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'Why Did It Happen and What Have You Learned?'

October 16, 2008 By:
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David J. Wolpe's new book, Why Faith Matters, which has been published by Harper One, begins in a particularly powerful way. In what he calls a prelude, the rabbi, who grew up in Philadelphia and is the son of Har Zion Temple's rabbi emeritus, Gerald I. Wolpe, describes how he recently stood by the side of a hospital bed in which a friend of his was dying of cancer. Identified only as Isaac, the friend wanted Wolpe to explain why he was sick, why he had to die, and why particularly he had to leave his children and grandchildren.

In the experience of any rabbi, this scene is a fairly typical one. In fact, how many rabbis haven't been asked to provide answers to such fundamental questions? But there was a twist to this particular colloquy. Wolpe was just getting over his own battle with lymphoma and so, instead of telling Isaac that what had befallen him was all part of God's plan, or confessing that he had no idea why it had come to pass, the two friends began by swapping stories about their chemotherapies.

Writes Wolpe: "My hair was just beginning to grow back after a bout with lymphoma; Isaac's, wispy to start, was gone from the drugs that had targeted all the fast-growing cells in his body. They had done a thorough job on his hair but not on his cancer.

"We talked about the strange gratitude we felt for the medicinal poison as it coursed through our veins. There was a moment of solidarity, and then sadness returned. Battle stories are not nostalgic when they end in death.

" 'But at least you understand,' Isaac said."

Cancer as a Gift

This final statement is what makes these opening moments both so effective and so poignant: Rabbi and friend cannot kid one another, cannot fake comprehension by mouthing pieties or offering false comfort. Wolpe admits that, since he can have this kind of exchange, on this level of honesty, he has come to look upon his cancer as a gift, since "it gave more context to my compassion." Isaac really did know that Wolpe understood, and that the rabbi and his family were not unscathed.

As it turns out, Wolpe had not gone through just a single scare, but through several. "Four years before my lymphoma I had undergone surgery for a brain tumor, thankfully benign. Five years before that, after the birth of our daughter, my wife's cancer led to surgery that cured her but left her unable to bear more children. After each experience, people would ask why it happened and what I learned. Now someone was asking not out of curiosity or even spiritual hunger, but existential urgency."

Those first few fundamental questions that Isaac had asked -- why was he sick and why must he leave his family? -- still hung in the air in the hospital room, and Wolpe knew he could not avoid them any longer, that he would have to try to come to some reckoning with these unfathomable subjects. He said he gathered himself together and tried to answer as best he could.

One thing he knew, he said, was what the cancer did not mean. It was not a punishment of any sort. "The calculus of reward and punishment in this world is surely more complex than sin equals cancer," he writes. "In my darkest moments when I was most afraid I still did not believe God decreed I would get cancer because I had not lived up to expectations."

Wolpe also told Isaac that the cancer was not about him alone, that those who cared for him were suffering as well.

Did he believe in another world? Wolpe asked. Isaac said he wasn't sure, but he hoped for it. The rabbi quoted novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who once said, "Life is such a remarkable surprise, why should death be less of a surprise?"

Continues Wolpe: "[Isaac] smiled and in that smile was both sadness and a shared moment of hope. Maybe all the chemotherapy, the scans and shots, that kept us in the world, were postponing the bliss of a life to come.

"And yet. To die is to lose everything we know, all the wonders of this world and the people in it. To die is to leave so many stories unfinished and to miss the next act of the stories of others, those whom we know and whom we love." Wolpe wondered what else he could say to a man who was facing the inevitable.

A thought came to him: He remembered that, when he was sick, it became clear that others were watching his reactions -- would his faith be of any help to him, these people wondered? Does faith give one strength? Aware that others were watching him, Wolpe realized that "in sickness we are not powerless. We still have the ability to teach."

He then told Isaac that, because his family was watching him, this gave him the opportunity to teach a great lesson. "They would remember much about him to be sure," writes Wolpe, "but they would never forget how he died. His acceptance, his dignity, even his hope, could change their lives. ...

"The two of us in the hospital room held hands, and agreed that if we could, we would pass from this life with words of love and hope for awakenings to come. Shortly afterwards, Isaac passed away. His children speak of him with reverence for his life and for the way in which he faced death. As with all meetings of the spirit there was not one who gave and one who took; there were two who stood with each other and before God, and even in their sadness, felt blessed."

After reading this nearly overwhelming opening, you wonder how Wolpe will ever top it. But not only does he follow it with lots of other affecting anecdotes, all of them skillfully rendered, he constructs a most convincing argument that demonstrates, as his title puts it, why faith matters. He takes on the new atheists and argues against fanaticism in faith. As he puts it, "I do not believe our choice is either an absence of God or an over-zealous embrace of God."

What Wolpe provides is a dialogue about faith and history, faith and science, and just how faith functions in the world. And the ultimate questions that lie beneath this wide-ranging exploration are at times very personal for Wolpe, while also being universal: "What awaits me after I die? What do I transmit to my children? Why are we here? Can I believe that we all live in the presence of God?"

After the moving prelude with Isaac, Wolpe begins the book with his own journey from faith to doubt during his teen years -- and his eventual return to belief. Then he tackles issues such as where religion comes from, whether religion causes violence, whether science disproves religion, exactly what religion teaches and whether religion is good for people.

Why Help a Stranger?

For example, in the discussion about whether science disproves religion, the rabbi considers the question of altruism and tells another of his moving anecdotes. After relating a gem of a story about his father's childhood, which I won't spoil for you, Wolpe asks: "What possible explanation is there for a person who spends her time, resources and skills helping another? According to evolutionary theory, if that person is a relative there is a ready explanation: it is nature's subtle way of perpetuating the gene pool. I will sacrifice myself for my child because she carries my genes,

"But why would I throw myself on a grenade to save someone whom I do not know? Or donate a kidney, or even bother to donate blood?"

These passages are indicative of Wolpe's method. At each point, he never, not even once, raises his voice, and that's because he doesn't have to. (Nor does he ever exploit his suffering to induce emotions in the reader.) His prose has an admirable clarity, and his examples are so exact that, even if people disagree with his conclusions, they will end up respecting his knowledge while also effortlessly learning a great deal about religion, science, history and -- perhaps most important of all -- what amazing depths there are to human nature. 

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