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A rabbi explains how to make sense of suffering

“We’ve been suddenly plunged into an existential crisis, and we’re not a society in general that turns to deep questions of life meaning.”

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The chaos of the past few months has got me thinking a lot about suffering, what it means, and how we should respond to it.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and racial unrest, I wanted to step back — way, way back — and revisit core questions about our life together and our responsibilities to ourselves and to each other.

As part of Future Perfect’s new limited-series podcast, The Way Through, my colleague Sigal Samuel and I are sitting down with theologians and philosophers and other thinkers to talk about these big questions and how they can help us navigate this difficult moment.

My first conversation is with David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of many books, including Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. It was published in 1999, but it feels relevant for reasons that I hope are clear: These are hard times, we’re surrounded by pain and anger, and the way forward is very much uncertain.

There’s a natural impulse to turn away from suffering, or to look for ways to rationalize it or explain it away. In this conversation, we lean into it. There are plenty of smart people thinking and writing about what we ought to do and how we ought to do it. This is an attempt to dig into the theology of suffering and ask how it can point us in a fruitful direction.

You can hear our entire conversation in the podcast here. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Subscribe to Future Perfect: The Way Through on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

I should say at the top that I’m not a believer, but, like you, I went through a militant atheism phase when I was younger, and while I’m still what you’d call an agnostic, I’ve come to appreciate the richness and complexity of religion — or at least see it as more than a set of truth claims.

Rabbi David Wolpe

Well, thank you. I will say that I did a bunch of public debates with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and others, and I generally found that the real dividing point wasn’t so much about proving or disproving intellectual claims. I tried to keep arguing that religion was so much broader and deeper than their conception of this man in the sky, and I think that, for a lot of people, their religion is less about truth claims than it is about the way they live and they try to get meaning and depth and purpose and community out of their lives.

Sean Illing

That’s partly why I wanted to talk to you. This is obviously a very difficult time and I wonder how it looks from your point of view? What do you think is happening in our society right now?

David Wolpe

I think that the spiritual malaise of the society, the sense of the meaningless at the core, is partly a result of the fact that our tools, which make us so much more efficient, also serve to isolate us from one another. Then the pandemic came along and exacerbated that isolation, and people ask deep questions about what is this about and what is this for and how can life just change on a dime and how am I supposed to live in the absence of all the things that I used to take for granted and care about?

In other words, we have been suddenly plunged into an existential crisis, and we’re not a society in general that turns to deep questions of life meaning. We are a society more of doing things and achieving things and less reflective. And this has forced us back to be reflective, and I think that’s an uncomfortable position for a lot of people.

Sean Illing

What are we being forced to reflect upon in this moment that we’re normally able to avoid?

David Wolpe

When someone suffers a sudden loss, they invariably wonder, “What is the purpose of life and why is it that I didn’t realize how ephemeral everything is yesterday?” And I think that that’s what as a society we’re going through. How is it that it is possible for somebody to bite a bat in Wuhan and the world closes down? And it’s not just that it’s hard to understand, it is impossible to understand. It’s far beyond our ability to process.

And so [there are] the deepest questions of what is this all about and how is it that someone can lead a perfectly decent and upright life and be struck down by this bizarre disease, which is like veering off the highway of life in such a radical way, how is that possible to cope with? And how do we go on and make meaning in a world in which meaning can be so immediately and devastatingly derailed?

I think that’s the spiritual crisis.

Sean Illing

You wrote in your book, “Unless we see ourselves as spiritual beings, we shall never truly advance in our understanding of humanity. In times of grief, we need to deal with the unreasonable and only traditions that speak directly to the human soul will guide us through.”

I’d love to know what you meant by that.

David Wolpe

We need to see ourselves as more than just stuff. We have to realize that there is, in addition to all the physical needs of human beings, there is a deep hunger in people to believe that they are attached to something greater than themselves. William James, the philosopher, said, “The great use of life is to spend it on something that outlasts it.”

And I think for all of us, we understand that to be fully realized, both as individuals and as a society, we have to think beyond ourselves. And that is a spiritual decision. It’s not a political or a social or physical decision, it’s something that you have to place faith in. The simplest premises of life, like why should I get up in the morning? Or is love meaningful? Those aren’t things that you can chart or prove.

They’re the spiritual basis by which we have to live our lives.

Sean Illing

I struggle with that, to be honest. My instinct is to look at the political world through a social scientific lens, to look at the concrete structures that underpin our society and identify that as the root of our problems, but I want to take what you’re saying seriously, so I’ll ask: What is the unreasonable part of this problem that we must deal with? And how can we speak to the human soul right now, in this moment, in a way that will dissolve the boundaries that keep us apart?

