What Now? Episode 5 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 5 of the podcast What Now?, “Getting Honest With Yourself” with Eliezer Diamond, 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 decimated, and as a newly-minted Masters in Jewish education, my path became a twisty, windy road.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard to figure out how to acknowledge all of my brokenness, and the pieces that make up the whole. I’m still asking the questions, though. These days, there’s a lot of, why tragedy? What’s the point of suffering, and what now? 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 losing your keys and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.
In my continued search to answer big questions—why? and what now?—I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary, hoping that they can help me in my search. Each professor and 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 while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me make sense of it.
In this episode, I got to meet with Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, an esteemed teacher of Torah at JTS. Rabbi Diamond and I spoke about personal tragedy and the incredible opportunity in interpreting the concept of viddui, often translated as confession. I’ll let him introduce himself.
Eliezer Diamond: So thanks, Sara Beth. This is Eliezer Diamond. I am a member of the faculty here at JTS. I teach Talmud and related subjects. So right now I’m teaching a course about language and intention, which is a course that I love to teach because I think that in Talmud and in life in general, one of the things it’s about is the struggle to be clear with ourselves and with other people. Are we really making ourselves understood? And are we really hearing other people and what they want to say? And I feel that the study of Talmud is a training ground for being clear and for listening mindfully. I also like to teach a course on Jewish law and the environment. I teach that fairly often. I’m teaching a course on the Haggadah, which is my favorite text. And again, I’m interested in text as a way of going past the text. Or using it as a platform for thinking about ourselves, for figuring out how to talk to each other. For figuring out how to live our lives. In the case of environmental course, just how we all occupy the same planet at the same time. What are the obligations that we have to each other? How do we have to limit ourselves because we are occupying that same space?
So to me it’s Torah. It’s about guidance. It’s about meaning. It’s studying the texts so that we can study ourselves. That’s what I’m going for.
SBB: How does all of this stuff that we’ve been talking about, how do you find that in your work here at JTS?
ED: Many years ago, I had a crisis. And so I sought counsel from my teachers. And all of them except for one said, I teach Talmud. Can’t help you with your personal problem because I don’t do that. What I do is teach Talmud. Which in a way was a good thing, because they didn’t try to, sort of, practice without a license. I mean, if they felt that they weren’t able to be helpful, it’s good that they told me that. But I walked away from this saying, wait a second. If I can’t figure out how to live my life better from all this stuff that I’m studying, there’s something wrong here.
And that was really the moment which I said, when I study and when I teach it has to be Torah. It has to guide me and the people that I teach. And one of the things that that made me do was to take teachings that sometimes I would hear as nice ideas and make them real in my life. Perhaps the most important example is ve’ahavta lerayekha kamokha, love your neighbor as yourself. We all agree that’s a great idea. Why not? It’s better than hating your neighbor.
But the question became for me, am I living that? Can someone looking at my life, would that person see someone expressing love and concern for other people? That became the standard for me. So the text, again, sort of moves off the page into me and informs how I’m living my life. That’s my Torah. My Torah is understanding, internalizing, doing.
SBB: So I’m looking forward to talking to you about using the framework for teshuvah and viddui for taking stock and moving on in our lives. I was wondering if you could give an introduction into the concepts and translations, into teshuvah and viddui, and then we’ll move on from there.
ED: Teshuvah literally means to return, even though it’s often translated as repentance. And the idea behind that is, we are on a path in life or we have an ideal and maybe idealized path. And then we move off of that path. And teshuvah is our attempt to get back on track. And viddui is what Maimonides puts at the center of this process of return, which is often translated as confession, but which I translate as acknowledgment. It’s getting honest with myself. It’s being honest about what I’ve done and what it really was that I did. Because very often, we know what we did, but we like to describe it in ways that allow us not to take full responsibility for it, or not to see it as it really is. And that’s the function of viddui. To name it, to own it, and that’s the beginning of the process of healing it or changing it.
SBB: I’m going to ask you a question that means a lot to me. One a scale of one to 10, where one is something like an airplane delay, and 10 is something like what happened to Job in the Book of Job, could you tell me about experiences that you have had in the one area and then in the 10 area. So let’s start with the one, the airport delay.
ED: So my favorite one is losing my keys. I’m a scattered type of person. It takes me a lot of effort to stay focused and concentrated. And often enough, I put my keys down somewhere and then they’re somewhere, they’re somewhere, but not where I know where they are. And so I get enraged because I feel helpless. I’m angry at myself because I feel incompetent. And I’m angry at God because why was I made this way? Why was I created as a person who loses his keys? It’s not fair. And so viddui is helpful there, because I have to say, yes, that’s right. That’s how it is. This is the person who I am. And then find ways not only of accepting it but of fixing it. And once I accept that I’m a scattered person, then I have to accept that as a scattered person I need a strategy to protect myself from myself. Like having a very specific place to put my keys. Which works 95% of the time.
SBB: That’s not bad.
ED: It isn’t bad, except that when it’s the other 5%, you kind of forget about the 95% and are just in the place of, I lost my keys again. And then the other stuff is important. Acceptance and saying, it will be what it will be. And moving on.
SBB: Thank you for sharing that story about losing your keys. I don’t often lose my keys, and when I do, I feel all of those things that you were saying. And whether it’s my keys or my cell phone, I feel the frustration and it’s important to own that I am a part of the frustration that I bring upon myself. Now that we’ve talked about the airport delay, the one, let’s shift over to the 10, when we’re talking about a Job-type experience.
ED: Okay, so I’m going to talk about something that’s really difficult for me to talk about. Until age 40, my life was a complicated journey, in part because of a bipolar condition. And in my late 30s, I developed an alcohol addiction. And part of my journey ended up being in the hospital. And when I was there, I got a lot of help and my life really changed and I was really able to turn my own life around.
But while I was there, I had a spiritual crisis. And the spiritual crisis was that I felt fraudulent. Because I was a rabbi, and I was telling other people how they should lead their lives, and giving them all kinds of great advice. And I didn’t know how to live my own life. I felt like a fraud. And I didn’t want to go to the Jewish chaplain, because I figured either it’s somebody I know, or somebody who knows who I know. Jews talk. Everybody talks, but Jews talk a lot.
So I decided to go to the Catholic chaplain. I called him up. I said, this is my story. I need a spiritual guide. You’re it. He said, sure, come, talk to me. And I went. And I poured my heart out to him. And he said, so I want you to know that you will be a better rabbi now than you have ever been. Because you’ve looked at yourself. You’ve accepted who you really are. You’ve accepted your brokenness. You’ve also accepted your strengths. And so now when you talk to people, you’re going to be talking out of that place of honesty and self-understanding. And also the part of you that’s broken. And you will be able to help people in a way that will be far beyond what you’ve been able to do until now.
And he was right. That’s exactly been my life experience and the way I summed it up for myself was to turn a kelalah, a curse, into a berakhah, into a blessing. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in my life.
SBB: So coming out of that experience, it was obviously life-changing and very impactful. And I’m wondering how that affected your insight into yourself and also advising people and counseling people on their insight that they have into their own selves.
ED: So I think what I got out of the time that I spent with the priest and really, my hospital experience is that in some ways, I’m helpless. Some parts of who I am are just who I am. I can’t change them. I can’t make them go away. And at that level, I need to accept and just say, yes, this is who I am. Say it in a way of acceptance. Not an angry way, not a resentful way, but in a way that allows me to be at peace with it. This is who I am. And at the same time, being able to say, and, being that person, I do have agency. I do have choices that I can make. And so being the person that I am, how can I be the best person that I can be, being that this is who I am. And that’s really what I have tried to do for myself, and that’s also what I have tried to do for students and other people.
First, know who you are. Know what your limits are. Accept them. And once I know myself, or once you know yourself, say, given that that’s the person I am, how can I move forward? How can I be an actor and not just a victim in the world.
SBB: What are some of the steps that you’ve taken or you’ve helped other people take from these insights, from this process that you’re talking about? If you want to relate it to viddui, or more broadly, I’m interested in what some of those steps end up being.
ED: That’s a hard question to answer. Let me do the best that I can, because everybody’s a different story. Since I know myself best, I’ll do me. So as I mentioned before, I’m a very scattered person. When I prepare to speak or for classes, I have to make a lot of notes. Or at least, that’s what I do some of the time. Some of the time, I make very careful notes. And part of me resents that. Because I look around, seems to me other people don’t have to make as many notes as I have to make. But that’s what I have to do. And I have to do that because I’m scattered.
So ideally, when I’m in the best possible place, I say, yes. That’s who I am. I am a scattered person. And as a scattered person, I can give this lecture or teach this class if I do what a scattered person has to do to reach that goal. Which means making a lot of notes. And then other times I’ll say, you know, sometimes the best way to be a teacher for me is to be a scattered teacher, is to start talking about something and then say, you know, that reminds me of something else, and I’m going to talk about that something else. I have a student right now who says that she gets distracted by me when I do that. So I’ve arranged with her that before I do that, I turn to her and I say, “Tangent alert.” So that’s part of how I teach sometimes.
And that’s something that a scattered person does better than people who aren’t scattered. So that’s also part of who I am as a teacher. So once I know myself and accept myself, I find different ways of working with myself. And to go back to that question of viddui, it is a full acceptance of who one is. And then to weave that into one’s way of living. One’s way of life. And to make it in a sense seamless.
The things that I see as challenges are not attacking me, are not diminishing me. They are me. And when I accept them as part of me, then I am able to know how to go forward, with all of those being part of who I am as I live my life.
SBB: Could you tell me a little bit more about—if you’re comfortable—with the interaction and conversation that you had with the priest?
ED: So after this priest gave me this life-changing advice and this insight, which he did with great compassion. Really made me feel that, in a way, the best thing that could have happened to me was to be in the place where I was, which certainly was not how I felt about it, and he really made me feel, going back to what I said before, that this actually was a blessing, being in this place was actually the beginning of a blessing.
