What Now? Episode 7 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 8 of the podcast What Now?, “Sympathetic Teachers and Rebellious Rabbis” with David Kraemer, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Sara Beth Berman: Welcome to What Now?, a podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS, and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Almost a decade ago, I had a severe crisis of faith when my fiancé Rafi, a fifth-year rabbinical student, died after a year of suffering and a month in a coma. My desire to engage in Jewish life was shot, and as a freshly-graduated Jewish educator, this was not an easy path to navigate.
Even all these years later, I’m still trying to find answers to the hard questions, specifically, why? Why do humans suffer? And what now? How does our tradition help us tackle this fundamentally human experience? Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one is when they’re out of oat milk and they’re like, is soy okay? And 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.
In my continued search to answer my big questions, I’m meeting with my teachers from JTS. Each person has had their own struggles. My professors have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against a wall, I’m hoping my professors can help me find my own answers. In this episode, I sat down with Professor David Kraemer, who heads the greatest collection of Judaica in the Western Hemisphere, AKA the library at JTS. Professor Kraemer and I spoke about how he approached the study of tragedy, and also about some rebelliousness in the Talmud.
So I’m really excited that we are talking to Professor David Kraemer, who is the head of the library, among other things, at JTS. Can you tell us about what you do here at the seminary?
David Kraemer: I am, as you say, the director of the library. The library of JTS, being the most extensive collection of rare Judaica in a single collection anywhere in the world. We are a truly outstanding institution. And we do our best to support others who are interested in what we have. I’ve also been a professor of Talmud and rabbinics and other things I’m interested in here at JTS for more years than I like to admit.
SBB: You should be proud of every single day.
DK: I am very proud of it, and I’ve enjoyed it enormously, otherwise I would not have persisted.
SBB: So I really love books. And it’s really exciting to talk to you as the person who runs such an impressive Judaica collection, especially at a time when we’re in the middle of a gigantic renovation here at JTS. Can you talk to me a little bit about your vision for the new library, how you feel about the process?
DK: You know, we’ve got this great new building going up. And I confess to the trepidation of anyone building a new home. That is, I know what the plans look like. I can see the shape taking shape, but I can’t wait to get in and see what it actually looks like. I’m confident it’s going to be wonderful. We’re thinking of the library not just as a new structure, but as an opportunity for reimagining the library, the kinds of services, the kinds of programs we have. One of the major changes we’re making is bringing the rare materials front and center. In the old library, they were hidden away upstairs and only scholars found their way there, and that they needed help to do.
We are bringing it downstairs. You walk into the library, and you are going to see an exhibition space and our rare materials. We want to make sure that these amazing materials we have are available to excite anybody who comes. And we want to certainly make sure that there’s no student who comes to JTS who does not have some kind of experience with our rare collections.
SBB: So here on the podcast I like to open the conversation talking about this scale of one to 10, where one is a small inconvenience, like when you’re talking about the renovation, like a window not having the right handle on it. And then a 10 being the Book of Job. So when you’re looking at this scale of something that’s a minor annoyance to something that’s truly terrible, I’m wondering if you have some reflections or experiences that you would to share, either on the one end or the 10 end.
DK: [laughter] Or somewhere in between, right?
DK: Listen, I’m not going to do it on the scale. I’ll just say that I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to be relatively blessed. You know? I’ve got a wonderful home, a wonderful family, wonderful life. I, like everybody else, have had my minor illnesses. My parents are dead. But this is the normal stuff of life. And it certainly doesn’t merit being described as a tragedy. I’ve never experienced anything in my personal life that I would describe as a tragedy. But I’m acutely aware of that fact because I recognize that many people in their lives have experienced what they experience as tragedy, and so I consider myself to be blessed.
SBB: Congratulations. It’s good, not just that you feel blessed and that you have this experience of being blessed, but also it sounds like you’re in a sympathetic space where you are present for people that are going through some of these harder things.
DK: Well, I do my best. One of the things that we learn over the years—unlike our adolescent selves, where we imagine the whole world is what we experience—hopefully as we mature we realize that there’s a lot of experience that is not our own, and we have to learn to imagine it, to empathize to the degree that we can. And then to communicate our empathy and support. And I hope I’ve learned something of that.
