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A philosopher’s pandemic insights

Moshe Halbertal is heartened by leaders placing the well-being of their elderly above market solutions. But it’s all mixed in, ‘as usual with humans, with very dark aspects’

Moshe Halbertal is a philosopher and a professor of Jewish thought, an expert on Maimonides and a co-author of the IDF’s ethical code — just the person, I thought, to bring some moral wisdom to complement the scientific and political take on the coronavirus pandemic.

The virus has revealed itself as spectacularly contagious, and terribly dangerous to the elderly and the medically vulnerable. Rightly fearful that their underfunded healthcare systems would not be able to cope, many societies — notably including the US, Israel, and much but not all of Europe — have largely shuttered their economies, and kept their citizens inside, in order to minimize the loss of those vulnerable lives.

While governments strive to find an impossible balance between mass isolation and somehow protecting against economic collapse, the war against this invisible enemy has left many of us wondering what it is that we did to deserve this. Are we enduring nature’s punishment for the damage we’ve done to the planet? Is this some kind of cosmic correction? A Darwinian cull that we have chosen to resist? Is there a divine hand behind it all?

I do recognize that some of you may not have been asking these questions. Indeed, some of you may dislike these questions. But they’re all being asked. And Halbertal agreed to engage with them.

We originally scheduled to meet for this interview — two Jerusalemites face to face, you understand, the way people used to do things. But in the end, in the spirit of good citizenship, we settled for Zoom. This is the edited transcript of our conversation.

The Times of Israel: I’ve spoken to some scientists and some medical people in the course of this crisis. But I wanted to speak to somebody with a philosophical take, and a bit of religion in there as well. That’s why I thought of you. Maybe you have wisdom to share.

A very evil, bitter way of looking at this pandemic and its impact, maybe, is that we’re watching what in a normal evolutionary process would be a cull of the elderly and the vulnerable by a virus sent by nature, although medically we’re skilled enough to prevent some of that. That’s what one might look at it as — some kind of correction by nature. And if one is religiously minded, maybe even some higher power-ordered correction. What do you make of that?

Moshe Halbertal: Look at the Spanish influenza. It was far more devastating. It killed more people — the young and the strong mainly. To assume that these types of occurrences have an inner logic of evolution — as if now the invisible hand of the evolutionary process is substituting for divine providence, as if nature itself has its own rational moral logic — is both empirically false and also morally repugnant.

What we see, rather, is our deep fragility as a species. With a slight mutation of this virus, God forbid, it could kill babies. We’re experiencing our utter, utter vulnerability. As you say in the U’Netaneh Tokef [prayer], we’re like a passing shadow, like a fleeting dream.

There is no inherent rationale to it. But there is an inherent message: Here we are, horribly vulnerable.

One feature of it is that we’re all taken by surprise. There’s this human hubris — that somehow we have conquered, through technology and through our capacities, what has ravaged humanity in the past. We’re proven completely wrong. And not only that — the sources of our fragility in some ways — and this is the paradox of it all — are an outcome of the sources of our presumed strength, because, among other things, the spread of this virus is a function of our advancement as a species, of our power, of our global power.

But vulnerability doesn’t mean fatalism. And now I am talking Jewishly, from the deepest impulse of tradition.

You can say we’re vulnerable and we are in the hands of God, and resign from the world, monastically speaking, or move to some kind of stoic withdrawal. No. Rather than fatalism, vulnerability should breed introspection and self-reflection. Maimonides says that in times of calamity, the community has to repent, that apathy to calamities is “the cruel path.” It should breed reflection that, in turn, has to move to action.

Here I’m indirectly bringing in the sense of punishment. Punishment is intimately connected to our behavior, and sometimes to what we didn’t do. In this case, [the pandemic] exposes all the elements of neglect — the neglect of the health system, the neglect of societal infrastructure to respond to it. It leads to search, to self-search, to communal search, to asking: Okay, let’s see where is it that we erred?

