What Now? Episode 4 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 4 of the podcast What Now?, “The Wholeness of a Broken Heart” with Mychal Springer, 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. Several years ago, just after I graduated from JTS, 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.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard to figure out how to be myself, all of the pieces, broken and repaired in equal parts. I’m still asking questions, though. Specifically, what now? Why do we suffer? And how can we pick up the pieces and keep going? How does our tradition help us tackle this complicated and fundamentally human experience?
Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one is falling down a muddy hill in your freshly laundered designer coat at your internship—yes, this happened. And 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding, which also happened.
In my continued search to answer the big questions, I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater, JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. I’m hoping they can help me out. Each person has had their own struggles, even my professors. And they’ve applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me out.
In this episode, I sat down with Rabbi Mychal Springer, who heads the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS. Rabbi Springer and I spoke about personal tragedy, including how she played into my own grief story, but from a distance. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Rabbi Mychal Springer: I am the director of the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS. It’s a multi-faith center, grounded in Jewish learning and tradition, that equips seminary students of all different backgrounds—all different Jewish backgrounds and all different faith backgrounds—and clergy to provide spiritual care to people who are in some kind of distress.
SBB: And how did you end up here?
MS: I went to JTS as a student, and I was ordained here. And I loved being at JTS. But while I was here, I had a hard time and I entered into my crisis. Crisis of faith, emotional chaos. And I wasn’t sure how I could become the rabbi that I had envisioned becoming, or what it would mean to be a rabbi in the world in the way that I wanted to be. So I sought some counsel. And a dear mentor of mine, Dr. Sam Klagsbrun, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Pastoral Counseling here at JTS, sent me to do something called clinical pastoral education, which I had never heard of, and is a hospital-based or clinically-based training program that I went to as my senior year of rabbinical school.
And it was so transformative that I reoriented my whole way of thinking about the rabbinate and imagining being a rabbi and ended up becoming a chaplain and becoming a CPE educator. But that world is almost entirely Christian. So being out in the world as a CPE educator, I began to dream about creating Jewishly-grounded CPE. And I worked for a time in an organization that was starting to do this work. But that organization didn’t have the grounding that JTS has, the depth of Jewish life and commitment. So I came back here to JTS in the Rabbinical School as associate dean, and did that for about seven years.
And a magical moment came, when we could dream big about creating a center and launching clinical pastoral education, Jewishly-grounded and open. To engage people in practical theology, the theology that grows out of experience and is always living in tension with it, and do it here. And that’s nine years ago, we created the Center.
SBB: And how has it been going?
MS: It’s been amazing.
SBB: So you were talking about how clinical pastoral education, really before you and your mentor Dr. Klagsbrun, it was a mostly Christian enterprise. Could you talk a little bit about how you make pastoral care more Jewish?
MS: Well, my first supervisor was a Roman Catholic nun, Theresa Brophy, who was amazing. My second supervisor was Rabbi Jeffrey Silberman, who was the first Jew to be certified in the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. And he was an amazing partner, mentor, encourager, because he had also started the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, which is now called Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. And he had a vision for professionalizing chaplaincy. Jewish chaplaincy. So even though I’m a pioneer in bridging pastoral education into the Jewish world, I do have people who were ahead of me in this who are dear partners in this work. And I want to give them their credit.
Part of what was innovative about what we’re doing here is bringing CPE and clinical training into a seminary setting. Most seminaries have academic pastoral training, and then most of the clinical training happens in hospitals. So bringing the two together in this place has been the source of great energy and learning, because our resources are so deep and rich. And when we study text, we’re studying text with students who are used to studying text here with our top teachers or people who engage in Jewish theology, Jewish history, and there’s a fertile ground which we feel all the time. Because one of the great tasks that our students have is to bring together what they know from the sources, what they know intellectually, and bridge it with what they understand emotionally and spiritually. And this kind of learning is always asking students to do that in a rigorous way.
SBB: So in building the program at JTS, how have you worked to apply this theology and how does it contrast to Protestant, Catholic, and other religious pastoral care work?
MS: When I began my pastoral training, I had a lot of anxiety about being in a Christian space. And I think now that some of that anxiety was because I didn’t feel adequately grounded in speaking about Jewish theological approaches. I felt very grounded as a Jew. But my crisis was really around faith, and having adequate faith for religious work. When I was a child, I felt tremendously held, spiritually and theologically, if I even knew what that was. I grew up with a person in my life who was very close to my age who was very sick and ended up dying when he was 14 and I was 12. His name was Aaron Kushner, and he was a very important presence in my life, and his memory is a blessing.
So in the period of Aaron dying and after he died, I had models in Jewish community for grappling deeply with what it meant to be alive, what it meant to be mortal, and dealing with suffering, with grief. I felt that that Jewish community that I was part of, and the learning at Solomon Schechter in Boston where I went to school, it created this container where I felt that all of me was being attended to, in a very comprehensive, integrated way.
