For as long as I can remember my primary identity has been grounded in Jewish community. From summer camp to youth group, that is where I first felt I belonged. So much so that I went on to minor in Judaic Studies in college and focus on Jewish Communal Service in graduate school. Most of my 25-year career has been spent serving the Jewish people, and I have always felt lucky for the chance.
While Jewish peoplehood and Jewish faith are not the same things, I’ve generally taken my faith for granted. I work in a synagogue, after all.
When I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer I felt the warm embrace of both the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. My community could not have possibly been more supportive and I never bothered to think through the distinctions. My connection to them was synonymous with my connection to God. I was grateful for the many prayer groups across the county who held me close, to the strangers who would never know more than my name, but petitioned God on my behalf anyway. And our faith seemingly prevailed. Despite the unpleasantness of chemo and a long, long surgical recovery, I was “cured” and able to leave breast cancer behind me, stronger for the experience.
Today, as a metastatic patient from whom mortality cannot be hidden, I’m less sure. My faith’s teachings are admittedly vague on the subject on afterlife, favoring a focus on what we can and must do in this life over speculation about the next one. We have this time, it seems to say – make the most of it. Enjoy it, but do good things, too. Not because you’ll get credit for it later, but because it’s the right way to be. So after all these years of serving the Jewish community, of trying to do good things, what’s left? I understand I may not die of breast cancer, but I will unquestionably die with it. And as each treatment fails me, my faith is a bit more compromised.
Are God and heaven and hell just human constructs designed to make us feel better, safer, about the mystery that is dying? Are they real in the absence of evidence, in the same way that we can’t see or capture the wind? Or perhaps they exist only for those who have faith. I don’t believe my faith will heal me, as much as I wish it could. Wonderful, saintly people have died of illness, and evil people have lived long and prospered. It’s impossible for me to believe in an interventionist God in a world like that.
Ultimately I believe, with rare exceptions that range from Hitler to the Dalai Lama (yeah, don’t see those two in the same category very often, do you?), that we mostly try to be good, and we succeed and we fail and we go on. I have friends, mostly Christian, who urge me to have faith. I understand why – from their perspective faith is the key to heaven. From mine, if there is one, it is good deeds. And I guess I believe that actions do speak louder than words…
But it begs the question of faith. As the lives of some many fellow bloggers and twitter friends are prematurely stolen from us, as my own health falters, do I have faith?
I remember when my mother in law was diagnosed with mesothelioma. In the months before she died we would have long conversations of faith. She had, once, believed in life after death, and had a notion of it being good. As her death approached however, just when she probably needed it most, her faith was gone, or at least well masked. She came to believe in nothing. I’ve always hoped in her final days, when she no longer had the strength to talk on the phone, that she found what she needed.
Which has me wondering what I need. Would this path be easier if I were a true, unquestioning believer? Would I find comfort in “knowing” what to expect after I die? Perhaps, if I could ever really move from thinking to knowing, a move the skeptic in me is likely to never make. In the end, it always takes me back to the very beginning. Within hours of being diagnosed the first time my anger at what this would mean for my loved ones burst forth. Never mind me, I’ve done bad things in my life. We all have. But to make my loved ones suffer for my actions, the unanswerable question always remained: what could Zach, at the tender age of three, have done to deserve this. That, in the end, confounds my faith; I have not found a way to put my trust in an unjust God.
I figure I have lots of time yet to work this one out…