Disease and Culture

Jewish customs and traditions have been especially challenged during the coronavirus pandemic. We are used to gathering in groups, hugging and kissing at services, weddings and funerals. Our traditional methods for combatting illness – communal prayer and visiting the sick – are not only unwise; they could actively lead to an increase of cases. As has been the case for millennia, disease is not only a scientific challenge; it can also reshape culture.

How will Jewish life be reshaped by the coronavirus? Perhaps it is too early to say, but there certainly will be effects. Elon Gilad, writing in Haaretz in April, traced Jewish responses to disease from Biblical times to the present. He noted that while the story is told that Jews died in fewer numbers from the Black Death than their Christian neighbors, there is no evidence for such a claim. He writes, “possibly the idea that Jews were for some reason less susceptible to the disease was a rationalization to explain why Christians reacted to the Black Death by indiscriminately slaughtering Jews. Epidemics to this day often lead to the persecution of minorities.”

Indeed we see today that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities of color in the United States. Those without the resources to protect themselves from an outbreak are especially susceptible, including in the Native American community.

Of course, this is not the first time that disease has struck the native peoples of this continent. Jake Page writes in his book In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians that “it may be no exaggeration that European-borne disease killed more American Indians in those first few decades [of contact] than were born in the next four hundred years.” (p. 102)

European disease, especially smallpox, was devastating to the native population and had profound effects on the culture. Very often the disease spread to a tribe or group even before first contact with explorers or colonists. Inter-tribal trade would bring smallpox to outlining areas so that by the time Europeans arrived in some locations, the societies had already been completely transformed.

Sometimes the devastation of new diseases caused the consolidation of tribes and the concentration of political power in one group or leader. European colonists took advantage of the fact that their illnesses did much of the conquering before they even arrived.

Unfortunately, pandemics are still with us, still wreaking havoc, particularly on the most vulnerable. But the traditional Jewish responses are also still appropriate, the three principles we embrace on the High Holy Days: teshuva, tefila, tzedakah. As teshuva teaches, we must be able to change our ways by wearing masks and staying apart to stop the spread. We still need the power of prayer, tefila, and now as ever the justice that comes from tzedakah can help to heal the damage caused by disease, not only to individuals, but to society as a whole.

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