One of the great things about fantasies that you only hold on for a very long time is that they eventually become so much a part of how you view the world that you become able, at least for most of the time, to forget that they are fantasies at all and instead to imagine them as reasonable things to hope for, almost even to expect. We all have specific pipe dreams that we could add to the list, some noble, some silly, some simply there for so long that we eventually upgrade them to dreams (a far more dignified label for things that don’t exist but that we wish did) or, if we are truly good at this kind of self-delusion, to the level of hopes, which almost makes it sound like a virtue to possess them in the first place!
Yizkor—the great ceremony of remembrance that is a central feature of worship on Yom Kippur—this year reminded me of one of mine, and prompted me to write to you about it this week in light of two remarkable books I finished reading just before the great Day of Atonement just past.
One of my most cherished fantasies—unlikely in the extreme, but still something I wish for to the point almost of being able actually to see the tableau in my mind’s eye—is that, somehow, when my time comes and the sand in the hourglass is waning to the point of being almost (but not quite) gone, I will still have it in me to gather my people around—Joan and my children, obviously, but also others who have been alongside me for a significant portion of my life’s journey, including friends who actually live all over the world and who I could never actually reasonably expect to find gathered around the same hospital bed—and to share with them the wisdom that I have accrued over what I hope by then will be many, many scores of years of living life to its fullest. Hah! Later on, my disciples (I told you this was a fantasy) will compare notes and eventually produce a document of some sort, perhaps even a full-length yet pithy book, that will become a kind of after-the-fact classic, something like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching that, although brief, will somehow nonetheless manage clearly and eloquently to articulate the philosophy of a lifetime.
Even I understand how ridiculously unlikely that scenario is. It doesn’t never never happen, I suppose, but it almost never does. And it almost surely won’t happen to me! But what does happen, and more frequently than you might think, is that people respond to very bad news—I here formally abandon the “me” in this fantasy by spitting three times on the ground and muttering something incomprehensible in Yiddish—not by sinking into self-pity or silence born of emotional paralysis, but by finding a clarion voice in which to speak to the world about precisely the things that matter the most. Supposing that what people will really want to remember about them is not how sick they were but how wise, they set themselves to gathering their thoughts, then writing about the most important lessons that they have learned the course of their long or short lifetimes, about who they are and what they understand themselves to have become, and also, perhaps even more profoundly, about what they have learned in the course of their years among the living that seems worth passing along to future generations.
The authors I wish to write about today are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others. Forrest Church, the son of US senator Frank Church, was born in 1948. James L. Kugel was born in 1945. Church went to Stanford and then, after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978, went on eventually to become the senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on upper Lexington Avenue and a leading liberal Christian theologian, widely read and widely published. Kugel went to Yale and then received his Ph.D. from CUNY, but went on to join the faculty at Harvard in 1978 and then to become a distinguished scholar of the Bible, also widely published and widely read. When he was sixty years of age, Church was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. When he was fifty-four, Kugel too was diagnosed with terminal cancer and told that, with the right treatment, he could possibly live another two years or so without devastating symptoms and that, with any luck and if he responded reasonably well to treatment, he might live for another few years after that. The stories thus began reasonably similarly, but they didn’t end up in the same way at all: the Reverend Church died in 2009, while Professor Kugel went into remission where he apparently remains. He left the faculty of Harvard in 2003 and moved to Israel where he lives in Jerusalem and serves as chairman of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. I’ve enjoyed all his books, particularly In Potiphar’s House, The God of Old, and How to Read the Bible, but I learned a lot from all of them and I recommend all Kugel’s books to my own readers. May God grant him many more years of teaching and writing!
