THE BLOG
10/23/2013 05:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

From Death to Life

The story starts, in my life, when I was first a student in college. I grew up an atheist, and I did not discover Judaism and religion until I was a student in college. In fact, I met God and Elana the same semester; it was clearly my season of love! What you have to know is that it is complicated for someone who has spent his whole life not believing in God, knowing that there was no God, to want to think about the subject. I went to visit the Hillel rabbi, Rabbi Ben Zion Gold, an extraordinary man and a Holocaust survivor, who told me, "There's no neutral way to think about God. You try being a believer and you see if it works for you." He persuaded me to attend 10 Shabbat services for two months, and gave me a book to read, a book of the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig. Now it turns out Rosenzweig, like me, had grown up in an assimilated, classical reform family.

In that environment he had felt that religion was somehow thin; that there was not a lot of content to it. In his childhood religion, he found mostly form, style and pomp, but not a lot of spirit, not a lot of depth. He had a cousin who felt the same way about Judaism and therefore converted to Christianity, becoming a prominent teacher of Protestant religion in Germany. Franz Rosenzweig decided that he would do the same thing, but being of a philosophical bent he decided to come to Christianity the way Jesus did, which was through Judaism. He determined that he would attend Kol Nidrei services at his mother's big, ornate Reform temple, and then the next morning he would be baptized. That was Yom Kippur of 1913 -- 100 ago.

Picture the scene: The Jewry of Berlin are dressed in their absolute finest: standing in front of their magnificent Moorish style temples that date back 200 years. Young Franz shows up at the front door, ready to spend his last night as a Jew, in shul, on Yom Kippur, so that he can dramatically convert to Christianity the next day. And his mother, in a moment of extraordinary religious courage, stood by the door and would not let him in the building. So poor Franz Rosenzweig, wandering through the street of Berlin with no alternative backup plan (by the way, if you're going to do something that annoys your mother, always have a backup plan!) is wandering through the streets with nowhere to go, and he stumbles across a little Hasidic shtibl, at prayer. Having nothing better to do he goes in, and for the first time in his life he sees people crying when they pray. He had never seen that before. He sees people so moved by prayer that they fall down, and in physically falling, are lifted up spiritually. Rosenzweig is so moved by that transformative evening, that he never looked back. He abandoned any intention to convert and became one of the great Jewish theologian/philosophers of the 20th century.

Rosenzweig wrote a remarkable book called The Star of Redemption. In that book he criticizes all of Western philosophy, because it consistently prioritizes distilled ideas above actual people. Western philosophy elevates abstract, rational thought at the expense of real experience. So philosophers analyze an abstraction called "love," but love as an abstraction has nothing to do with holding a baby, or looking into your lover's eyes, or checking on your toddler while she's sleeping. Real love is tangible, far more compelling than any concept of love could possibly be.

Rosenzweig opens his book by saying, "all thinking about the all begins in doubt, in the fear of death." He says that, from the moment you are born you are on the road to dying. And we all know this. At some point in your life you realize, I am going to die, and no amount of cleverness, no amount of hard work, no amount of wealth will change that reality. I will die, and so will all the people around me, and all the people that I love, we, all of us, will die. Rosenzweig revealed that the religions and the philosophies of his time offered a cheap, discounted comfort. They affirmed that the body does die, but sought consolation in a disembodied soul that somehow continues.

Rosenzweig unpacked by abstract souls are no substitute for flesh and blood humanity. People struggle throughout life to preserve their identity as an "I," as a full personality, as a human being with a history and a character, with memories and experiences -- all of which end at the grave (small comfort that a disembodied soul is floating around somewhere!). So Rosenzweig set out to create a way of understanding life as it is actually lived. That refocus on actual life became his Star of Redemption. He taught that Judaism was that faith which did not elevate theory above life itself. God, in Jewish religion, chooses an actual flesh and blood people, a physical piece of land, because Judaism teaches us that no ideas are more important than life itself. In the last paragraph of The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig writes:

To walk humbly with your God, the words are above the gate, the gate that leads out from the mysterious, wonderful illumination of the divine sanctuary, where no one can remain alive. But where do the wings of the gates open to? Do you not know? They open to life.