Nothing just happens to us. It’s intimately connected to our past structures and behaviors. I mean, such large-scale devastation is not merely an accident. It’s inherently connected to our past mode of acting in the world. The way to avoid the track from vulnerability to fatalism is through repentance that understands that such large-scale human events are always indistinguishable, inseparable from human action.

One other thing: There is something admirable about the global reaction [to the crisis]. Really admirable. And that’s 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. But it is really remarkable. 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 they don’t have a function in many ways. It’s as if they are superfluous.

And here the whole world stops in order to protect what seems to be superfluous, out of a deep, powerful moral standard.

It’s confronting the evil inclination to say evolution is almost on our side.

That’s one of the most remarkable moments of human moral transcendence that is engulfing humanity as a whole now. It’s really remarkable when you think about it.

That’s a lovely point. I’m not sure that every country has made that choice, but maybe they have. But wasn’t world reaction also motivated by a fear that even the not so vulnerable would gradually be engulfed by it, if it wasn’t thwarted? And then the second cynical caveat is that many of the people making the decisions are not so young themselves anymore either.

You can give it a twist of that nature. Like all human activities, it’s mixed. There are mixed motivations, mixed agents.

But still, by now you know that 95 percent of the deaths in Europe are among those above 65 years old. These are striking numbers. And you cannot avoid seeing that [moral, respectful] aspect of the response. What you said has to be taken into account, but it’s still there.

No, I accept that. That’s a very fine and encouraging point, especially when you think of the economic consequences.

It’s a great moral moment, because it’s not only a rejection of Darwinism, it’s also a rejection of utilitarianism, as a form of moral calculus. That, again, doesn’t make the decision the proper decision in long term. It’s too early to say. Long term, the effects on the economy will translate into loss of lives in different forms.

You said before that this is a consequence of our behavior, that it didn’t come out of nowhere. What is it that we’ve done?

I’m thinking of the things we haven’t done. Omission in politics and human life can be graver than an action. Think about the flooding of the healthcare system. That’s a huge concern.

The idea that there will be people who we could save, and we’re going to let them die because the system is flooded — you ask yourself, how is it that we allowed the system to get there?

In particular, that some societies that have such immense wealth and capacity have got to this.

Part of it has to do with hubris. Or the stupidity of the mode of thinking that tomorrow will be like yesterday. There’s a lack of alertness that costs so much, in life and other things.

But some of it has to do with the idea in some societies that the market is a good solution for everything. Here’s the paradox: Even the most hardened, market-driven people are now acting completely outside of market calculations. They’re throwing money at the economy. Facing the moral problem, they act completely at odds with market logic, which I applaud. In the way [they generally] behave in policy structuring, in structures of investment and distribution, they resist that moral choice which they now apply.

By the way, Machiavelli said all societies will be at the mercy of fortuna — of droughts [and other such circumstances beyond their control]. But societies are measured by their capacity to withstand such crises.

Clearly our capacity to overcome this is a function of trust. We are all being asked to have collective trust, to show collective responsibility. Some societies are doing it better, some worse.

We should be asking: In what way trust can be established, so that we can endure, through coordinated action, these kinds of moments.

Well, that last point you make has a very relevant context for Israel in the last few days, and the question of whether the ultra-Orthodox sector is mistrusting and mistrusted.

I’m very worried about the way this community is treated. And also the way it interprets itself. Most of that community is caring, law-abiding, especially when it comes to issues of health and life, to the sacredness of life. They don’t have the means of communication to understand what the issues are, so there is a lag of time. There are living conditions that are very different from those of many of the rest of the population, that make things very difficult.

But in the end, there is an element of mutual mistrust that has to be looked at seriously because it relates to the leadership. The leadership here is not fully informed. I’m not talking about the political leadership, which somehow failed to some degree in informing the halachic leadership or spiritual leadership.

In the instincts of the spiritual leadership, closing a yeshiva and a synagogue almost echoes a certain type of conspiracy against their way of life. The transformation only happened when it sank in that [the virus was killing people] in Borough Park, when the Haredi community here heard what’s going on in New York. It is actually a terrible moment — a breach of trust that’s costing lives.

