Class Materials

June 23-24, 2020

The trolley problem and related texts, via Sefaria:

Theories of ethics:

God and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Rabbi Ronald S. Roth

(Based on the teaching of Rabbi Gordon Tucker

In the Throes of a Pandemic, Is Theology an Essential Business?)

July-Aug 2020


Some ways to think about the question of theodicy:

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

Multiple choice: Choose one, or choose two, but three choices – illogical?

1.God is good 2. God is all powerful 3. Evil exists

God: necessity or contingency?

Two common answers: 1. The next world 2. The value of suffering




  1. Deuteronomy 11:13-2

13 If you carefully obey the commands I am giving you today, and if you love the Lord your God and serve him with all your heart and soul, 14 then he will send the rains in their proper seasons—the early and late rains—so you can bring in your harvests of grain, new wine, and olive oil. 15 He will give you lush pastureland for your livestock, and you yourselves will have all you want to eat. 16 “But be careful. Don’t let your heart be deceived so that you turn away from the Lord and serve and worship other gods. 17 If you do, the Lord’s anger will burn against you. He will shut up the sky and hold back the rain, and the ground will fail to produce its harvests. Then you will quickly die in that good land the Lord is giving you. 18 “So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 19 Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that as long as the sky remains above the earth, you and your children may flourish in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors.


  1. Commentary in Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals p. 42

This description of punishment has been a source of theological struggle for every Jewish generation including those of the biblical era itself, and many Reform and some Reconstructionist congregations omit this paragraph. While our life experiences often belies a direct belief in direct and immediate reward and punishment, in reciting this passage we may open ourselves to the suggestion that the consequences of our moral and immoral behavior resound in the world – though in ways that we may not grasp and that are beyond our comprehension. Jews, who have seen empires come and go are witnesses to the inner decay wrought by corruption, injustice, and unbounded power.

  1. Numbers 14:36-37

36 As for the men whom Moses sent to scout the land, those who came back and caused the whole community to mutter against him by spreading calumnies about the land— 37 those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague, by the will of the LORD.

  1. Deuteronomy 28:15, 21-22

15 But if you do not obey the LORD you GOD to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect…21 The LORD will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. 22 The LORD will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish.

  1. Talmud Yoma 9b

Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed…However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred [sinat chinam] during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

  1. Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 17b-18a

The Romans brought Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon for judgment, and they said to him: Why did you occupy yourself with the Torah? Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon said to them, citing a verse: “As the Lord my God commanded me” (Deuteronomy 4:5). They immediately sentenced him to death by means of burning, and they sentenced his wife to execution by decapitation, and his daughter was condemned to work in a brothel. He was sentenced to death by burning: because he would pronounce the ineffable name of God with all of its letters. [The Gemara asks:] And how could he do that? But didn’t we learn in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1): “These are the people who have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says that the Torah is not from Heaven or that there is no source from the Torah for the resurrection of the dead. Abba Shaul adds: Also one who pronounces the ineffable name with all of its letters.” [The Gemara answers:] Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon did it to educate himself, as it is taught in a Baraita: “You shall not learn to do” (Deuteronomy 18:9), but you may learn in order to understand and to teach. Then why was he punished? Because in doing so, he would pronounce the ineffable name of God in public, instead of privately.

And his wife was condemned to execution by decapitation: Because she did not protest his doing so. From here the Sages stated: Anyone who has the capability to protest the sinful conduct of another and does not protest is punished for that person’s sin.



  1. Summary of the Book of Job

In chapters 1-3, God tests Job’s faithfulness through allowing Satan to attack him. God told Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him” (1:12). Through Job’s trials, all is lost including his health, his wife even tells him to curse God and commit suicide, but he remains strong and faithful, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.” (1:22).