So it was around that time that I began thinking about wanting to become a rabbi, and my early adolescent imagination was that that’s what being a rabbi was. Being a rabbi was knowing how to come into life’s greatest challenges and create a space where people could be held and live with everything that was hard about being a person. But when I was on the verge of becoming a rabbi myself, I didn’t know how to do any of that. And I had become well-educated about Judaism, but God felt farther away. In a sense, the smarter I felt I was, the more knowledgeable I felt I was, the more impoverished I actually felt, spiritually and religiously.
So I sought out this learning to have access to something that I had lost. And I think that my fear was—well, my initial fear was that I couldn’t find it again. But then when I started to find it, in the context of CPE and the clinical training that I was doing, there was this anxiety that got kicked up, that I was doing it with Christians who seemed to have more language for this and more experience with this, and not with Jews. Or at least not with the Jews who were my familiar cohort, where I could be embraced as a woman and in the fullness of who I am.
So it created a different kind of pressure in me. And because there were some people, both among the loving Christian mentors and in the Jewish group, there was a confidence that if I dug deep, I could access Jewish ways of doing this that simply hadn’t been articulated in this methodology yet. And that began a long process for me.
SBB: So you spoke both about theology and theodicy. There is a question that I like to ask. On a scale of one to 10, where one is an airplane delay and 10 is the Book of Job, can you describe things that you’ve experience on the one end of the scale and on the 10 end of the scale?
MS: When I think about what I’ve experienced that has challenged my faith the most, it would be the death of my best friend from childhood, Nomi Fein, whose memory is a blessing. Nomi died when we were 30, which is 22 years ago. And just mentioning her name in this context brings up a lot of feelings, because she continues to be present in my life in a very palpable way. She died suddenly, at the end of January, in the month of Shevat. And she left behind her husband and a 16-month-old baby daughter.
And it shattered whatever coherence I had managed to put back together for myself after the faith crisis that I had managed to navigate with the help of my training at the end of rabbinical school. So faith crisis wasn’t unfamiliar to me. But Nomi’s death unleashed in me an incredible anger at God. A terrible sense that the world is not right. And an unwillingness to compromise in proclaiming that.
So working in the hospital was actually a great match, because I was working at the Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Beth Israel. And there were all these kids with brain tumors and other neurological disorders. And their parents were in all forms of distress and coping. And I found that my truth about navigating the chaos of this world because of Nomi’s death freed up in me a willingness to embrace my families, the parents, the kids, wherever they were. I worked very hard not to instill my chaos anywhere that it didn’t belong, as a professional responsibility.
And when I encountered people who were in the depths of their own disorientation, I found that I could accompany them there, in even more profound ways than I had before, because of the rawness of living with my loss. And the theological paradigm that was so important to me was the value and truth of brokenness as an aspect of this world that couldn’t be ignored or marginalized.
So if my imagination had led me to think that recovering from this kind of a crisis would have looked like overcoming the brokenness, that went away completely. And the only avenue that was open was the avenue of living in the brokenness, and letting it open further. So the [Kotzker] Rebbe says, “There’s nothing as whole as a broken heart.” And I lived the broken heart. And leaned into discovering what kind of wholeness could emerge with the broken heart. It’s that wholeness that is at the core of pastoral theology.
SBB: That’s a really incredible story and an incredible way to take something so challenging and provide so much comfort for yourself and for so many other people. You didn’t mention something, like a one. And I’m curious if you have a response to that question, on a scale of one to 10, where 10 is your loss of Nomi, what’s a one?
MS: I don’t know, what’s a one? A one that would count as something theologically challenging.
SBB: I’ll give you an example. We’re recording when it’s very humid. I do not enjoy being warm or humid, despite being raised in Florida. And somebody said to me, this must be like the worst thing for you. And I said, well, I was widowed in my 20s, but I also don’t enjoy this. So I’m just curious. Because you spend so much time helping people around 10 and advising people on how to help other people around 10, how you could even respond to being asked what a one would be.
MS: So part of what I have loved about doing pastoral work is that it has opened up my access to my feelings, all feelings. So I suppose I experience annoyance or pain at lots of things, and they just kind of float in and out. So it’s not that I don’t have them, it’s just, it’s hard to think, okay, so what’s one that’s even worth mentioning?
SBB: So how can the theology of brokenness help with the small things?
MS: The school that I went to growing up was all-encompassing. And I think of it as having saved my life. So when I had my own kids and I sent them off to school, I imagined that they would have the same kind of amazing experience. But they didn’t, at all. And I’ve had to navigate a lot of challenges that I wouldn’t have imagined.
The perspective of brokenness that comes in when things are really bad has also helped me as a mother make space for what is, and trust that if I can really make space for what is, it will be okay. Whatever it is. I’m a much more resilient mom than I would have been without this orientation. And I think a much more responsive mom. And it also shapes what I hope for my kids. I don’t have big dreams for my kids. Growing up I always felt that my parents expected a lot from me. And I don’t think my kids don’t think that I expect good things for them, but I don’t think they think about my expectations of them. I think they’re much more attuned to my love for them. And the theology of brokenness makes space for love to be at the center and palpable in a different way.