And then there is a horrible demonizing [of the Haredim] in some sections of secular Israeli society, a very disturbing response. A kind of a collective blame of this group as people with an ostensible lack of solidarity and lack of discipline, who don’t care, who trust in God and live by the orders of their rabbis, and have no civic responsibility. It’s all nonsense.

And they are now to blame for the fact that we are locked down. This is a very dark picture of a reality which is far more complex. So it’s also a moment in which trust is being tested.

Some of the problems emerged from the unwillingness of the sovereign, in our case, the government of Israel, to impose a unified discipline all across the civic body.

There were moments which had nothing to do with the behavior of the haredim per se; it was rather their response to regulatory structures that had exempted synagogues, mikvehs. The old shtick, the old give and take, the old sectorial market that so typifies the ills of the Israeli political body, should have been put aside at this moment and they weren’t. And this is not only the fault of the Haredim. This is the fault of those who are in power, who think in this mode, who didn’t transcend that mode. It’s their usual mode of operation — to solidify that political coalition, to make different payments to a sector.

I want to be sure I understand you. You’re saying that giving exemptions for a few extra days to synagogues, maybe in delaying some shutdown policies until after Purim, and so on, this ostensible indulgence of Orthodox political will was a tremendous mistake because it had damaging practical consequences and led to a blame game?

Yes, it had damaging consequences for the Haredi community and for broader Israel as a whole. And it exposed a pattern — the Israeli way that is anyhow problematic — that should have been transcended.

And what about later? Was it fair to lock down Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim, or should everybody have been locked down?

No, it’s not a matter of locking down the Haredim. I don’t think this is a case of the fantasy of unleashing the army on the Haredim. It’s a matter of epidemiological understanding of where problems are, and treating particular areas more strictly. And that’s fine.

There is this very bizarre shift, from deal making to blame, that oscillates in this society.

So first of all, you don’t have to make those deals; at a time like this, you have to transcend them. By the way, that applies to both sides. And then afterwards, don’t play the blame politics in which you demonize a whole society. There is something very unique and admirable about what they are and who they are.

Isn’t what you’re saying a further cautionary tale about the mixing of religion and state?

Yes, absolutely. And it’s a cautionary tale about the over-sectorialization of Israeli life and the structure of politics, in which thinking about the common good, which you expect to a certain degree from politicians, is not at the forefront. With the budget, for example, different sectors compete for how much they can take.

As the welfare state has slowly broken in Israel — and you see some of the results in the public health situation — it was replaced by different sectorial payments. The question of the common good is being slowly overshadowed by sectorial interests.

So how would you fix that?

With a return to some kind of a welfare state and care for the citizen per se.

Some of the sectorialism has to do with mistrust. We are all here alone, every sector — the Arabs, the Haredim, the settlers, the Russians… There is no sense of the [common interests of the] wider state. We are competing for our own interests.

It’s a function of leadership. What’s needed is leadership powerful enough to convince enough voters that it wants to break that pattern. Because in the end, this pattern hurts not only the society as a whole, it also hurts those interest groups themselves.

Do you think we’re going to learn any lessons from this? Is Israeli and global society going to emerge a little more tolerant and less divided? Do you think humanity is going to learn anything, behaviorally and policy-wise?

I have very little faith in the transformative powers of events.

Real, morally significant transformations — feminism, for example, or the emergence of the welfare state, or the breakdown of communism — are not event-based. These are long transformative processes that have to do with the shape of institutions, practices, norms, moral sensibilities.

There might be a little more awareness about epidemics. Maybe some more investment in vaccine development. But this is not a moment of transformation — not a case of here we, all humanity, find ourselves in the same boat; viruses erase borders; we’ll all start acting differently.

Who remembers the Spanish influenza? It was far greater. And the idea that world wars changed people… No. Events have very little impact on the way we behave as humans. In two, three months, we’re going to have missiles from Gaza or something like that. The world will continue as it is in so many ways.

I want to draw you out on what does cause major transformation. Did the Holocaust not make people behave a little more decently for a few decades?