From chapters 4-37, Job’s friends give him plenty of bad advice, in rounds of discussion. They mistakenly blame his sufferings on his personal sins rather than God testing and growing Job. Bildad, “Will God pervert the right? Will the Almighty pervert justice? (8:1)

In chapters 38-42, God speaks to Job and restores him. God knows that Job has received incorrect guidance from his friends God fittingly declares that humans do not know everything. God says, “I am incensed at …your two friends for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job” (42:7). He humbles Job by asking a series of questions that could never be answered by anyone other than Almighty God; for example, “Have you understood the expanse of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this” (38:18)

In the end, Job answers God by saying, “I know that You can do everything…Indeed I spoke without understanding.” (42:2-3) I have declared that which I did not understand”. God then blessed Job with twice as much as he had before his trials began.


  1. Edward Greenstein, Introduction to Job, The Jewish Study Bible, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2004, p. 1494


Most readers of Job have taken the subject of innocent suffering, or theodicy — the existence of evil combined with a belief in an all-good and all-powerful Deity — as the main theme of the book. It is frustrating to many such readers that, in His speech from the whirlwind, God does not provide an explicit explanation of evil; He would seem to sidestep it. Accordingly, many readers assume that the answer lies between the lines, and so they interpret the Deity’s response as a demonstration of divine providence — in the way that God maintains an order in nature, so does God maintain a moral order, difficult as it may often be to discern it. Or they deduce, from the Deity’s demonstration to Job of how little he comprehends of the world, that God’s justice is as mysterious as the rest of creation. These answers are not satisfactory, since the readers familiar with chs. 1-2 know the cause of Job’s afflictions — there is no mystery about it.


There is no resolution to the problem of evil in Job because that is not the theme of the book. Although the problem of innocent suffering, the search for an explanation for a case like that of Job, is the topic of discussion among the participants in the dialogues, it is not the theme of Job. Instead, Job incorporates two main themes. First, the book presents a philosophical argument about how our knowledge is warranted or justified. Job’s companions stubbornly cling to the claim that all worthwhile knowledge has been transmitted and learned from tradition. “Ask the generation past”, Bildad tells Job; “Study what their fathers have searched out/For we are of yesterday and know nothing” (8:8-9a). Job, on the other hand, bases his claims on his personal observation — knowledge can be transformed by new experience, such as what has happened to him — and on his experience of a revelation from a divine spirit (see 4:12-21 and ch. 16). Job’s unconventional understanding of God is only confirmed by the theophany from the “tempest”, in which the Deity passes over, and possibly tramples, the principle of just retribution.


A second, and arguably even more prevalent, theme in Job is that of honesty in talking about God. The book examines and tests the limits of appropriate speech. The test of Job is all about speech — will Job, severely afflicted with anguish and physical distress, “blaspheme [God] to [His] face” (1:11)? The dialogues, it goes without saying, consist only of speech — there is no action within them. Job’s companions continually denigrate the way he talks (e.g. 11:2-4), and he feels he must beg to be heard (13:13). Their view is aired by readers such as the Talmudic Sage Rav, who suggests that “dirt be put in Job’s mouth” to silence him. But while the friends regard Job’s discourse as no more than hot air, “useless talk” (15:2-3), Job takes pride in his absolute commitment to speaking only truth (see 27:3-4). The radical turning point in the book comes at its conclusion: God turns to Job’s companions and reproves them for not speaking “truthfully” about Him as Job “My servant” had done (42:7-8). Job may not have arrived at the truth, but he had reason to believe in what he was saying, as it came to him honestly, unlike the words of the companions, who merely repeated uncritically the wisdom they had received. Seen this way, the book of Job promotes honesty in theological discourse and rejects a blind reliance on tradition.

  1. Job 42:2–6 (Revised Standard Version Translation)

2 I [as written: You] know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.

3 “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

4 “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.”

5 I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee;

6 Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

  1. Jack Miles, God: A Biography, 1995, pp. 319, 323–5

The first verse in this speech, as the RSV translates it, acknowledges nothing more than superior power. Old Testament confessions, as supremely in the Psalms, are typically acknowledgments of power and justice at once. Job’s acknowledgment stops carefully at what has been claimed [in the Whirlwind speech]. But Job’s recalcitrance becomes bolder if we read the text as written in the Hebrew and not as conventionally pronounced (and therefore translated) over the centuries. The annotations to the Masoretic or standard Hebrew text of the Tanakh include what are called ketib and qere indications…..For reasons of sense but also, on occasion, for reasons of reverence, the synagogue reader was instructed by these marginal notations to read another word than the one found written in the text. In Job 42:2 he was instructed to change the word yada’ta, “thou knows”, to yada’tiy, “I know”. Change verse 42:2 in the RSV translation by just that much — from “I know that thou canst do all things” to “Thou knowest that thou canst do all things” — and its air of confession and submission immediately becomes ambiguous and potentially ironic. 

We come now to the linchpin of the traditional interpretation, the cryptic closing verse of Job’s speech,……in the RSV translation:

Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.


This is the filament from which hangs the thread from which hangs the entire traditional reading of Job’s last words as a recantation. If the first four verses in the speech have usually been translated to read as a recantation, it is because they have all been interpreted in the light of this closing verse. In the Hebrew, however, this verse is ambiguous, and in the RSV’s resolution of the ambiguity no word has less support from the original than the word myself. This last word, supplied in the Greek of the Septuagint and, one way or another, in nearly every translation since then, might be described as the thin air to which is anchored the filament from which hangs the thread by which the traditional interpretation dangles. Against the traditional interpretations, it is likely that though Job is in the grip of profoundly changed and negative feelings about something at this point, that something is not himself.


Job is concerned, of course, about the implications for his fellow men should God prove to be what he seemed to be for Job. Reading “dust and ashes” as an expression of this concern, as a reference to mankind in its mortal frailty, reading the verbs that the RSV translates “despise myself, / and repent” as transitive, with “dust and ashes” or (more idiomatically) “mortal clay” as their common object, we may translate the closing words


Now that my eyes have seen you, I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.


  1. Job 42:7–8 (Edward Greenstein translation)

It happened, after YHWH spoke these words to Job, that YHWH said to Eliphaz the Teimanite: I am angry at you and your two companions, for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job. Now then, take yourselves seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job, and offer up a burnt-offering on your own behalf; and my servant Job will pray for you; for I will lift up his face without doing anything unseemly to you — for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.

  1. Jack Miles, op. cit., p. 329

A view common to nearly all commentators on the Book of Job is that, one way or another, the Lord has reduced Job to virtual silence. Unnoticed is the fact that from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again.




  1. Sari Kivistö and Sami Pihlström, op. cit., pp. 356–8


The falsity of the friends’ views also stems from their intellectual efforts to construct tenable narratives in order to explain Job’s turmoil, and thus their mistake has a moral basis. Especially after the Second World War, critics have emphasized that narrative means can be ethically problematic in trying to make sense of individual suffering. Relying on this interpretative approach, Carol A. Newsom has analyzed how the friends (falsely) attempt to reduce and integrate Job’s experience (and also God’s reasons) to larger narrative structures that would explain the causes and consequences of Job’s suffering……

We need teleological ideas and narrations in order to make sense of the world, but these constructions should not be presupposed as true. In this view, Job’s friends represent theodicy falsely maintaining that divine causes can be illuminated by speculative human reason. Another mistake the supporters of theodicy make is that, in their view, the world is purposeful, ordered, and teleological, although Job’s lived experience denies any sensible causality. Instead of building explanations and appealing to fictive causation they should aim to relieve misery by helping the victims. The courtroom narrative comes to the conclusion that there is no justice — in the human sense — in the world, since the plague strikes the good and the bad without distinction.





  2. Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a

Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi: Moses requested three things from the Blessed Holy One, and all were granted to him. He requested that the Divine Presence rest upon Israel, and God granted it to him…..Moses requested that the Divine Presence not rest upon the nations of the world, and God granted it to him…..Lastly, Moses requested that the ways in which God conducts the world be revealed to him, and God granted it to him.