SBB: Do you have an example of where you were in a conversation where you interpreted something on this scale in a different place than another person would interpret it?
DK: That’s a good question. I actually had an experience very recently. I was teaching a class, and making reference to the fact, it is a fact, that relatively speaking people who live in the privileged modern West experience far less of what we might call tragedy, at least far less regularly in their lives, than people who don’t live in the privileged modern West. That means anyone in ages before us, or even elsewhere in the world today. And so I was saying something about that, and there was a woman in the class, someone I’ve had experience with before, she’s been in other classes of mine. And she refused to assent to what I was saying. Which was interesting, because I said relative to other times and ages. And she just refused to assent to it.
And we went on in the conversation, and afterwards she came up to me and she spoke of some personal suffering that she had had, involving the early death of her husband and other related matters. And she knew that she was just being stubborn about it, in the sense that she recognized that what I was saying was objectively true, but what failed to connect there—and that was fine—but the failure to connect was making a general theoretical statement in the face of very individual experience. And she wanted to be able to preserve her realm of individual experience. And I respected that.
SBB: That’s fascinating. And I sometimes prefer to live in my angry little bubble than acknowledge the other people around me, so I totally feel that.
DK: When we were preparing for sitting down together, I told you this story. It was actually a very difficult experience for me. I was young and leading a Seder for my wife’s family, for my extended family. And I was in our discussion of the Exodus and the loss of the firstborn children, making reference to the fact, something that I had then recently learned, that the world before ours, and again, outside of ours, so again, the non-privileged, non-modern world, meaning most of human history. Child’s death, children pre-deceasing their parents, was a ubiquitous experience. And by ubiquitous I mean literally that. There was barely a family that had children that did not see them die before the parents, because if you made it to adulthood, then you were pretty strong and pretty lucky.
So I made reference to this fact, and I said fortunately, we are in a position where we can consider the predeceasing of a parent by a child to be quote unquote “unnatural.” And what I forgot, as I was going through this little academic discourse, was that there were cousins at the table who had actually experienced the loss of a child, in very tragic circumstances. So all of a sudden I sat back and actually, my wife properly gave me an elbow to my side. And I said, “oh!” It was bad. I went and I apologized to them because I had really raised a difficult issue. And they knew that I had no intent to hurt them, and of course my apology came from genuine regret and love. And I learned from that point on, where it was really a very significant experience in my life, I learned that whenever I’m speaking, whenever I’m teaching, I always have to be mindful of the fact that whatever the norm is, there are likely to be exceptions to the norm, and people may have experienced things that I can’t even begin to imagine.
SBB: It’s an incredible learning that you took away from that. And there are many people who would have been in that situation that maybe wouldn’t have processed the thought in the same way afterwards. Learning from those experiences, that’s the best possible result from one of those things.
DK: I hope to always do it, but of course, like any human being, I also sometimes fail in it, as we all do.
SBB: Yeah. Knowing that, and owning that, I think is powerful. I want to talk to you a little bit about books, because you’re a big deal in the book world. Specifically, could you tell me about the book that you wrote about suffering? How you got to the place where you were writing that book?
DK: Sure. I was teaching Talmud here at JTS. And I had a student in my Talmud class who was coming to JTS to study to be a rabbi as a second career. He was at that time actually still working on finishing his PhD in linguistics at Harvard. He had done other business before that as well. And in my class I sort of was attracted to him, meaning he was a notable figure, had a lot of experience, very intelligent. And over the course of the semester it became clearer that there was something he was experiencing that was increasingly radically wrong. And he began talking to me. What he was experiencing was the recent birth of a child, just a few months before he started at JTS. And they were discovering, he and his wife, at the time, that this child was severely disabled.
The way he described it at the time, being non-technical about it, was basically it seemed more and more that there were certain connections in his brain that just weren’t properly connected. And this is a child who, over the course of years, the full depth, the full gravity of the disability was discovered. The child has always been in an institution, because the child, now an adult, needs full-time care. And what the child can do cognitively is very, very limited. And as we could all imagine, it was a very bitter experience.
