Where Is God? A Jewish Approach to Death

Where was God when I was run over by the train? God was there when the nurses treated me with kindness as I slowly recovered from the pain, when my broad community visited me in the hospital.  

CW: This essay discusses suicidality.

I want to talk about death, and how Judaism treats death. Especially how Reconstructing Judaism approaches the end of life, and what we think about it. What is it about my life that would lead me to address this topic?

First is my own near experience with death. As many of you know, but those who are new do not, today I sit before you as a double amputee because of a suicide attempt I made in 2015. I was very depressed and was not managing my depression well at all, in spite of the efforts of psychiatrists and medications. The stigma of depression and suicidality kept me from fully confronting what I was going through.

So, on Nov. 11, 2015, I put myself on the subway train tracks in New York City. A train ran over me, taking my two limbs.

Why didn’t I die that day? Who survives being run over by a train? My psychiatrist asked me if I thought there was a reason that I didn’t die. Many of my friends and visitors said exactly that to me: “You weren’t meant to die.”

What does that mean? Are people meant to die? Certainly, some people are. I recently lost my father. He was 91 years old and ill. He had lived a happy and full life. As sad as we all were, we had no doubt that he was meant to die the day that he did. But was it because of God that he died? Or was it simply because he had outlived his physical life?

Is there really a God that has a plan? The horrors of our history are not well-explained by that. Most recently, how do we explain that more than 1 million people have already died from COVID-19? Is there a God making some plan that hundreds of thousands of people should get an illness that could lead to death? I don’t think so.

At the international convention of Reconstructing Judaism in 2018, Reconstructing Judaism President Rabbi Deborah Waxman interviewed me for the Hashivenu podcast (Season 1, Episode 20, Choosing Life). She asked me to reflect on Jewish teachings about death. I didn’t know how to answer. We discussed how the Unetanah Tokef prayer is one of the few places in our liturgy that confronts our mortality head on. “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed — how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

I don’t believe that this is the case. I don’t believe that there is some kind of grand plan about how many deaths will occur in any given year. What kind of God allows so many to die by COVID-19? The same questions we asked after the Holocaust we ask today. Where is God when tragedy happens?

I encourage you all to listen to Deborah’s speech to the Chautauqua Institution, which you can find on the Reconstructing Judaism website. From her, I learned to appreciate that Reconstructing Judaism argues against the existence of a personal God who is out there making life-and-death decisions. This is certainly why I am a Reconstructionist Jew. As Deborah described, “Reconstructionism seeks to harmonize religion with rationalism.” So how does this work? When we ask, “Where was God when this horrible thing happened?” The answer is the Divine is everywhere and appears in every action, but is not intervening in a direct way in our lives.

So where was God when I was run over by the train? Well, God was in the EMTs who rushed to help as they transported me to the hospital. God was there when the doctors brought me back to life, repairing all the damage that my actions that day had caused. God was there when the nurses treated me with kindness as I slowly recovered from the pain that I was experiencing. God was certainly there when my broad community visited me in the hospital. My many rabbis came saying prayers with me. Close friends and family members never left my side. And my physical therapists, occupational therapists and prosthetists made sure I walked again.

I have looked for explanations in Jewish texts for the phenomenon of death. A friend of mine suggested that I look at Psalm 88 to answer some of my questions. I did look at that Psalm, but I did not find that it addressed my questions, or that it did so in a way that makes sense to a Reconstructionist.

Psalm 88 concludes that there is a personal God who makes definitive decisions to cause harm. Psalm 88 claims, “Your fury lies heavy upon me; you afflict me with all your breakers. Selah.” It never gets better. In fact, the Psalm ends with the line, “You have put friend and neighbor far from me and my companions out of my sight.”

How can this Psalm mean anything to me when my experience in life has been the opposite? I hadn’t heard Deborah speak about the fact that Reconstructing Judaism does not acknowledge a personal God. I didn’t believe in a personal God, which caused me to doubt God’s existence. But I couldn’t reconcile my nonbelief with the feeling that there was some kind of Divine presence in our lives. So, I simply ignored the question of whether or not God exists.

I do believe after all these years that I wasn’t meant to die that day. But I believe it was the intervention of so many people who made that happen. God was there that day, not to personally intervene to prevent me from dying, but, as Mordecai Kaplan said, “God is the power that makes for salvation.” Deborah quoted several scholars in her speech. Something she said deeply resonated with me. She quoted Martin Buber, who encouraged us to ask not “where is God?” but “when is God?” He suggested that “the answer was almost always in our interactions with each other, most especially when those interactions contribute to the collective good.”

It was a good thing that I didn’t die that day. The devastation my death would have caused to those in my personal circle is unimaginable. But by the actions of not only my abundant personal circle, but all those who cared for me, I lived. God didn’t personally “save” me. The people around me did. And God was there when they did.

Based on a d’var Torah delivered at a meeting of the Board of Governors of Reconstructing Judaism on Oct. 18, 2020.

Susan Levine is vice chair of the board of governors of Reconstructing Judaism. She is a member of two Reconstructionist communities in Cotati, Calif. (Ner Shalom), and in San Francisco (Or Shalom). She is also a member of her local reform synagogue in Sonoma, Calif. (Shir Shalom). Susan and her husband, Jim Lauer, moved to Sonoma in 2015, where Susan retired. Susan spent her entire career in the financial-services industry, including serving as a senior official in the Clinton administration.

Susan grew up in Fargo, N.D. In spite of living among very few Jews, her Jewish identity was solidly formed growing up in a place where she knew she was different. She attended Swarthmore College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science, and Columbia University, where she earned her MBA.

Susan has always been active in the nonprofit world. She has served on many boards, both national and local. She is currently vice president of the board of the Sonoma Mentoring Alliance, an organization that supports young people in need of social and emotional support. Susan and Jim are mentors to a 13-year-old Latino boy. She is also actively involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization that supports the participation in athletics of people with physical challenges.

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