SBB: That’s really powerful. And I hope my parents are listening. So when we’re talking about Nomi, I’m wondering how she shows up in your work now, working with your students.
MS: I had an experience recently where I was teaching foundations of pastoral care. And one of the texts that I love to teach is a Yehuda Amichai poem called “El malei rahamim,”] God full of mercy. Well, I’ll share it with you. So [Hebrew 0:18:33.3]. “God full of mercy. If God was not full of mercy, mercy would be in the world, not just in God.” I love this poem. This poem has been a kind of anthem for me, for a long time. I shared it with the students. I asked them to reflect on it, and I paid attention to the way in which it was hard for the students to name the anger, the ironic anger, that is at the heart of the poem. To take El Malei Rahamim, which is this liturgical piece that extols God for being merciful, and to turn it around and blame God for withholding mercy, those very words, is an exquisite act of defiance, grounded in massive pain and anger that grows from it.
So that’s my legacy from Nomi, is treasuring the expression of religious indignation. Throwing it at God. And throwing it at God from within the language that God speaks, or the language that we know how to speak with God. So when I shared this poem with the students, they had trouble connecting to the anger or naming the anger, because we’re not supposed to be angry. Too many people are taught we’re not supposed to be angry. But as I worked on it with the students, they were able to say, well, there’s anger here. And I could feel the opening up as they accessed the permission, the sacredness of the permission, the resource of anger for religious healing and connection and pastoral relationship. That’s all part of Nomi’s legacy.
SBB: So how does the rage help? I’ve been known to be filled with rage. Just curious.
MS: So many of us are filled with rage. We don’t ask for it. It comes. And when we deny it, or try to avoid it, it becomes more powerful. And it silences us. Or it makes us physically sick. Or it sends us into spiritual crisis. Or it alienates us. Or it makes it impossible for us to feel a sense of love and community. But when we share it, when we bless it, when we value it, as a just expression in an unjust world, it becomes transformed into an opportunity for healing.
SBB: That’s awesome. In response to what you just said, this is actually basically the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with you, and I was actively avoiding you for a long time because of the work you do here, and because you taught pastoral care to my fiancé who died—after you taught him. It was unrelated to your teaching. But he did die right after he was learning with you. And now I’m sort of smacking myself internally for not talking to you earlier, for giving me permission to deal with the rage that I have been processing for the better part of a decade. And a number of my friends could tell you that I was not the easiest person to be around, definitely for a year, and for a lot longer than that.
So it’s interesting for me to hear all of the wonderful things that you teach, that I actively avoided and ended up processing in my own way. So I just want to acknowledge that. And thank you for sharing with me now.
MS: People find the moments that are right for them, to do what they need to do.
SBB: Thank you. I appreciate that. You really say all the right thing. The way I processed pastoral care when Rafi was in the ICU for a month was, please get away from me with your Styrofoam cup of water. Which is a very rude, cheapening version of explaining and understanding how pastoral care works. I was very angry and not ready to deal with my rage, obviously. Of all of the conversations I’m having, this is probably the one that’s the most like having me look back at who I was then. So, thank you. After all of this conversation, this whole podcast is to help me figure out what I’m supposed to do with experiencing tragedy, which for me involves being in humidity and also that time I was widowed in my 20s. And like I just said, you’ve given a lot. For anybody who’s listening, talking about finding love in the brokenness, and figuring out how to celebrate and manage and deal with rage, what now? After all the things you’ve said, what would you say to everyone else? What now?
MS: It’s not really my inclination to say anything.
SBB: Yeah. In your line of work, it’s your inclination to listen. I’m on to you.
SBB: That’s fair. I set myself up for that. It was brilliant spending time talking with you, and actually getting to know you. Thank you for the work that you do. Keep doing it. And know that even the people who are avoiding you are learning from you. So thank you.
MS: Thank you for creating this space in the beautiful way that you did.
SBB: Thank you. What now, Rabbi Springer? Sure, I finally admitted and apologized that I had been actively avoiding you for so many years. But what now? In our short time together, Rabbi Springer had a lot to teach me, about anger and about love. When I think about all the times I’ve disappointed people and they’ve loved me anyway, Rabbi Springer made me see that this is the greatest way to love somebody, without expectations. Had I talked to Rabbi Springer almost 10 years ago, maybe I’d have gotten to know my rage a little sooner. Under a master teacher of caring for those in deep pain, with all the wisdom of her own crisis of faith, maybe my pain and I could have gotten—air quotes—“better,” sooner. As if you ever get better. It’s more like, your scars only flare up in certain situations.
I avoided Rabbi Springer for so long. But now, I will carry her lessons with me. I hope you will, too. Another piece of the puzzle is in place. Embracing, owning, and processing rage after tragedy. What a gift. What an honor to carry this information. And yet, and yet, I will still bang my head against the wall. More professors, more questions. The scars still flare up. The rage comes when we say, why, tragedy, why? And it won’t stop. So, neither will I.
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 class of 2009. It’s been real banging my head against the wall with you.