Moses said before God: Master of the Universe. Why is it that some righteous prosper, some righteous suffer, some wicked prosper, and some wicked suffer? God said to him: Moses, the righteous person who prospers is a righteous person, the son of a righteous person. The righteous person who suffers is a righteous person, the son of a wicked person. The wicked person who prospers is a wicked person, the son of a righteous person. The wicked person who suffers is a wicked person, the son of a wicked person.

Now the Master had said: “The righteous person who prospers is a righteous person, the son of a righteous person. The righteous person who suffers is a righteous person, the son of a wicked person.” But is that so? For consider: there is a contradiction between two verses: “[God] visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7), and: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime” (Deuteronomy 24:16). And this contradiction has been resolved thus: God punishes descendants for the transgressions of their ancestors, when they adopt the actions of their ancestors as their own. And descendants are not punished for the actions of their ancestors when they do not adopt the actions of their ancestors as their own.

Rather, it must be that God said to Moses as follows: The righteous person who prospers is a completely righteous person, the righteous person who suffers is one who is not a completely righteous person. The wicked person who prospers is one who is not a completely wicked person. And the wicked person who suffers is a completely wicked person.

But all of this is in contradistinction to Rabbi Meir’s opinion. For Rabbi Meir said: Two of Moses’ requests were granted to him, and one was not granted to him. God granted him that the Divine Presence would rest upon Israel, and that the Divine Presence would not rest upon the nations of the world, but God did not reveal to Moses the ways in which God conducts the world. As it is said: “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19) — i.e. even though he is not worthy. “And I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy,” — i.e. even though he is not worthy.

  1. Babylonian Talmud Ḥagigah 4b-5a

When Rav Yosef reached this verse, he cried: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23). He said: Is there one who goes before his time and dies for no reason? The Gemara answers: Yes, like this incident of Rav Beivai bar Abaye, who was frequently in the company of the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death said to his agent: Go and bring me Miriam the raiser [braider] of women’s hair. He went, but instead brought him Miriam, the raiser of babies. The Angel of Death said to him: I told you to bring Miriam, the raiser of women’s hair! His agent said to him: If so, let me return her to life. He said to him: Since you have already brought her, let her be counted toward the number of deceased people.

But how were you able to kill her? The agent responded that he had the opportunity, as she was holding a shovel in her hand and with it she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She took the fire and set it on her foot; she was scalded and her luck suffered, which gave me the opportunity, and I brought her.


Rav Beivai bar Abaye then said to the Angel of Death: Have you permission to act in this manner? The Angel of Death said to him: And is it not written: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23)? Rav Beivai said to him: But isn’t it also written: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4)? He said to him: I shepherd them, not releasing them until the years of the generation are completed, and then I pass them on to the angel Duma [who oversees the souls of the dead]. Rav Beivai said to him: Ultimately, what do you do with the extra years? The Angel of Death said to him: If there is a Torah scholar who forgoes his own interests [in the pursuit of Torah], I add those years to him and he becomes the deceased’s replacement for that time.

  1. David Kraemer, Responses to Death in Classical Rabbinic Literature, 1995, pp. 203–4

The opinion of this story, in all of its radicalness, is perfectly clear. There can be premature death. The Angel of Death or his messenger can entirely disregard what God’s will requires. In an extreme and explicit way, this narrative eliminates all of the many rationalizations of suffering (in this case, premature death) that came before it and returns, almost perversely, to the opinion that a collective — now some ill-defined entity called a “generation” — is all that counts in the justice of this world. But distinguishing this treatment from earlier collective treatments is the fact that here the concern is undoubtedly the individual; reference to the collective is a mere lame rationalization — not the real point at all.

The composition of this story supports the lesson just outlined in a variety of remarkable ways. The first and most obvious element of this composition is the complete absence of any explicit mention of God. Thus the author signals in his composition the point that he otherwise makes in the narrative: God is not involved here. God is not an active participant in this death or related matters of justice….

