What Now? Episode 1 podcast transcript

Posted On Jun 19, 2019

The following is a transcription of episode 1 of the podcast What Now?, “We Suffer Becasue We Care” with Alan Mittleman, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors. 


Sara Beth: 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 of Jewish Education at JTS and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Several years ago, just after I graduated from JTS, I had a severe crisis of faith. My fiancé, Rafi, a fifth year rabbinical student died after a year of suffering and a month in a coma. I went silent.

Sara Beth: After years of believing in and teaching about Judaism, I was sure I was spinning my wheels; and my desire to teach people to love Judaism as I had froze deep inside me. I no longer opened my mouth in prayer spaces except for saying Kaddish because, well, you never know, it might help. As the years have passed, I’ve done some healing and as an experiential educator, I’ve opened my mouth more to teach, to sing, and even to lead prayer services, but the most important mouth-opening post-loss was to search for an answer to the big questions. Is there any point to human tragedy and suffering? And perhaps most importantly, what now? How does our tradition help us tackle this complicated and fundamentally human experience? It took me a few years, but I finally sat down to write a book, a memoir about my loss and also my relationship with Rafi of blessed memory. As I sort through some of the more painful memories, it feels like I’m banging my head against the wall asking: what is the right response to tragedy?

Sara Beth: Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10 where one is getting caught in traffic on the way to work, and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding. Even the learned professors and teachers at my beloved alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, have had to wrestle with tragedies of their own and I’ve called on their wisdom and scholarship to find answers. So in this series I’ll be talking to faculty at JTS and hoping that through the paths that they found, I’ll learn more about their lives and mine. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me work out: what now?


Sara Beth: In this episode I sat down with Professor Alan Mittleman, a philosophy professor here at JTS. Dr. Mittlemen and I spoke about personal tragedy including his own incredibly moving grief story and how it impacts the lived experience, and the excellent outlet that he and I both use for processing the things happening around us: writing books.

Sara Beth: Do you have a favorite philosopher?

Alan Mittleman: I don’t know if philosophers lend themselves to favorites. I would say the ones I take most seriously are Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein. I guess if I had a favorite it would be Wittgenstein.

Sara Beth: Why?

Alan Mittleman: His name is so much fun to say.

Sara Beth: Okay. What is the worst thing that ever happened to you and what did you do about it?

Alan Mittleman: Well, I would say the worst thing that ever happened to me was my sister’s death at a relatively young age, leaving two young children behind. And what I did about it other than being at her side in her last days was I wrote a book. Writing books is my way of coping with suffering, really.

Sara Beth: So my first question is, is suffering a necessary part of the world? And if so, why?

Alan Mittleman: It’s a necessary or at least an inevitable part of a world that has human beings in it. And as everyone knows, human beings are vulnerable, they’re mortal, we perish, we get ill, we break down. There are limits on our physical existence. So of course, to that extent, given the kind of beings that we are, we are going to suffer.

Sara Beth: So when we’re talking about suffering, what brings us to the place where we are suffering?

Alan Mittleman: Let me make a distinction between suffering and pain. I would want to argue that animals, some animals and you and I feel pain, but animals perhaps with the exception of animals like chimpanzees or elephants, don’t suffer in that suffering requires a level of understanding, of cognition, of interpreting our situation, interpreting our physical pain. That’s beyond the capacity of animals. So for human beings, we have a special kinds of misery of which we’re capable of. It goes beyond the mere fact of physical pain into a kind of spiritual condition or a psychological condition. It’s the backside of consciousness, so to speak. The fact that we have this gift that enables us to live in the world in the fully dignified, a uniquely human way, also entails a downside. The reality of suffering.

Sara Beth: Does that make the world a fundamentally tragic place for humans?

Alan Mittleman: I would say no. If it were simply a matter of toting up some quantity of happiness versus some quantity of suffering and there was more suffering than happiness, then perhaps you could say the world is fundamentally a tragic experience, at least for those individuals who have more suffering than pleasure or happiness in their lives, but I think that would be a ridiculous way of looking at things and completely unrealistic. I don’t think you can quantify the quality of human experience, although there’s a whole school of philosophy that’s sort of premised on that, that notion, namely utilitarianism. I don’t think that suffering has the last word in human life, it’s inevitability notwithstanding. For those who have a tragic view of the world, like ancient Greeks, like Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or Buddhism perhaps, it’s fair to say life is tragic, but I think for Jews and others who draw their orientation from biblical teaching, suffering is an important dimension of life, but it doesn’t define life in its entirety. Life in its entirety is a gift and there’s goodness, there’s benefit. There is what to be thankful for in the gift, and we have to put suffering into a perspective shaped by thankfulness and gratitude. Putting suffering within the perspective of gratitude and thankfulness for the gift of life is not an easy thing to do. It may be the most difficult thing we have to do, but I think as Jews we have to do it.