So he began to, as he was beginning to study for the rabbinate, ask me about Jewish opinion, rabbinic opinion, about this kind of experience of suffering. And I knew something about it, but I didn’t know as much as I needed to know to respond to his questions intelligently. And I did what I always do: I went looking for a book that would help answer the questions. And I discovered that there was no good book that would answer the questions. And what I needed was something that was comprehensive, really examined the question of suffering in rabbinic literature in this case, from beginning to end. And so if a book doesn’t exist and I’m interested in the topic, I am compelled to write it.
And so I did the research. I wrote the book. And that led me to enormously interesting discoveries in terms of the way the Rabbis of old, the classical Rabbis during the first five, six centuries of the Common Era, commented on, responded to, problems of human suffering.
SBB: I just love the idea that you’re looking for something and you can’t find it in the best library in the world, so you have to write it. I just love that so much. Was there a particular response in your research and writing the book that you found the most compelling personally?
DK: There was, yes. Not surprisingly, I expected to find that the Rabbis would repeat much of what they had inherited from the earlier tradition, that is to say, from the biblical tradition. And the dominant view regarding human suffering in the biblical tradition is the covenantal notion of reward and punishment. If we follow God’s will, then we will be appropriately rewarded, and reward includes rains in their season, the food that grows from the rains, the animals that live off the grains that come from the rain, and ultimately we get the food that we need, etc.
And if we fail to follow God’s will as expressed in the covenant of law, then things aren’t going to be so good, and suffering of various sorts will be part of that. And we find that kind of reward and punishment notion in the rabbis as well. But the Rabbis were very interesting thinkers. And while they did sometimes express and follow traditions, they often went off in other directions. And for me, the most interesting texts were the ones that really pressed for alternatives, because they didn’t find the answers or responses they had inherited to be adequate for them.
So I can tell you two talmudic stories that reflect on this. Shall I do so?
SBB: That sounds amazing. And I also am seeing the parallel between you and these Rabbis, that they didn’t find what they were looking for, so they wrote a new book.
DK: Or something like that, yes. Both of these come from the Babylonian Talmud, which is, I think, the most sophisticated and daring expression of rabbinic Judaism from the ancient world. So the fact that these stories appear there is not surprising, or these discussions appear there. The first is actually the longest discussion of human suffering anywhere in a classical rabbinic text. It’s Berakhot 5a-b. That’s the tractate and page. And the question really is, how are we obligated to respond to suffering? And so the discussion goes through by illustrating certain kinds of suffering, by describing certain kinds of response, and it comes to a conclusion where particularly someone named Rabbi Yohanan, others as well, but particularly Rabbi Yohanan, who we know from earlier in the story has experienced the loss of either a child or children. It’s possible that he’s actually experienced the loss of many children, in one probable reading of the story.
In any case, when he’s asked, what do you make of your suffering? Literally the question, which in Hebrew is havivin alekha yissurin?, “Are sufferings beloved to you?” And by the way, in other rabbinic texts it’s clear that the pious response would be, “Yes, they are, because they are brought by God to improve me.” That would be the pious response. In the Babylonian Talmudic text, Rabbi [Yohanan] says, “No, neither they nor their reward.”
Meaning he doesn’t even reject the notion that there may be a reward for the improvement that comes with suffering. But he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want it, which is absolutely extraordinary. That kind of simple rejection, to say no, I don’t want it, without any further elaboration.
The second is a more fanciful and in certain ways elaborate story. The way it’s written as a literary piece is very interesting. It’s a story of the Angel of Death sending his own messenger to take the life of a certain Miriam. And the messenger of the Angel of Death goes and takes the life of the wrong Miriam. And so this woman dies, though there was no reason for her to die. It is arbitrary, as it were. So when this wrong Miriam is brought back, the Angel of Death says to his messenger, how in the world were you able to do that? And the answer is, well, she was raking the coals in an oven, and the spit that she was using became hot, hot, hot. And she laid it on her leg by accident and this led to her death. In other words, she had an accident.
Now, first of all, the fact that they admit that death may have nothing to do with the plan of God, but happened by sheer accident, is remarkable in this system. Really, to take God out of the picture. And what’s so remarkable about the way this story is written is that angel means messenger. That’s what the word means. And the word in Hebrew, malakh, as in Angel of Death, malakh means messenger. And the Angel of Death is supposed to be God’s messenger. But God is so completely removed from this story that it’s the messenger that sends the messenger, and God is nowhere to be found.