It is the Angel of Death, in other words, who stands, in this story, in the place otherwise occupied by God. God is removed from the scene; the Angel of Death takes God’s place. Moreover, by positing that the death itself is effectuated by an agent of the agent of God, the narrative serves further to symbolically remove this death from God. God is removed in every sense from the death described here. The opinion is thus stated quite eloquently: this death, at least, has nothing to do with God……

“Have you permission?” is a broad question, and the angel’s response makes it clear that he feels he has the overall right to take lives prematurely. If there is any limitation on this power, it is not spelled out. Only an accident is needed before the angel’s right is activated, and there can be little question of the prevalence of such accidents. It is virtually impossible to miss the meaning of this story. On the foundation of what precedes it — a foundation that remarks that reward and justice are only possible, not assured — this sequence illustrates just how unassured justice is.


  1. Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 58b

The Sages taught: It is written: “And you shall not mistreat [tonu] one man his colleague; and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 25:17). The verse is speaking with regard to verbal mistreatment. But must you say that it is speaking of verbal mistreatment [be’ona’at devarim]; perhaps it is speaking with regard to monetary exploitation [be’ona’at mammon]? When it says in a previous verse: “And if you sell to your colleague an item that is sold, or acquire from your colleague’s hand, you shall not exploit [tonu] his brother” (Leviticus 25:14), monetary exploitation has already been explicitly stated. How then do I realize the meaning of the verse: “And you shall not mistreat one man his colleague”? It must be with regard to verbal mistreatment.

How so? If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: “Remember your earlier deeds.” If one is the descendant of converts, another may not say to him: “Remember the deed of your ancestors.” If one is a convert and he came to study Torah, one may not say to him: “Does the mouth that ate unslaughtered and diseased carcasses, in addition to repugnant creatures and creeping animals, now come to study Torah that was given from the mouth of the Almighty?!”

If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished, being innocent?” (Job 4:6–7).

  1. Leviticus Rabbah 20

 “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” (Leviticus 16:1). Rabbi Shimon opened his teaching with this verse (Ecclesiastes 9:2): “For the same fate is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good, for the pure, and for the impure; for him who sacrifices, and for him who does not; for him who is pleasing, and for him who is displeasing; and for him who swears, and for him who shuns oaths.”

“The righteous” refers to Noah, of whom it is said (Genesis 6:9) “Noah was a righteous man”. And Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yosi of Galilee, that when Noah left the ark, the lion struck and injured him…..And “the wicked” refers to Pharaoh Necho, who tried to ascend Solomon’s throne, but was ignorant of its secret mechanisms and was struck and injured by a lion. Each one of these two died disabled. Thus: “the same fate is in store…for the righteous and for the wicked”.

“The good” refers to Moses, of whom it is said (Exodus 2:2) “she saw how good he was”; and “the pure” refers to Aaron, whose vocation was maintaining the purity of Israel, as it is said (Malachi 2:6) “He served Me with complete loyalty and held the many back from iniquity”; and “the impure” refers to the scouts. The first two spoke glowingly of the Land of Israel, and the latter spoke disparagingly. Yet none of them were allowed to enter that land. Thus: “the same fate is in store…for the good, for the pure, and for the impure”.


Another interpretation: “The righteous” refers to the sons of Aaron, of whom it is said (Malachi 2:6) “They served Me with complete loyalty”; and “the wicked” refers to Korah’s cohort of 250 men, of whom it is said (Numbers 16:26) “Move away from the tents of these wicked men”. The latter came with an offering out of strife and were incinerated, while the former came with an offering with no strife at all, and were also incinerated.




  1. Perkei Avot 4:19

Rabbi Yannai used to say: It is not in our power to explain the well-being of the wicked or the sorrows of the righteous.

  1. Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, p. 134

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, some are simply as inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a word of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are….(p. 136) The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me? Why did I deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”

  1. Talmud Sotah 14a:3-4

What is the meaning of that which is written “you shall walk after the Lord your God?” Is it possible for people to walk in God’s ways? …Rather, the meaning is that we should imitate God’s attributes: Just as God clothes the naked…so too you should clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick…so too you should visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners…so too you should comfort mourners. God buries the dead…and so too you should buy the dead.