Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Shall Live, and Who Shall Die?

The High Holy Days maybe over, but it's not too late to think a bit about one of the most powerful, and troubling, parts of the High Holy Day liturgy: The Book of Life. God deciding, during those 10 days, who shall live, and who shall die. It would be a gross understatement to say that these passages, which talk about a predetermined death, a God who is in direct control of everything, and a world in which everyone gets what they deserve, good and bad, are troubling.

They're troubling logically – they don't seem to reflect the reality that most of us see. And, they're troubling theologically – most of us have trouble accepting, or wanting to accept, the idea of a "puppetmaster" God*. Do we really believe in, and do we want to believe in, a God who could, for example, wipe out childhood cancer, but chooses not to because of some higher plan?

* I don't accept this idea of God. At all. If you want to know more about what I do believe, I gave a sermon about it on Kol Nidre.

So, no, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to talk about the Book of Life as, possibly, the single most troubling part of Jewish liturgy.

Over the years, there have been many, many attempts to reinterpret and/or reclaim this part of our service. And, one recent, powerful one was recently posted on
After losing my brother, two breasts, and almost three years of my life to illness and hospitals, I was over these platitudes. I stood up to speak.
“This is all fine. I get it. But my problem is that I am mad at God.” I even talked about the Unetanah Tokef, which had been a grueling part of the High Holiday liturgy since Jeremy died. Who shall live and who shall die?
A surge went through the room. I had uttered the unspeakable. Afterwards people came up to thank me for my honesty. One was a hospice chaplain, himself a cancer survivor.
“Remember,” he said, “there is a such thing as holy anger. Think of the prophets. Anger can be a spiritual feeling.”
This is, to me, an incredibly important insight. It was first expressed to me in Rabbinical School by Rabbi Larry Hoffman. He taught us, many times, to not make the mistake of thinking that religion is entirely about feeling good. About being happy. Religion is about finding meaning in the world, and finding a system and a language for understanding our lives, and our world. Sometimes, sadness, anger or other "negative" emotions are called for. Are appropriate reactions to a situation. And, in those cases, religion should give us a way to express, and even sanctify, those emotions.

Anger can be holy. Sadness can be holy.

That doesn't mean that we embrace them, in the sense that we seek them out. Of course we prefer happiness to sadness. But, we also acknowledge that anger, sadness and so on are real, and we can't hide from them. That's called denial, and it's not healthy – mentally or spiritually.

But, the author then goes on to express another idea, one of which I think is the most profound in Judaism. You don't have to believe in a literal, specific Divine Plan in order to find meaning, or growth, in our suffering:
Fate is not a meritocracy, with good people reaping the best outcomes of health and wealth. We do have free will and are expected to use it. In Deuteronomy, we are famously told, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Justice is something we must seek. And holy anger may be the fuel for doing so.
For whatever reason–randomness, divine will–cancer has entered my life. Out of this pain, I have inadvertently become an advocate for young adults with this disease and for educating patients and caregivers, particularly about the social and emotional aspects of treatment and survivorship. I don’t pretend to know if I am just making meaning out of suffering or fulfilling some important pre-ordained path. But I do know it brings me comfort.
As I learned from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book Fate And Destiny, there is an enormous difference between two similar approaches to tragedies:

  1. God made this happen. It's part of a divine plan. There's a reason for it, and I must find that reason. Once I do, I'll be able to accept it, and even grow from it.
  2. We'll never know why this happened. There may be no reason. But, it did happen. Now I have to ask myself, "what can I learn from this?"
Answer #1 sounds very wise and sophisticated. But, there are all sort of problems with it. There's a logical problem of an unprovable assertion, of course. But, there's a larger problem: if God really wanted this to happen, if God made this happen, but it wasn't bad. It was good. No matter what it was – childhood cancer, nuclear war, massive deaths through natural disaster – it's all good. It has to be, if God ordained it. In asserting this, what we're actually doing, Soloveitchik observed, is denying the reality of badness. Of evil. And that, he teaches, isn't sophisticated at all. Because it's not true.

Tragedies are not good, disguised as bad. Tragedies are bad. Cancer is bad. Tragic deaths are bad. Suffering is bad. We don't have to pretend otherwise.

Answer #2 doesn't pretend to know. It doesn't assign any motives to an unknowable God, because how could we? And, it doesn't pretend that things that we know to be awful, are actually good. It doesn't ask us to embrace, and pretend to enjoy, the suffering and death of loved ones. It allows us to hate those things, to rail against them. And then, it begs us to move forward. And to not get stuck in that hate, or that anger.

Some people ask, "why?" Some ask "what now?"

The world is unpredictable place. Awful, tragic, terrifying things happen to people, every day. We don't know why they happen, and we certainly don't know how to stop them from happening. But, if we can find the strength, we can learn what we have to do, once they do happen.

We will never explain or justify the terrible things in our world. But, through our faith, and strength, we might be able to redeem them.

No comments: