In the Face of Illness

June 1, 2011
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Facing Illness Finding God, by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 171 pp. $16.99)

Reviewed by Jason Weiner

Facing Illness Finding God by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler is an enjoyable read and an important contribution to the field of Jewish values in patient care. It is presented as a guide, both for patients experiencing illness and those who hope to lighten their burden by visiting them. The book consists of very brief chapters containing stories, lessons, and relevant quotes from rabbinic literature. Though this is not written as a scholarly or comprehensive work, it provides a helpful introduction to some of the basic concepts in Jewish pastoral care.

The first part of the book addresses the patient and provides meaningful thoughts on reaching inward to the soul when one’s body is failing. This section helps the patient articulate what he or she may be feeling and provides words of comfort and encouragement. The intended audience seems to be people with somewhat little Jewish background as considerable space is dedicated to introducing well-known customs such as changing a sick person’s name, saying morning blessings, or reciting the prayer of thanksgiving, Birkat Hagomel, upon recovery. Although Meszler treats these traditions as “relics from the past,” he does a nice job of showing how profoundly meaningful they can be, if taken seriously.

The second part of the book addresses those providing spiritual care for patients. It includes a number of interesting and important anecdotes and pointers, such as the need to be fully present for patients — that is, making them rather than us the primary focus of a visit. This section, like the book in general, tends not to treat subjects extensively. For example, Meszler brings up complex and pressing issues like mental health and addiction, but he offers minimal practical advice or approaches to dealing with these issues. He does mention well known organizations that specialize in these matters, which is appropriate since this book’s intended audience may find it most prudent to make a referral if they encounter these issues.

The final part of the book focuses on God and prayer, which highlights one of the book’s more problematic aspects. While one might expect such a short book of sweet stories and brief comforting lessons to avoid contentious theological issues, throughout the book, Meszler rejects belief in an omnipotent God and views the power of prayer as having limited potential. He begins by arguing that bad things don’t happen for a reason, but that, “from a Jewish point of view, good and evil can only be the product of human decisions” (32) and nature (34). In my experience, this view is often unhelpful for people seeking to give or receive comfort and guidance in the face of illness.

More troubling, the book contains some incorrect citations, misquotes, and contradictions. Perhaps most surprising is Meszler’s claim that Maimonides suggested that everything that happens in life is simply the result of natural phenomenon (34), which directly contradicts Maimonides’ own 11th Principle of Faith and ruling in Hilchot Teshuvah 9:1. Textual errors aside, Meszler — rather than addressing this issue in a sophisticated and nuanced manner — simply dismisses the traditionalist view as “offensive.” (33) While this brief review is not the place to debate Jewish theology, my experience as a chaplain has taught me that it is often better to avoid such discussions with a suffering patient, and that different patients find a very wide range of diverse beliefs comforting. After all, although Rabbi Meszler calls “absolute faith” a “lesser form of religion” and “unrealistic,” (162) and claims that “The goal of prayer in Judaism is humility” (148) not “Supernatural wish fulfillment,” (132) he goes on to relate that when his wife was in surgery he cried out to God, “Please help my wife.” (146)

One is left wondering if the author would do better to either completely remove the theological discussion from the book, treat it in a deeper manner, or create separate books for the patient and for the care provider. Either way, while scholars and professionals may find some aspects of this book lacking, it does contain many very valuable lessons and provides a wonderful introduction and inspiration to those who are new to visiting patients or are looking for some Jewish insights into the matter.

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1 Comment

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