Faith is a good thing. It can bring comfort to those who suffer the grief and sadness of profound loss, and inspiration to those seeking spiritual guidance and support during times of doubt and personal struggle. Faith can give hope and strength to the weary while they battle challenging diseases or the loss of a job during economic downturns. And sometimes, sadly, as was evident this week once again in Philadelphia with the sad and twisted faith faith of Herbert and Catherine Schaible, faith can kill those we love.
I am a rabbi, a deeply religious individual who has spent my life working in the world of faith and prayer. Yet when I read the story of the Schaible parents and how their misguided faith in divine intervention to cure their two innocent children of pneumonia resulted not in their healing and health but in their tragic deaths instead, I could only be deeply saddened by the inevitable results of "faith" misguided, "faith" turned from a blessing to a curse, "faith" twisted from the spiritual tool of strength and inspiration it was meant to be into an instrument of pain, sorrow and death.
I can't help but think of the powerful statement in the Book of Deuteronomy where God is quoted as telling Moses, "See I set before you this day good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death, therefore choose life." In Jewish theology this is a sacred mission given to all human beings by God in our sacred literature to choose life over death, good over evil, blessings over curses, knowing that life being the messy, complicated affair that it is for us all, everyone's life contains both blessings and curses. Sometimes the greatest challenge of all when life is difficult, when we face illness or struggles, is simply figuring out which choices will lead us to blessings and which will lead to curses.
My tradition teaches that faith is a blessing, but that we human beings are co-partners with God in completing the act of creation, and part of that partnership means that we use the God-given talents, creativity, ingenuity and intelligence to create cures for diseases. Faith to me means believing that God intended us to create penicillin and antibiotics, cures for diseases and medicine to ease our pain and suffering and in fact that this is exactly how God actually works miracles in the world.
We are to see God working through the creativity and brilliance of the human mind and spirit, and recognize in our own hands, God's hands, in our own eyes, God's eyes, in our own minds, the creative genius that is God working miracles in our everyday lives. When a child has pneumonia and we have the blessing of penicillin that can heal that child of his illness and literally bring him back to life from the brink of death, that is the miracle of God working in the world through the agency of the human mind and heart.
I think of the story we all know of Moses going up to top of Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Ten Commandments written (according to the Torah) "with the finger of God." When Moses comes down the mountain and sees the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf he smashes the tablets in a dramatic gesture that demonstrates the power and demand of God to have "no other God's before me." As the story in the Torah goes, Moses then ascends Mount Sinai once again only this time it is Moses himself who inscribes the commandments in stone and it is that version which the Children of Israel bring to the world, carry through their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and become the foundation of right and wrong for Western Ethics ever since. I share this story to point out that even in the most sacred ancient text of the Jewish people, accepted by Christianity as the "Old Testament" as well, it is the word of God as mediated through the heart and mind of the human being (in this case Moses) that becomes the source of our ethics and values ever since. That is how God works in the world -- through us and our hearts, and our passions and our wisdom and our searching for the truths that elevate humanity.
Jewish tradition teaches that God left the world incomplete and it is our job as human beings to imitate God by bringing godliness into the world through the use of our own creativity and god-given abilities. Merely praying to God to intervene is an abdication of our co-partnership. Judaism believes that the highest "mitzvah" (religious obligation) is the saving of life. In fact, our tradition insists that not using our talents and abilities to intervene in a health crisis when our intervention could save a life is one of the highest sins we can commit.
As a religious leader I often have people come to me asserting "I'm not very religious, rabbi," by which they inevitably mean they don't "religiously" practice rituals, attend services weekly, or necessarily believe in a supernatural God who intervenes in the world and responds to prayer. To me, being "religious" means acting in such a way as to bring more holiness, more godliness into the world. It means recognizing that every human being is created in the image of the divine and as such is deserving of dignity, respect and all the god-given human talents we can gather to bring healing into the world. What the Schaible's claim as "religious" behavior in ignoring what God has given to world through human creativity and our ability to heal those who are sick, is to me exactly the opposite of what religious behavior should truly be all about.