After reading yet another editorial on the evils of belief in God and religion, I tossed the paper down in fury. I began to write a response that day and one year later, I hold in my hand a completed book. The day I turned in the final pages, I said to my wife “You know, it all began the day I read that editorial.” She looked at me sweetly, “No, David, it all began the day you were diagnosed with lymphoma. Right after you finished chemotherapy, you began the book.”
She was right. “Why Faith Matters” is about religion’s place in the world, in our lives; does religion breed violence (ultimately, no), can it be reconciled with science (ultimately, yes). But each page is shadowed by the struggles both my wife and I have had with cancer. True reckoning with faith is about faith in the dark cloud, how it touches not only society, but the individual and the family.
Nine months after our daughter was born, our only child, my wife was diagnosed with reproductive cancer that left her unable to have more children. A few years later, I suffered a grand mal seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Three years after that, I was in treatment for lymphoma.
Throughout our trials, we were embraced by others. The warmth of community, the prayers of those around us – this is religion as it is lived. Religion is less in grand theological declarations than in everyday kindnesses; in hymns and help and hope.
Sometimes the journey to faith begins in a journey away. When I was twelve I lost my faith. I had seen a movie documenting the horrors of the Holocaust and decided God could not exist in so tragic a universe. But it was the constant questioning of deep faith that led me back. I can explain with a story:
In Primo Levi’s masterpiece “Survival in Auschwitz,” Levi recalls that while suffering from thirst he broke off an icicle outside a barracks window. When a nearby guard “snatched” it from him, Levi asked “Warum?” “Why?” The guard responds in German “Hier ist kein warum” “Here there is no why.” The greatest terror is if the universe presents to us a blank face.
Without God, there is no why.
The book opens with a story of my standing beside the bed of a man dying of cancer. We had both endured chemotherapy; mine was successful, at least for now. His had failed. He wanted to know why. I could not answer why, but I could tell him there is a why. God is not the automatic solution to all questions, but the assurance of meaning. Is the world spinning in a void, or is there a purpose to the pageant of life and death? I believe that we do matter, that our faith matters, and that turning our souls to God can improve our lives and help to heal the world.
Both my wife and I are reminded each day of what we cherish. Our experience with cancer led us not to doubt but to gratitude, not to question God’s goodness but to affirm God’s love.
David Wolpe is a Senior Rabbi at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, California. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Hunter College in New York, and currently teaches at UCLA.