Actually, no. Right after the Holocaust, you had the emergence of a Cold War that could have ended all of humanity.

“Never again” is one of the most falsified statements we’ve ever heard. You’ve had Rwanda, and so on.

One thing that always baffles is how memory is short. Even the memory of the Holocaust. If we talk about the resurgence of anti-Semitism, you go today, in the continent that is filled with Jewish blood, and you try to enter a synagogue on Shabbat in those capitals of the enlightened West, you enter shivering as if you are going into a fortress. Some of them even don’t have an outward Magen David or a sign [that they are synagogues]. And that’s in Europe. How short is human memory?

Events come and go. And many of them are just assimilated into worldviews without actually transforming them.

In terms of internal cohesion and dialogue and tolerance in Israel, you don’t anticipate anything changing, for better or worse?

I see change in Israel. But not because of the coronavirus or whatever will happen after it. There are deep changes. Even the Haredim are far more deeply integrated into society. Some of it is economic, some of it is not. Some of it is just the power of Israel as a nation state. I see some things getting worse. I witness transformations, but they’re not going to either accelerate or regress through a drama, a spectacle, called a plague.

Worse where?

I see a dialectic. Let’s look at our Arab citizens. One of the results of the last [series of] elections was a 50 percent growth in Arab participation. An immense sense of participatory citizenship that marks an immense opportunity. And yet this is in some ways met with a very regrettable rejection, almost an a priori rejection, of 20 percent of our citizens, who are deemed to have the right to elect, but not to be elected. Something happened in Israeli politics here — for good, for bad, something dramatic, among the Arabs.

Now you look at the ultra-Orthodox groups: There is a long process of integration as well — in the economy, in politics, in life. There are some hopeful things happening at that level.

There are people, of course, who cite biblical verses to prove that this was all preordained or that we can find evidence that divine powers had this in mind. Rather than saying yes, verse X of book Y shows that this disaster will strike in 2020, are there lessons those texts provide for us?

I always wish these omen readers would tell us ahead of time. (Laughs.)

But if you look at lessons, we come back to the starting point of our conversation. There are two major lessons, that relate to the human condition as a whole.

The first is really internalization of our utter vulnerability — the vulnerability that we’re paradoxically exposed to, among other things, because we have more and more means of control. You might say the human sin is to cross the boundary between the human and the divine, a sort of self-deification. That’s a deep failure in us. We need to understand that we are finite creatures, standing before God in our utter finiteness.

Then the second aspect is to realize that nothing of this magnitude that happens to us can ever be independent of who we are or what we do or what we can do. You might say it’s a constructive way to think about that idea of retribution, or providence.

The omen in it, is not, Well, that’s because we haven’t, say, kept the Shabbat or something. It’s always intrinsic to what happened. It’s tied. There is something that happened to us as a group, as a species, that we being who we are could avoid, confront, and deal with. Whatever happened to us is never fully independent from what it is we’ve done or omitted to do. That’s at the point in which the sense of vulnerability doesn’t turn into fatalism or nihilism. It turns into a moment of introspection.

A kind of reckoning, right?


So what is it a reckoning for? What should we be thinking about? Have we overburdened the planet? How have we acted wrongly?

The ecological picture is a dimension of it. But it is mainly what we’ve failed to do in two major areas: First, in the total lack of societal preparedness. And second in terms of our civic response: We have to look seriously at the breakdown of trust. The lack of trust, of communal trust. In its absence, the capacity for coordinated, shared activity is so difficult to reach.

There is a reckoning in the way societies have been structured for so many years.

But I’m sure the temptation will be for those with the means to do it, to try to elevate themselves above the danger rather than address the deeper problems.

Absolutely. Here we come to thoughts about the powers of events per se. Look at a country like the US. It is both simultaneously better than the developed world in many, many ways. And like the developing world in many ways, in one habitat, in one territory. So yes, you will have that [effort by some to place themselves above danger].

And that will be yet another failure of humans to reckon. And then, unfortunately, they will have to face another omen, another sign.

Original: TOI