For a story to describe death happening that way is, as I say, quite bold. And I think there are many modern people who would find considerable comfort in that. Interestingly, the farthest that the biblical tradition goes is Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which does reject reward and punishment, but doesn’t go so far as to declare boldly that it might happen by sheer accident. And the Rabbis here go one step further.
SBB: That’s really fascinating. I was thinking as you were talking about the beginning of the story, when you have surgery on a body part where you traditionally have two—so I had surgery on my left hand. And before you go in, the doctor comes and signs your left hand. So that he knows that he’s operating on the right hand—the correct hand, I should say. But I’m thinking about this Miriam example. Before you got into the rest of the story—because I wasn’t familiar with the story before you told it to me just now—before you got into it, I was thinking it’s really easy to check your list and know that you are getting the right Miriam, getting the correct hand, whatever it is.
And that it’s fascinating, and also I imagine it can be frustrating for people to learn that and think about the purpose, potentially, behind suffering. And then also the randomness behind suffering. And when those two things may or may not meet, there’s a lot there. I mean, I’m struggling with these two sides of intentionality and the randomness. What do you find works for most people?
DK: Well, it’s an interesting question because what works for most people is both and everything else at different times.
SBB: Oh, humanity!
DK: [laughter] Because listen, it depends where we are in our experience. On the one hand, it’s bold and in a certain cold way comforting to understand that if you’re suffering, it’s not the divine plan. God has nothing to do with it. But if the alternative is chaos, meaning things happen not only in the universe, but in your universe, that are utterly arbitrary, if you have no control, if you can do everything you possibly can to maintain your health and so forth, and still wake up tomorrow and discover that you’ve got X, whatever the X is, that kind of chaotic universe is frightening and there are times that you wouldn’t want to have to confront that purposeless universe.
So some people will, on certain occasions, be comforted by taking God out of the picture. No, I’m not being punished. But those very same people might find themselves in a position where they need to go back to more traditional patterns. I had a colleague here at JTS a number of years ago who, in his earlier 40s, discovered that he had lung cancer. His name was Baruch Bokser. A very fine scholar of Talmud and rabbinics. And he had never smoked, you know, all of the conventional “Did you do X? Did you do Y?” No. He lived. And living sometimes brings these things, and he declined very quickly and died after about 18 months. About 18 months from diagnosis.
And I remember the last Yom Kippur of his life. We belonged to the same synagogue group. And he gave the sermon for our group on Yom Kippur of that year that he was very close to death. And he spoke of his faith in the notion expressed in a very famous High Holiday—it’s not quite a prayer, but we would call it a prayer, U-netanah Tokef, which describes the divine court and judgment and who will live and who will die and all of those decisions being made during this season. And it says that repentance and prayer and it’s usually translated as “acts of loving kindness,” you know, good deeds, may avert the severity of the decree: ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.
And he—already having learned that medicine failed him completely, modern science had nothing it could do for him—spoke about his faith in the possibility that that kind of activity might avert the severity of the decree. And this was a smart, modern, critical person. No naiveté to be found anywhere in his being. And yet, he found that comforting at that time. And I do believe, actually, that in the end one of religion’s primary jobs is to offer comfort. Because human beings often find themselves in positions where they need it desperately.
And so if this traditional opinion offers comfort, then I think it’s crucial for us to hold on to it. And so to have rejection and to have acceptance and to recognize that we may need one or the other at different times in our life and its experiences, I think is the best we can do.
SBB: It’s a really meaningful story. U-netanah Tokef is traditionally not one of my favorite pieces of the liturgy. I find it very challenging and very upsetting. So to hear the story of Baruch Bokser’s interpretation in the depths of a terminal illness is powerful. And we’ll see if it’s helpful if you get through the thick skull that you’re dealing with.
DK: If you don’t mind, I mean, I don’t know your personal experience because you’re the interviewer and not I, and I’m not going to ask you your personal experience in this matter, but what I discovered from observing Baruch before having seen him saying this in this condition, I certainly identified with the position of dismissing U-netanah Tokef, this notion of divine judgment in very, very discrete terms.
