September 18, 2008
Defender of Faith:
Rabbi David Wolpe explains why faith matters
Books such as Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation" and "The End of Faith," Richard Dawson's "The God Delusion," Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" and Bill Maher's soon-to-be-released film, "Religulous," would have us see faith as antiquated, illogical and dangerous.
And let's face it, the arguments they make are not without merit: In the shadow of Sept. 11, religion seems at the root of much hatred and violence the world over. The announcement of a financial, sexual or political scandal involving a religious official -- whether we cringe or feel some secret schadenfreude -- no longer shocks us. At the same time, in this country as in others, it seems like religion is increasingly seeking to take on public and political dimensions, reaching into education, medicine, science and social programs.
In a world where religion is the cause of so much folly, it becomes harder to defend faith, which makes Rabbi David Wolpe's new book, "Why Faith Matters" (HarperOne), all the more important.
"Why Faith Matters" is not a book that will convince anyone who doesn't already believe in God -- nor is it meant to. Yet believer and nonbeliever alike should find "Why Faith Matters" thought-provoking and challenging.
What the book does well, in short, succinct chapters, is address some of the more popularly held charges leveled against religion, such as "religion causes violence" or "science and religion are at odds." And it does so in a readable and erudite way, quoting from sources as diverse as Tacitus, Heinrich Heine, Nietzsche and Rabbi Hayyim of Zans.
More importantly, it makes the case for the seldom-acknowledged benefits of faith, such as community and charity, and elucidates how religion and religious practice can enhance the lives even of those who don't and will never believe in God. Wolpe also hopes the book will give comfort to those who have faith.
"It's not only written for those who doubt," Wolpe said recently, "but to settle the souls of people who believe."
Wolpe is turning 50 this Friday, Sept. 19, and has been the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles for the past 11 years. "Why Faith Matters" is his sixth book, and he wrote it not as a polemic response to the "New Atheists," but as a personal book about his own journey.
He was born in Harrisburg, Pa., where his father, Gerald Wolpe, was a Conservative rabbi. When David was 10, the family moved to Philadelphia, when Wolpe's father became the rabbi of Har Zion, a large Conservative synagogue on the city's Main Line.
Stephen Fried's "The New Rabbi" (Bantam 2002) chronicled the search to find a replacement for Wolpe's father when he retired. A New York Times' article about the book describes Wolpe's relationship with his father as "wonderfully complicated."
In "Why Faith Matters," Wolpe explains that as a teenager, after seeing the vivid documentary footage about the Holocaust in Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog," he became an atheist, embracing Bertrand Russell as one of his sages. Wolpe said he is attempting in this book to speak to his younger self. Yet, to a great extent, Wolpe now regards atheism as a failure of the imagination.
His central argument boils down to a rejection of the notion that "the only thing that is real is what you see or measure." Faith, he argues, adds another dimension to our experience of the world.
To Wolpe, religious faith is "an orientation of the universe," a way to invest all we do and all we experience with wonder and with meaning. When Peggy Lee asks: "Is that all there is?" Wolpe answers, "No."
This reminded me of an incident that occurred when my daughter was very young. She went through a phase, as all children do, of looking at the world around her, full of questions.
One night she asked me who made the stars in the sky. I replied, "God did," as much to come up with a quick and final answer as to avoid giving a more complicated scientific one.
A few weeks later, coming home late, as my wife, daughter and I stood at the front door, and as I fumbled to find my keys, my daughter said: "Listen." I listened and didn't hear anything.
"What?" I asked. She pointed upward and said, "It's The God. The God is everywhere."
Many people don't see or hear God's presence at all. And some feel that believing is childish.
Wolpe believes, however, that "there are things we outgrow and things we grow into." That struck me. What we dismiss as young people (like the value of having a job with a health care plan or retirement fund), we might revisit as we grow older.
Wolpe's own journey led him after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania from teenage atheist to studying to become a rabbi at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University). He spent a year in Israel and was ordained in 1987 at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, where he wrote his first book, "The Healer of Shattered Hearts" (Henry Holt & Company).
Over the next few years, Wolpe bounced back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, serving as director of UJ's library and assistant to the chancellor of JTS before returning finally to Los Angeles to serve as rabbi at Sinai Temple. Although Wolpe has been Sinai's rabbi for the last 11 years, he has performed High Holy Day services at Sinai since he was a student 25 years ago.
His tenure has not been without controversy. Whether it's been making peace among his diverse congregants or addressing the allegorical nature of Scripture or encouraging "rock" services, such as Craig Taubman's "Friday Night Live" (which can draw as many as 1,000 attendees to services with gospel, hip-hop or rock music and speakers from Elie Wiesel to writer David Kohan of "Will & Grace"), Wolpe's tenure has been marked by a certain fearlessness.
He brings the same approach to his brief in defense of faith, embracing the objections others avoid. For Wolpe, the notion that religious ritual is primitive or some form of magical thinking misses the point.
"Ancient can be venerable and cherished," he told me. "Religious practice can't always be explained in a utilitarian fashion. Sometimes, religious practice is its own reward."
Similarly, Wolpe feels that study of Scripture offers its own pleasures at every stage of life that we encounter it. For him, it is not the literal words alone, as much as the experience we garner from studying Scripture that faith adds to our lives. Not unlike a psychiatrist interpreting a dream, we may care less about whether it's true than what we can learn from it.
As to the charge that religion causes violence, Wolpe answers simply that "the feeling of certain groups that they are better or exempt is ... an ugly side of human nature. It's not specific to religion."