Now, it would be enough of a contribution if Rosenzweig had given us a philosophy that starts with life, rather than with ideas. If he had reminded us that we must revise our thoughts to fit our experiences and not the other way around. But in good Rosenzweigian focus, even more astonishing than Rosenzweig's magnificent ideas about life are they way he conducted himself during the last 10 years of his life.

Rosenzweig was diagnosed at a fairly early age with a serious muscular degenerative disease -- amiotrophic lateral schlorosis, ALS, known widely as Lou Gehrig's Disease. He spent pretty much the last 10 years of his life confined to his bed. His extraordinary wife Edith, and he, developed a way for him to be able to communicate long after he was no longer able to move. As his first form of facilitated communication Rosenzweig's wife tied a wire to his pinky, and then she would hold up a chart with a keyboard, and he could move his little finger to point to a letter. Edith would record that letter, and then he would point to another, and she would write that letter. In that painstaking way, they composed entire essays.

When Franz's disease progressed to the point that he could not even move his pinky, Edith would watch for the fluttering of his eye, and she would simply recite the alphabet until his eye fluttered, and then she would write down the letter. Can you imagine the amount of patience that women had to possess? The amount of devotion and love that she had to have to be able to give that gift, not only to her husband, but to us, to we who have his writings? Franz Rosenzweig did not write his last 10 years worth of essays or books -- he blinked them, and Edith wrote them. His final sentence, in 1929, blinked to his wife, was: "And now it comes. The point of all points which the Lord has truly revealed to me in my sleep. The point of all points for which there... " and then he stopped.

******

Like the children of Israel, we are on a journey to a destination that is beyond life itself. We never arrive. We are always on the way. Think for a moment about the extraordinary courage it takes to be human. It is no big deal for angels to sing. Angels don't get hurt. Angels don't lose their loved ones. Angels are not vulnerable, and they don't die. But every single one of us does all of those things. There is no one who can not recall loved ones with whom we once shared life with whom we cannot any longer. There is no one who has not witnessed their bodies change. Many of us are old enough to have started to watch our bodies betray us, yet we carry on. We humans still have babies, still raise children, we still fight for the things we believe in, we still travel, still create and invent, we still support the social justice and other causes. The astonishing reality of human beings is that it would be completely rational to just be depressed, curl up in a ball and wait to die. That would be a reasonable response. And yet, each and every one of rises in the morning and we live our lives with purpose because we have something to give; we have something to contribute. The great glory of being human is that we are not defined by our biology. We are not defined by our mortality. We define ourselves. However long we have, however brief the time we have on this earth, we choose how we will be defined and what life will bring.

Recently my father was in the intensive care unit in a hospital in Sonoma (and is now doing much better). I would call him three, four times a day. And my father would barely talk to me about himself. He would ask about my life, my work, the world. I don't think in his whole life my father has told me he loves me as much as he's told me in the last 10 days. But I think that is what it means to be human. It means to gird yourself, and to rise against your suffering and above your pain, and to focus instead on the reality that for this fleeting moment we decide what our lives are going to mean. We decide whether we will help each other out and lift each other. There is none of us that isn't struggling. There is none of us that isn't hurting. Each of us could use a hug.

Set aside time to remember the choice. You do not get to decide whether or not you will die: That choice has been made. You do not get to decide whether you will get sick or not: That choice will come. But the choice that no one can rob you of is the choice of whether you will elevate life above any ideas. Whether you will resolutely look into the eyes of your loved ones and tell them before you can't any longer. Whether you will, while your hands still work, use your hands to lift up the broken and the hungry and the scared. Whether you will use the wisdom in your mind to illumine the world just a little bit more. These are the choices life brings to us, each day brings to us.

Rosenzweig quoted the prophet Micah, in what is for many of us the Bible's most astonishing and remarkable verse: "You have been told, oh human, what is good and what the eternal requires of you. Only this: Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God."

No mention about eternal reward, neither in this world nor in some afterlife. No! Here's the choice we have. We know what it is to be good, and we can make that choice now. We can, as the prophet tells us, "Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly."