It’s Hard To Bless The Judge of Truth: One Journey Toward A Nuanced Faith

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
February 7, 2013
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There were no photographs taken of me during that time. I did not write in my journal. The space between the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2004 on my resume is a silent white space.

During the final minutes of 2002, as the clock ticked forward to 2003, I looked up at the night sky and said aloud, “this year has got to be better than last year!”

The previous year, I had withdrawn from my Conservative rabbinical school which had borne the traditional theology of my childhood and early adulthood; everything happens for a reason, I’d been taught to believe. When someone died, I learned it was traditional to say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” But I did not, could not, believe it. Conservative Judaism had taught me the language of religious obligation, of righteous prayer being rewarded, of walking humbly with God. After years of wrestling with the God I’d inherited, I had finally chosen to walk away from the God etched in black-and-white certainties. I’d transferred to Hebrew Union College and was to become a Reform rabbi. I proudly told anyone who asked, “even if I believe I know what God wants from me, I could never be audacious enough to presume I know what God wants from everyone else.”

My New Year’s Eve declaration was a prayer to and a condemnation of that God. I wanted to put the heartache of traditional Judaism behind me. I wanted a year of levity, of joy, of promise and beginnings. I believed the Rabbinic teaching, “mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal” which means that “when you change your place, you change your fate.”

Less than two weeks later, on January 12, 2003, the sirens of an ambulance sliced through another night, heading straight to my apartment.
An MRI revealed a ruptured brain aneurysm in my cerebellum, the site of equilibrium, balance and gross motor skills. Friends, family, and teachers filed into the hospital, grasping my hand as they comforted me before my imminent brain surgery. I was not lucid, though I pretended that I was. I cursed after a former teacher of mine reviewed the chaplain’s report, claiming that he’d read me a psalm before my procedure, which I insisted he had not done.

“I want a psalm!” I shouted, indignant. I requested “Esah Einei”, from Psalm 121, which begins with the words “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – from where will my help come?” I pictured the mountains lurching beyond the Conservative rabbinical school I’d left behind. I lost consciousness.

The first choices I remember making after the surgery were no more complicated than selecting between the different entres on the hospital menu for meals each day. The selection overwhelmed me; I could not fathom my mood or culinary desires 24 hours ahead of time. I stopped keeping kosher at Cedars Sinai hospital when I carefully selected chicken soup from the special kosher menu and macaroni and cheese from the regular menu for the same meal, mixing two things meant to be kept separate – meat and milk – with full knowledge and intention.

If someone had asked me before the aneurysm how I might respond theologically to a life-altering tragedy, I would have immediately responded that it would only make my faith stronger. Despite the constant influx of rabbis and rabbinical students visiting me, God never once entered my hospital room. There were healing circles (I rolled my eyes), prayers stuffed into the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem on my behalf (I laughed out loud), and psalms recited for my healing. I used finger-paints in art therapy to write profanities. I refused the hospital chaplains’ requests to visit me.

Instead, I started to read the Book of Job with my Bible teacher, Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, a gem from my new rabbinical school with whose classes and wisdom I’d fallen in love in the few short months after my transfer to HUC. She prodded me to read aloud in Hebrew, enlarging the text several times on a copy machine so I might see the letters more clearly. She came each week for months to read and translate the Book of Job with me, helping me to feel intellectually competent amidst the sea of simple tasks I could no longer complete.
She helped me return to school and, along with kind and loving rabbis and colleagues, urged me to complete my training despite my deeply rooted theological doubts. In Job, we read about loss and rage and faith and prayer. I found that Job railed in anger at the divine, demanding justice and finding none. He lost his fortune, his future, and his hope. He cursed the day he was born, wishing instead to have never lived than to endure such suffering. Dr. Eskenazi made sure I read and translated even those verses with complicated and convoluted Hebrew, catching each nuance and interpreting it according to my own experiences.

The first sermon I gave at my school was based on the Torah reading wherein the Israelites leave Egypt, crossing over the stormy sea from slavery to freedom. The Torah teaches about a commandment to place a physical sign on the body (interpreted to mean the black, leather straps of tefillin traditionally worn in prayer) to always remember that with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt. I spoke about the scar at the base of my scull and my weakened left arm (both sites where the tefillin lay) as my personal tefillin – my eternal reminder of my own redemption from bondage. I ended the sermon with a hopeful nod to my recovery, and saw that my neurologist was seated in the congregation, wearing his own tefillin.

The last sermon I gave at school was from Deuteronomy, where God says to the people, “I call heaven and earth as a witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live!” I spoke about the difficulty of choosing life – knowing that “life” is filled with both blessings and curses. I was ordained as a rabbi less than a year later. When people die, I do not say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed is the Judge of Truth” because, like Job, I’m not sure it’s true.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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