Without minimizing the deaths caused in the name of religion, Wolpe asks us to consider the historical record that demonstrates that the toll of war has been great or greater in those periods when religion was suppressed. We need only consider the millions of victims of the anti-religious regimes of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
Monotheism, Wolpe said, is based on "not how you treat God, but how you treat others" -- and in that respect, religion may be seen as a brake on human nature's more evil inclinations.
Faith can also be a salve, or as Simon and Garfunkel put it, "a bridge over troubled waters."
I can report that my daughter no longer asks the same questions she once did. (Now they begin with, "Why can't I?"). Neither do I.
As we get older, we no longer ask so many questions aloud. Our questions become more private: Why? Why are we on this earth? Events occur, and we ask: Why me? Or, why not me? These questions fill us not so much with wonder but attack us in moments of despair.
Wolpe knows these questions well, not only as a rabbi but from personal experience. His wife is a cancer survivor, and Wolpe himself has had neurosurgery for a benign brain tumor, as well as chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that remains incurable, but for which he is now in remission. Wolpe told me that it was on the day he finished chemotherapy that he decided to write "Why Faith Matters."
In "Why Faith Matters" he does not suggest that faith can provide specific answers to our existential questions, so much as that it offers ways for us to look at those questions and the universe differently -- and that doing so provides each of us with ways to address those questions.
While writing this article, I happened to have lunch with two friends who both have been diagnosed with cancer, one of whom is still undergoing treatment. When I asked them whether their cancer experiences had impacted their faith, both said it had, but in ways they would not have predicted.
Neither said it made them more observant, but both remarked on how much they appreciated the hospital visits or phone calls they received from their clergy and fellow congregants, and how moved they were upon hearing that others were praying for them. They felt that those aspects of faith helped them endure. Those are elements of faith that don't get mentioned enough.
Religion for Wolpe "is a complex of things, rather than an abstract set of beliefs." What Wolpe feels is lost in the discussion of religion by "the new atheists" is the positive benefits of religion, such as community, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to charity and charitable acts and of believing that there is something larger than oneself, having boundaries, submitting to a "higher power."
By contrast, faith, Wolpe said, can also make a "disturbance" of life, making life more difficult. As Wolpe put it, the sense that you are put on this earth for a reason carries with it responsibilities and challenges to meet a higher standard. Speaking with Wolpe, you get a sense that this is particularly true for him; that he is a person who is always pushing himself.
In honor of Wolpe's 50th birthday, Sinai Temple is hosting a dinner on Sept. 21, at which time he will formally announce the creation of an Israel Center at the temple.
He is creating what he believes to be the first independent center in the United States to promote Israel. Recognizing that a connection to Israel enhances one's Jewish identity, Wolpe wants to deepen that relationship. He wants families to travel there, to offer specialized tours tailored to specific interests, to be able to teach about Israel better, not only in terms of its history, but also its culture, to invite Israeli artists, writers and performers. He envisions perhaps even having a program for an Israeli artist in residence.
"I'm very excited about the possibility" Wolpe said, adding that he hoped that the center would be offering its first programs a year from now, "if not before."
The center is still in its formative stage. Eventually, Wolpe hopes to hire a full-time director for the Israel Center and determine a place for the center to be housed (whether in the synagogue or elsewhere). Wolpe believes that the community has shown great support for Israel and is ready to sustain a dedicated independent Israel Center. A center that, Wolpe asserts, "is not political." He wants each congregant to find their own connection to Israel -- whatever their political and personal interests.
Similarly, in "Why Faith Matters," Wolpe suggests that faith, religion and religious practice are to be valued -- if not for what they offer us then for the benefits they offer our children by learning to look beyond themselves, to be charitable, to treat others as they would like to be treated.
Clearly, you don't need religion to teach these ideals, but these are aspects of religion that rarely receive recognition from its critics. Faith, Wolpe believes, offers us a chance to give our children a way to suffuse their own lives with meaning and better prepare them for the challenges they will encounter.
Recently, I went to see the Coen brothers' comedy, "Burn After Reading," which I enjoyed very much. However, as I remarked on my blog, someone viewing the film from a purely moral perspective would say that the world the Coens present on screen is a faithless, nihilistic one: The characters curse with abandon. Marital vows mean nothing; adultery is rampant. Crimes are committed without much thought. Life isn't valued; murder isn't so much a crime as an annoyance. People are motivated by narcissism, greed, lust, revenge. People don't so much care about their jobs as care about keeping them. Life has no greater meaning or purpose.
The movie is very entertaining, but it reminded me that Wolpe's point is well taken: Life without the benefits of faith is the poorer for it.
The objective narrative of our lives is mundane and prosaic: We are born; we live; we die. It is the subjective that colors and enriches our experience. We all know the power of music or art, of laughter and love to transport us. Why then, not add faith to the list? And what of the connection between the two?
My freshman year of college, I met a woman who told me, "Al Green is God." Now, whenever the first chords of "Love and Happiness" play on my iPod, I know she was right.
Which brings me back to Wolpe the writer -- not the rabbi.
It is also worth noting that "Why Faith Matters" is a book meant to settle the soul of David Wolpe, given that his first impulse when concluding chemotherapy was to write a book.
"I love literature," Wolpe said. "I have always found consolation in words, in both reading them and also writing them and speaking them. One of the really great gifts of being a rabbi is that you are expected to translate your experience into something that other people can understand and benefit from. That forces you to reflect on it and create some kind of mosaic out of the jagged pieces of a life. And that's really a great lesson."
Wolpe elaborated: "A teacher of mine, Simon Greenberg, once said that the best sermons are always delivered to yourself. And I would say that's true of the best books, too. The best books are written to yourself. If you don't write something that means something to you, it's unlikely to touch anyone else."
And so, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Wolpe has given us -- and himself -- a memorable gift.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
Photo of Rabbi David Wolpe by John Solan