And I had a friend who spoke the year before, actually, rejecting U-netanah Tokef and what it lays out. And what I learned from witnessing what Baruch was going through was that it was really arrogant of us to be so judgmental of the prayer that speaks of judgment. Because if we hadn’t been in position like Baruch’s, how could we judge it at all?
And I stepped back and I’ve tried not to judge it or anything like it ever since. I can respond to it. I can say where it works or doesn’t work. But I think that where people need it, I not only respect that but rejoice in the possibility.
SBB: Yeah. I’m more judge-y than maybe I should be. We’ve spoken about it numerous times on the podcast. I was engaged to a fifth-year rabbinical student and he passed away, well, actually before attending any classes of his fifth year. And we had to decide to stop providing any sort of care on Yom Kippur. So it was a very active, involved U-netanah Tokef exercise for the whole family of literally deciding that he was going to die, which is why I’m so cranky about the whole thing. And it is vital and powerful to hear these words from you, and to hear from Baruch Bokser’s words and experience. And also, you teach a lot of people and have lived this blessed life. And you are able to use all of these things to inform the way you interact with people and teach people, so I can learn a lot from that.
DK: But I would just add to what you’re now saying. You’ve also got, for your personality and experience, the Bavli’s rejection. And that’s part of the canon of Jewish wisdom as well. And that’s what’s so beautiful about any wise living tradition, that it understands that there are no singular answers that will work for everybody. We need a vast range of possible responses.
And what Jewish tradition actually models in the canon of the bible, of the Tanakh, what it models in rabbinic works which incorporate within them differences of opinion, is the fact that just because you reject or rebel or have a different opinion, that doesn’t put you outside. You’re still inside. You’re still part of us. Where the “you” means anybody.
And that’s what can be so wonderful about a religious community is that it can accept human experience on whatever its range might be.
SBB: Well, now I’m a Bavli rebel. So what I really want is a leather jacket that says it on the back, so I can wear it to shul. Leather on Yom Kippur, it’s perfect. Thank you. I mean, thanks for bringing me in. I think a lot of my friends have spent many years trying to figure out how to deal with me around this stuff. The podcast producer who’s in this room also, Rabbi Tim Bernard, has been my friend for a really long time and has put up with a lot of me being really obnoxious about Judaism and all of that was fallout from me feeling like I had these really terrible lived experiences and where did I fit in. And all of that kind of stuff. So thank you for giving me my new title as a Bavli Rebel, which I’m totally into.
DK: If you ordered a leather jacket with that, please order one for me too, and we can wear them at the same time.
SBB: Yes! We can wear it to the library opening.
DK: Okay, great!
SBB: It was incredible diving into all of the books with you. I feel like when I talk to you, I get to talk to the combined intelligence of generations of our people and the writing that they did and I can’t wait to visit the new library, so get excited.
DK: And I’ll put you first on the list.
SBB: Yes! Thank you, Professor Kraemer. What now, Professor Kraemer? Well, there obviously needs to be a set of leather jackets in our future. Leave it to a man that heads up such a robust literary collection to say, I couldn’t find the book, so I set out to write it myself. Professor Kraemer learned so much from his personal experiences, and from digging into the Talmud’s rebellion against suffering. I obviously would have found myself in good company with those particular agitators, and our black leather jackets with The Bavli Rebels emblazoned in metal studs, the perfect accessory for the dedication of a fancy new library, yes?
And yet, and yet. Even with that jacket on, even knowing that the Bavli Rabbis rebelled, terrible things still keep happening. Finding the right book is like a new Band-Aid. Like sure it’ll stick for a bit, but it’ll get wet, and then my skin gets white and clammy and I need a new one, and then I look at Twitter, and hey, I live in the messy, painful reality of every day. Each conversation, each book, is like a fresh Band-Aid. But I still have the paper cut that sent me to Band-Aids in the first place. I still ask, why tragedy? Why?
What Now? is produced by Michal Richardson and editorial oversight is by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for this series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s delightful and inquisitive new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart.
Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sara Beth Berman, JTS Davidson School class of 2009. It has been real banging my head against the wall with you.