and the implication is that Jews are lazy, because they have selected a day of the week to refrain from work. But Turnus Rufus is unconvinced, and the conversation continues:
Rabbi Akiva tries again. There is no proof in the realm of nature, and so he resorts to the world of spirits to prove his point, turning to the deceased father of Turnus Rufus to testify to the differences between Shabbat and weekdays that he experiences in the afterlife.
But Turnus Rufus still believes that if Shabbat is God's will, it should be reflected in the natural world. The fact that nature continues to function as it does every other day undermines the idea of Shabbat. For Rabbi Akiva, the fact that the natural world does not reflect Shabbat further underscores God's sovereignty over both revelation and creation. The world belongs to God, and God can do whatever God wants in God's world on Shabbat.
In other words, this source grapples with the question: What does it mean to have faith in something that you cannot see, and yet believe that what you do see was created by that same Sovereign?
In summary, this source argues that metaphysics is based on God's will (and so is nature). Nature and metaphysics are separate from one another, and they do not necessarily correspond.
The next conversation is in the context of a conversation about civil law. It stems from a discussion of what you can force another person to build in order to support the common good, and then transitions into a conversation about charity.
This story begins with Turnus Rufus posing a theological challenge to Rabbi Akiva: If your God loves the poor, why doesn't your God feed them?
Rabbi Akiva explains that it is incumbent upon us to act to act in the world and have a positive impact, and we do that by feeding the poor. In other words, God has created a world in which there is poverty, and God has also determined that we are responsible for helping them.
But Turnus Rufus pushes back, because in the Roman worldview, the way things are in the world is the way they are supposed to be. He claims that God actually punishes the Jews for fighting against God's will. The two men trade allegories, and Rabbi Akiva insists that we actually earn our place in the world by helping God's children.
Turnus Rufus then argues that the analogy to being children of God works only when we do God's will. However, when we do not listen, we are merely the servants of God. Clearly, he says, the Jews are not God's children at this moment!
Rabbi Akiva gets the last word, however, and uses a verse from the book of Isaiah to prove that actually, it is precisely at a time when we are responsible for feeding others that we are considered God's children. In our reality, claims Rabbi Akiva, when we have Roman servants quartered in our homes, we are obviously God's children!
The winning argument here comes from Rabbi Akiva, and he is essentially arguing that the way of the world does come from God, and yet God (sometimes) wants us to interfere and subvert the way of the world. Sometimes, we are rewarded when we intervene.
In other words, one can believe in a God who created COVID-19, and also believe that God wants us to fight this deadly disease.
In this source, the theological debate continues. Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva whether God's creations or human creations are superior. Rabbi Akiva is ready for what is coming, and asserts that when it comes to things that both God and people can accomplish, the works of human beings are superior.
Turnus Rufus has a follow up question: Why do you circumcise baby boys? After all, babies are born as God intended them to be!
In response, Rabbi Akiva reminds Turnus Rufus that even the Romans cut the umbilical cord when a baby is born. No one leaves the natural world entirely as they find it, and God gave people commandments in order to refine us.
In this moment, when nature is challenging us with a virus, people are fighting back in all sorts of ways. God gives us the world, and, through revelation, provides us with principles for how to live in this world. The principles are not contained in the structure of the world itself, and our job is to use those ideals to refine the world and refine ourselves. This is the theology of Rabbi Akiva.