Suddenly finding themselves staring down the Angel of Death, these two similar and dissimilar men wrote two dissimilar and similar books. Church’s book, which I read first and which was published by Beacon Press in 2009, is called Love and Death: My Journal Through the Valley of the Shadow. Although there is a certain weirdness in knowing what the future eventually brought to the author who, while writing, was still hoping—at least on some level—of regaining his good health, the book struck me as profound and moving to the point of being truly stirring. Being a Christian minister, the man writes from the vantage point of his own faith, although neither heavy-handedly or dogmatically. (He was, after all, a Universalist Unitarian minister, probably the most dogma-free version of liberal Christianity imaginable.) But what he lacks in dogmatic orthodoxy, he makes up in the gracefulness of his prose and the depth of the ideas that he wishes to express to his readers as he writes, literally, from the edge of his life. He writes about the difference between unhappiness and despair. He writes about the almost overpowering need he has to shield his family from the seriousness of his situation. He writes about the specific way he found to find solace in faith specifically without making “faith” into a catch-all category that includes all sorts of things that he doesn’t actually believe to be true. He writes about the differences between men and women in the specific context of dealing with potentially terminal disease, and of the different way different cultures grapple with mortality. And, in some ways most movingly of all, he writes about the whole concept of good health itself (and its evil twin, poor health), and about his conviction, repeated several times, that “To be free to accept death is to be free, period.” In a particularly memorable passage, he writes about the etymological progression that leads from human to humane to humanitarian to humility to humble to humus. (That’s humus as in soil, not falafel.) You float along with the author, internalizing his optimism, hoping with him for the best…and then you come to the end of the book. Suddenly ill at ease, you check on Wikipedia to see what actually happened to him. And then, once you know that he died, the whole book takes on a different feel, an almost ennobling sense that you have, finally, come into (at least literary) contact with someone who did what we all say we want to do and will do, but which Forrest Church actually did do as he faced down death and became not weaker but stronger as he grew not stronger but weaker. It’s an exceptional book and I recommend it to you all warmly.
Kugel’s book is entirely different and not specifically because he ended up in remission. (He wrote his book seven years after his initial, very depressing diagnosis.) Oddly bearing a title very similar to Church’s, Kugel’s book, published by the Free Press in 2011 and called In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, isn’t as much about the process of coming to terms with mortality as it is with the insight into the nature of religion, and particularly biblical religion, that facing his own mortality head-on inspired the author finally to seize. Kugel’s is a rich book, different in tenor and tone than Church’s but in its own way just as inspiring. Speaking in a distinctly Jewish key, Kugel’s book should have been easier for me to understand than Church’s. But that isn’t actually how it worked out: I didn’t need to ready any passages in Church’s book twice to make sure I knew what the author was getting at, whereas I had to reread several passages in Kugel’s book before I was certain I got the author’s point. Readers—my readers, I mean—should not allow that to put them off from reading In the Valley of the Shadow, however. It is a rich book, one filled with poetry (biblical and otherwise) and with lessons learned from a dozen disciplines other than the author’s own field of expertise. And, although in a very different way from Church’s, Kugel’s book too is inspiring and encouraging. Here, one gets the sense, is a man who actually did pass through the valley of the shadow of death (although he pauses long enough along the way to discredit that famous translation as, at best, misleading) and came through the experience possessed of serious, interesting answers to questions that most people, including especially most “religious” people, prefer not to ask at all, questions about the nature of God, about the nature of belief in God, about the relationship between the religions of the world, about the reasonableness of considering the religions of the world as different flavors of the same basic “thing,” and about the logic of seeking solace in religious faith. He writes about the Dinka people of the Sudan and about the aborigines of Tasmania. He quote Rilke, Whitman, and Flannery O’Connor alongside familiar passages from the Psalms and the prophets. He seems to speak all languages. But although the author is clearly a very smart fellow, it is not his massive erudition that impresses as much as his ability to synthesize and analyze the information he has gathered together in his quest to find meaning in his original diagnosis and its dour implications for his future.
As you all know, I spend a lot of time in hospitals, some of it with very sick people. There hardly passes a day of my professional life when I am not called upon, one way or the other, to respond to the reality of life-threatening illness. I do my best to provide some sort of solace for the people I visit, to suggest some sort of meaningful framework in which to consider the reality of mortality, to propose that from faith can come the strength necessary to face down the Angel of Death. I believe what I say too, or I think that I do. But then there come along two books like the ones I’ve been writing about and I feel myself not just professionally buttressed, but in a real way comforted by the experience of wandering, even if just briefly, along the twin path these similar/dissimilar authors have trod.
I recommend both books very highly. Everybody’s natural inclination is to avoid thinking about death. No one wants to embrace the thought that none of us lives forever, preferring merely to know it to be true without pointlessly or depressingly dwelling on it. But then, occasionally, the opportunity to look beyond our own anxieties presents itself, as it does in the form of these two worthy volumes. And when that happens, we would be very short-sighted not to take advantage of the opportunity to look at the world—the same one in which we all live—through the eyes of two intelligent, thoughtful, articulate men who actually did dance with the Angel for as long as one of them could and other one had to.