David Wolpe

The end of your question helps me speak to the beginning of it, because if you see it through social or political lenses, then the divisions are unbridgeable. In my own congregation, I have people on the right and people on the left, and I mean the far right and the far left. And one thing that has impressed me over the past many years is that there is no argument and no means of persuasion that either side will accept from the other side. Every time someone sends me an article and says, “Oh, this is a clincher,” I see that they believe that one argument or another will prove that their point of view is correct.

But what does unite them is at a funeral when someone they both know dies, or when they’re all singing together in prayer, and then you don’t know who’s a Republican or who’s a Democrat, or when someone has a joy or a tragedy in their family. And that’s because the deepest levels of ourselves are not political selves and not social selves, they’re spiritual selves. And when you touch that, this is why religion has the potential to be a tremendous uniter. It’s kind of forced multiplier. It can be a divider too, but it can be a tremendous uniter when people have very different social or political orientations realize that at bottom they’re the same.

Sean Illing

I haven’t experienced any great losses in this moment, but I am angry. I’m angry that people are dying needlessly, I’m angry that the least among us are bearing the greatest burden, as they always do, I’m angry that so many seem so content with so much malice and so much incompetence, and I guess ultimately I’m angry because I feel so small and the problems feel so big and that fills me with a sense of powerlessness. And I’m not sure what to do with that in terms of turning it into something that is constructive and not just a cause for inertia.

David Wolpe

I write a weekly column that has been up for close to 30 years in the New York Jewish Week. The column is 200 words or less every week. And just last week, it was called Against Anger. And what I said is that feeling anger is inevitable and sometimes important. Acting out of anger is the trap. Because when we act out of anger, we don’t act. Most of the time, we don’t act the way we should and could to make things better.

No single person can reverse the tide, but they can add their voice, they can give aid and comfort to people who are doing good things, because even as that is happening, we also know that there are doctors and other healthcare workers and scientists who are working around the clock and helping them and giving them support.

My synagogue is distributing food to people who need it most, as are many other synagogues and churches. We can’t, you and I, legislate different policies because we believe they would be helpful, but we can do certain things that matter. We can find out which charities are the most effective and give to them. We can man soup kitchens. We can express our solidarity with people who are suffering.

On the side of my synagogue, we put up a very simple banner. We’ve never put up a banner before, except [when] school is opening in September, but we put up a very simple banner that said, “We stand with our African American brothers and sisters against racism.” And we didn’t put it up there because we thought it would change the world, but because we thought, and the emails and letters I’ve received since demonstrate that people want to feel not alone. And if you say to them, “You’re not alone. I at least am hearing you. I’m not in your position, but I hear you,” that’s more than you might think it is, Sean. That’s a tremendous gift to people who don’t know if anyone’s listening.

Sean Illing

You talk a lot about giving into despair as a kind of sin, but I want to challenge you on one point because I think it illuminates an important point. What if I were to tell you that there is no God and the world isn’t so much dark as indifferent? And if there is going to be any justice in the world, it will be the work of human hands, not God’s.

I say that because one problem I’ve had with faith over the years, or at least certain manifestations of faith, is that sometimes it leads to an acceptance of the way things are — that’s God’s will and that there’s nothing we can do about that. And that there’s a kind of quietism in that that I think can get in the way of the sort of action we need to move forward.

David Wolpe

I agree with virtually everything you just said.

Sean Illing

I gotta be honest, I wasn’t expecting that.

David Wolpe

I have a problem with that variety of faith for exactly that reason. I remember once having a debate years ago, with Sadhguru, who is a well-known Indian guru, who came to my congregation. A wonderful man in many ways. A really interesting person. And I’ve had other dialogues with him since, but we had a long debate about reincarnation because I said, “Look, reincarnation means that whatever life you’re living now, it’s because of what you did in the past life. And that means if your life is miserable now, you deserve it because in a past life, you lived a certain way.” I said, “And that negates everything that I believe that this world is essentially unfair and that you have to do what you can to make it fair.”

I think that our task in this world, and I would say our God-given task, is to do everything we can to make the world as good and as fair as we can, but also to accept ultimately that there are limitations, not only to what we can do, but to what we can understand.