Sara Beth: I’m really interested after your answer, if you could share something that encapsulates the difficulty of what we have to go through because we care.

Alan Mittleman: When my sister was dying, she was in a hospital in Los Angeles, so I had to come back here with my mother and my sister died a couple of days after we left her. I was walking up Broadway to JTS and my phone rang and it was my sister’s best friend who was by her bedside and she said, Sharon is dying. She only has a few minutes left and I think there’s some prayer that Jews are supposed to say on their deathbed, isn’t there? And I said, yes, you say the Shema. And she said, could you say that? All of the traffic is surging down Broadway and I can’t really hear in my mobile phone. And I said, just give me a couple of minutes. So I ran into the building, I went to my office and I looked out the window and her friend held her phone up to my sister’s ear and I recited the phrases that one hopes to be able to say and a kind of confession before one dies. I will always remember that.


Sara Beth: So will you tell us about the book you wrote?

Alan Mittleman: The book was called Hope in a Democratic Age. And my initial thought was that it should be a book about the role of hope in politics. As my sister was dying and ultimately passed away, the book deepened. It’s still about politics, but it’s also about what attitude we should take toward life, how we should cope with particularly acute suffering, such as my sister experienced over a period of several years. And it seemed to me that the most important thing was to try to understand hope, not just as a psychological attitude or a sunny disposition of optimists versus a gloomy disposition of pessimists. But there’s something deeper. And the deeper aspect of hope, I thought reading the Bible and philosophy, was as a virtue–that this is as a kind of human excellence as the ability to stand up to fate, to tragedy, to suffering, and still affirm that life is good, that the world is good, that God is good and has given us a gift.

Alan Mittleman: So I tried to distinguish a durable, deep hope based on an authentic attitude toward life from a kind of shallow, wishful thinking, magical thinking, sort of hope. And I think in my sister’s last minutes when I said shema yisrael for her, I was trying to express that hope that, you know, despite everything, hers was a good life and she left a good impression on the world and she created life and her children are doing well in the world. And all of that has to be affirmed and celebrated against this rather dark background. The background behind the background is brighter.

Sara Beth: It’s a beautiful response. How do you respond to a different answer to the question? Someone who has a darker response.

Alan Mittleman: So I think it would be quite just and fair for a critic to say, well, you’re just being pollyannish. You’re being pollyannish not in the shallow sense, but in the deep sense: you’re a profound Pollyanna. I would like to push back on that. I don’t think that’s true. I think that the Jewish tradition has been arguing at least since biblical writings, particularly Psalms, that hope is a virtue, that we come close to God through our hope in Him. It’s one of the themes of the High Holiday season. If you’re a theist, you can think this way. You can think that the tragedies of life, the suffering of life ultimately makes sense in terms of the high good that is God, that God integrates suffering and tragedy for us into a life that’s fundamentally good. If you’re not a theist or at least not a biblical theist, then you have a different understanding, I mean, it can be the tragedy is the last word; it can be that there’s a sort of war going on in the human soul all the way down, that there’s nothing that ultimately synthesizes, integrates, and harmonizes all of the experiences of life into goodness.

Alan Mittleman: The closest you get outside of the biblical world to a kind of ultimate good is Plato. So in Platonism there’s this idea that the good is what he calls the form of forms. It’s the highest integrating principle. And I had an interesting experience once where, here at JTS, there was a very distinguished biblical scholar who came and talked about the Bible’s view in the early chapters of Genesis as a rather dark world of competing powers, and God in God’s self is divided and competing, and that he was basically offering a kind of tragic take on life. I very much disagreed with this. And my colleague at the time, when I voiced my objections to this dark view of God as competing powers, making life risky for human beings, he said, Oh, Alan, grow up. I said to my colleague, I am grown up and if that’s what Judaism is, I’d rather just be a Platonist. What do I need all the tsuris for?

Alan Mittleman: But of course, I don’t believe that that’s what Judaism is. I believe that reading is wrong. I think that the best interpretation of the Jewish tradition is rather like Platonism. So did Maimonides. So I think I have good shoulders to stand on. One of the, leading Jewish philosophers, really the first Jew to give a kind of systematic shape to the rabbinic inheritance is Sa’adia Gaon, who wrote in medieval Baghdad. And Sa’adia believes that the fundamental attitude or orientation of the Jews should be gratitude. Why? He says it’s a principle of reason for us to show gratitude toward our benefactors and there’s no greater benefit than life. And our benefactor is God who has given us life and therefore our fundamental duty, our fundamental response to the reality of our lives, is to be thankful to God, to show gratitude.

Alan Mittleman: But there are philosophers who see human existence as a malaise. There are artists and poets as well. And I’m not sure deep, deep down there is an answer to that. That is, I think one can make arguments as I’ve tried to make about the goodness of being. I think these can be good arguments, but no argument in philosophy is ever 100% successful. And I think at the end of the day, an argument between a Jew and a Buddhist of a certain stripe can be respectful, but we have to sort of part as friends and we’re not going to persuade one another of our most fundamental convictions.

Sara Beth: So dropping it all and getting to Nirvana?

Alan Mittleman: Nirvana, it is to be without desire. So you actually cannot desire to get to Nirvana. That’s self-impeaching because it’s a post-desire state. I think what that kind of thinking assumes, rather similar to ancient Stoicism, is that nothing is worth caring about, from the highest point of view, from the most contemplative point of view, everything should be a matter of indifference. For Stoics, everything should be a matter of indifference except our own virtue. But there’s really nothing that’s worth caring about for Stoics other than our own ability not to care, that is our own supremacy over all of these worldly cares. We have to abandon all of the cares and see them as adiaphora, as things without significance, towards which we should be in different. That means family, that means loved ones, that means fame, fortune, anything that depends on the estimation of others or value conferred by society. All of that should be a matter of indifference. When you get to a kind of place beyond caring about those things, you’ve reached the ideal life, at least for a Stoic.

Alan Mittleman: That seems to me to be fundamentally un-Jewish. I think Judaism underwrites an attitude of profound caring toward loved ones, toward society, toward the world, toward nature, and ultimately toward our relationship with God that necessarily embroils us, because of our caring, in the suffering that we incur because of our failure to consistently care, or because of the pain when what we care about is ripped from us, dies, is destroyed, and so on. That’s just what we have to cope with as Jews. I don’t think the Stoic answer ought to be persuasive to us, although it has made inroads into Jewish thought. You see some of it in Maimonides in the last chapters of The Guide.

Sara Beth: Did anybody give you a particularly challenging or otherwise problematic piece of advice when you were going through these different challenging times?

Alan Mittleman: Oh, I think people know better than to give me advice. They know that I’m going to give them a hard time if they give me advice. But one hears advice. For example, in the sermons of rabbis, sort of generic advice. And I have to say I’ve had my own brush with the Rabbinate, I went to rabbinical school and for some years, I think it was nine years, I did a parallel, somewhat more traditional service at a Conservative synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And my sister died shortly before Rosh Hashanah. And I asked not to officiate that year and I got somebody else. But I went back a year later and I found that I couldn’t say anything. The pain of my sister’s death was still so intense. I always tried to give sermons about something real, you know, not something merely scholastic or canned or trite, but to reach deep down.

Alan Mittleman: And what was deep down for me, it was still, you know, suffering, my book-writing, notwithstanding. I found I really couldn’t say anything. So I gave a last sermon about how you should distrust advice from people who want to minimize the intensity of human suffering and have a kind of philosophy or theology tool box that helps them to minimize it. And I decided after that that if this is the best you can do from the bimah, you shouldn’t be on the bimah. So I never went back.

Alan Mittleman: So I think part of the reason that the Jewish people and Judaism have survived is because Deuteronomy and the Prophets gave us a way to interpret history. While other ancient peoples who were conquered said, the conquerors’ gods are more powerful than our gods. Therefore we start worshiping the conquerors’ gods. Our tradition disappears, comes to an end, so to speak. The Prophets said, you are suffering for your own sin and almighty God has punished you. The conquerors’ gods remain non-gods and the conquerors are instruments of your God’s will. That’s called a theodicy, a way of justifying God in the face of the evil suffered by his servants. On the one hand, I recognize that this has been a very powerful, very important tool in the arsenal of moral resources of the Jewish people over the centuries.

Alan Mittleman: I remember I made a trip to the Soviet Union with a Catholic colleague years and years ago and I was standing on the spot, knee-deep in snow, where tens of thousands of Jews of Minsk were massacred during the Holocaust. And my colleague, who is a Catholic nun, asked me to say Kaddish. And I was so overcome with emotion that I kind of snapped at her and I said, I cannot say Kaddish. I was not just feeling incapacity to do so, but I was angry. I felt that this was a way of somehow handling this, dealing with this, minimizing this, trying to make this go away through a ritual technology. I didn’t want to participate in that. I didn’t want to engage in theodicy. I just, I don’t want to think that way. I don’t think that’s a cogent, reasonable or really faithful way to think nowadays. I just can’t accept that kind of view, that kind of theodicy, that kind of making sense of evil. I think if that’s all that we can do, we ought to keep quiet. I don’t think there’s much you can say to people in suffering other than to be with them. I think that’s sort of how the Talmud works as well. Ultimately you just sit side by side and in the Talmudic vignette, you weep together. I think that speaks much more than trying to give advice.

Sara Beth: That being said, do you have any advice, for the people that are listening, how to deal with, when you’re feeling down, when bad things are happening to you? What would you say to people who are listening? What kind of advice would you give out, even though you don’t necessarily want to receive it?

Alan Mittleman: I think my father’s best advice to me is still a good advice and that is be patient. You have to cultivate endurance and you have to learn to wait. Virtues are not always active. They can go to passivity to, well, a kind of active waiting, let’s put it that way–more than passivity. Every experience of suffering we have challenges us and in some ways breaks us and we have to figure out how to knit ourselves back together, how to rebuild ourselves. So you constantly have to reach down and find out who you are, what you believe. You can’t be a self without standing for something. Self is not a psychological condition. It’s a moral condition. You have to find out what it is that constitutes yourself by what it is you stand for. That’s the path of renewal I think.

Alan Mittleman: To switch to a somewhat more everyday register, I just moved, 30 years in a house, downsized to an apartment in a different city. And I was talking with the doorman in my building and he’s going through a move too, and he was complaining about how difficult it is to figure out what to keep, what to bring, what to throw out. I said, moving is never about moving. It’s about finding out what you want to be. And he nodded, he approved of that. So I just violated my own rule in giving advice. But I think everything that challenges us, challenges us to decide what it is we ultimately believe in and stand for, to reclaim it and to enact it. And that’s how we endure. And if we find that we don’t like what we stand for, then we have to find out what we ought to stand for, and embrace that.

Sara Beth: Dr. Mittleman, it’s been a real honor and a privilege to go through this and have these conversations with you to learn more about your academic pursuits and philosophical pursuits and also to hear more about your family and your community. I really appreciate the time that you’ve spent and the knowledge that you’ve shared and I’m so grateful. So thank you for having this conversation with me.

Alan Mittleman: You’re welcome, Sara Beth. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.


Sara Beth: What now, Professor Mittleman? What did we take away from all of this? Well, that it’s okay to wrestle with your feelings by putting pen to paper and that you’re going to disagree with highly respected spiritual leaders and that’s okay. And that even when you hate advice, you may find yourself taking it and giving it out too. And I’ve learned that like all of us, Dr. Mittlemen has had to contend with suffering and tragedy and that for him, suffering is just what comes with a lifetime of truly caring. Like he said, we suffer because we care. And even if you’re a pessimist, even in the wake of a tragic loss of someone far too young, hope is the force that wins out. Hope is the ultimate ability to stand up to all of the tragedy and suffering that is a part of life.

Sara Beth: But what if hope is just too hard to find? What if Professor Mittleman’s answers work for him but not for me? So all I have is just one piece of the puzzle of how Jewish tradition helps us respond to tragedy. And even with this little piece in place, I’m not yet ready to stop banging my head against the wall. I have more professors and a lot more questions to fling at them. The first of which is always, of course, what now?


Sara Beth: This episode is dedicated to the memory of Patti Mittleman, professor Mittleman’s beloved wife, who passed away a few months after our conversation. Patti was a passionate Jewish educator whose deep impact on countless students remains a powerful testament to the significance and meaning of the life that she lived. As Professor Mittleman taught us, we suffer because we care.

Sara Beth: What Now? Is produced by Michal Richardson. Editorial oversight is by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for the 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 is 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, Sarah Beth Berman, JTS Davidson School, class of 2009. It’s been real banging my head against the wall with you.