The same people who understand that the human eye can’t see all the colors and the human ear can’t hear all the frequencies, somehow seem to believe that the human brain can understand all the dimensions. The brain was created by evolution, just like the eye and the ear. There are infinite aspects to this world that we don’t begin to understand. My faith is not about letting God do stuff that I can do. My faith is about trusting that God does stuff that I can’t do, that no human being can do. And believing that I can live in such a way as to fulfill the purpose for which I was sent to this world.

Now, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I know that very well. In fact, I’ll use a biblical reference since surely I should get at least one biblical reference in as a rabbi. When the Israelites come to the Red Sea, Moses starts crying out to God and God says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Move forward.” And I think of that as a motto. If you’re praying for something you could do, that’s not it.

Let me give you a different image of prayer. This is from a 17th-century rabbi named Leona Medina. He said, “If you were standing by the side of a lake and you saw a man pulling a boat to the shore, you might think, if you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, that he was pulling the shore to the boat, but that’s not true. He’s pulling the boat to the shore.” He said, “When people pray, they make the same mistake. They think what they’re doing is pulling God to their wishes. But when you pray successfully, what you’re doing is pulling yourself closer to God.” So I don’t see prayer as inviting God to do things that I should be doing. I see prayer as motivating me to do things that God wishes me to do.

Sean Illing

When we lose something — a loved one, a memory, a relationship — people try to fix it for us. And that’s a mistake because we can’t get back what’s already gone. And this situation is no different. We can’t undo or give back what’s been taken generation after generation from so many people. We can’t fix their pain. We can’t bring back those who have fallen ill and passed away. But we can absolutely do something now to fix it, to fix what’s broken. And I worry that the righteous anger on one side and the denial on the other side is blocking the way to that solution.

Is that what worries you the most?

David Wolpe

It’s hard to say what worries me the most, but it’s certainly dispiriting to see how unable people are to speak to one another. And by the way, to forgive one another. There is an almost righteous vengeance against people who at any time in their life said something wrong or did something wrong, but that also blocks our ability to communicate across lines. Because without forgiveness, there is no reconciliation. And without the recognition that all human beings are going to do bad things or say something that was wrong or unintended or hasty or even cruel, you have to be able to listen and forgive. And we are in a moment which starts at the top and moves all the way down through society of such vitriol and such denigration of the people who disagree with you and I don’t know how we pull back from that precipice.

I know that societies can do it, though. I’ve been to South Africa and for all the problems that that society had, what they managed to do because of Mandela, because there was a Mandela, was astonishing. But I don’t see our Mandela whom everybody could listen to on the horizon. And so I don’t know how we’re going to get such angry and oppositional sides to come together at this moment

Sean Illing

What can we draw from faith right now, and I don’t just mean your faith but all faiths, that we can’t draw from anywhere else?

David Wolpe

I think there are two big things. The first is that all of the monotheistic faiths, and there are equivalents in the Eastern religions, but I don’t want to speak for them, but all of the monotheistic faiths speak about human beings being created in the image of God. It’s the earliest statement about human beings in the Hebrew Bible and Christianity and Islam follow suit. If you really believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, then every person is precious in that way. And that means that their essential nature as a child of God is deeper than any political, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, any other kind of overlay of that. This is the foundation of what everyone is. And if people took that more seriously, I think that would help a lot.

Then the second is that the essential religious position is that all human beings are a collective and in the same boat. And you can see that obviously scientifically — we’re all on this planet, for example, but if you see the real human predicament as the same everywhere, then you can understand that other human beings, even when they seem antagonistic or angry, that there is something deep within them that shares your doubts, your perplexities, your suffering, your worry, your mortality. The fact that they will face death as you will. And so, those two statements of commonality are what religious leaders at their best preach to the people who all too often want to hear other messages.

Sean Illing

I must say that I have always struggled to stay hopeful, because the fragility of the world means it is always so much easier to break than to build, and that means every achievement is like a sand castle waiting to be washed away by the tide. Listening to you now, and reading your books, you seem to conceive of faith as the ability not to be weighed down by fear of these losses.

Is that how you see it?

David Wolpe

I never thought of it that way, and I thank you for putting it like that. I think that’s true, I think that’s what faith is. Faith is not to allow the fear or the loneliness or the despair to be the final word. To really believe that, ultimately, our trajectory is in the ascendant and that we will overcome this, that as dark as things look, the dawn is coming. And when I look back in history, the people that we most admire, they’re like Rembrandt portraits. They’re the faces that shine back out of the darkness. Whether you think of Rev. Martin Luther King or Lincoln or Moses, I think that that’s what they were. They took dark difficult times and they gave people hope.

And in the end, they were right.

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