So after he shared this with me, he said, “Do you want to pray together?” Just going to say, as a Jew, and he’s a priest, like who are we praying to? What’s this going to look like? If you trust somebody, you trust somebody. So I said, yes. Let’s pray together. And what he actually did was, he put his hands on my head and he gave me what we as Jews would call a Mi Sheberakh. He blessed me. He said, “May the God who blessed Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…” and he kept going up to and including Isaiah, “Bless this man. And give him health and strength and joy in his life.” I’m sure he said other things too.
But just the feeling of having him put his hands on my head and channeling God’s blessing, because that’s what it felt like, was one of the most powerful experiences that I’ve ever had in my life. It was the kind of religious experience that I don’t have a lot. Jewish religious life is sometimes tactile, but not a lot. And this was a profound tactile experience where I could almost physically feel being blessed. Receiving God’s blessing.
SBB: So how were you able to translate, in the moment, and in your analysis since, through your Jewish lens?
ED: Good question. I think that the first thing was, that he was listening. He was hearing. And hearing is something that our Rabbis talk about as being extremely, extremely important. Remember that our covenant with God begins with na’aseh but also with venishma, or Shema Yisrael. We will hear and we’ll obey, “Hear O Israel.” We need to let God know that we know God is present, and the way we let God know is by listening, by hearing, by saying “I am listening.” And so the first thing I felt with him was, he was listening. He was being present in that way.
The second thing was that he was being compassionate. That he cared about me. And no matter what a person has done, compassion is important. That’s what we say about God. God is the one being who loves all of us no matter what. And that’s the kind of love that I felt from him. And then I think what was really important was he asked me to reframe and re-understand myself and my experience. And for me, that was both very religious and very Talmudic.
To relate back to something I was talking about before, when I was talking about viddui as acknowledgment, viddui is also a kind of reframing. It’s a way of seeing your life differently. It’s waking up and saying, well, what have I done? And what have been the consequences? And what really have I done? And so he was saying, you could see your life in a lot of different ways. Try seeing it not as an unending tragedy. Try seeing it not as being all about being a victim. Certainly try seeing it not as being a fraud or unworthy. Try and see it as, you are the person you are. You have the experiences that you have. And you have tremendous power, and with hope you can fashion a life that is good and that is powerful and that can bring blessing to yourself and to other people. That was the great gift that he offered me.
So at the same time that I was very open to hearing what he had to say and the way that he said it, as a Jew and as a rabbi I was able to absorb what he was saying in categories that were meaningful for me.
SBB: Sometimes things happen that you have very little to do with, and they’re terrible. I was widowed in my 20s, what do I do about that?
ED: Of course, in terms of quote unquote, “explaining,” these events or why they happen, I not only have nothing to say about it, but I have a lot of trouble with people who claim that they can explain it. And I feel that I have no way of answering that question for myself or for anybody else. What I do believe is that we have the opportunity and I would really say responsibility, as human beings in general and as Jews in particular, to, as Viktor Frankl would say, make meaning of our lives.
So no one can explain away the tragedies that we face. What we can say is, this is now part of my life. This is now a part of who I am. How does that make meaning in my life? How do I relate to this experience in a way that can show me how I should move forward? And I can ask a lot of people and nobody can figure that out for me. I can be guided in some ways. I can’t be told. And so there’s that combination of the gift of other people who are with me. As the verse says, imo anokhi betzarah. We say God is with us in times of adversity. And God has many messengers, so hopefully God’s messengers, that is, my friends, my family, are with me in that moment. And some of them will have words of comfort. And some of them will have words of wisdom. And I will hear them. And then I’m on my own. I take that and I move forward as best I can.
And I’m allowed, in those moments, to curse. To be angry. It’s always interesting to me that our Siddur has almost no complaint in it. Almost no words of complaint in our Siddur. So you have to turn to Psalms. And Psalms, boy. Some of the Psalms—really gets it. Wake up, God! What are you, sleeping? So that’s also part of a relationship with God. To be angry. We can be angry with people and still have a relationship. Doesn’t have to end the relationship. And any God who would be offended by my being angry and therefore turn away from me, that’s not the God I believe in. The God I believe in is God who understands that we are angry and disappointed. Sometimes we turn away. But God is still there. And we do our best to pick up the pieces and continue the relationship.
SBB: So we’re here to talk about Jewish responses to tragedy and challenging situations. I’m wondering how you would respond to that?
ED: I think perhaps the most important thing is that Torah can be most useful if we don’t separate how we deal with tragedy from the context of how we live as Jews in the larger sense. Because I think what Torah teaches us is that life is of a piece. I mean, if I live a life of Torah, the Jewish life cycle, for example, there are feasts and fasts and more sedate holidays and holidays where you go wild. And I think the message there is that tragedy is part of a larger life. And it doesn’t mean that we belittle tragedy. But I think it also means that we put it in perspective. Eventually, it allows us to say we are not our tragedies, but tragedies are simply a part of us. And a part of our lives. And we have the wisdom of Torah and the compassion and help of people around us to figure out how that fits into our lives. Easier said than done, but doable, and really I think we have no choice but to do it. The other choice is despair or worse.
SBB: What now, Rabbi Diamond? This brave soul and kind teacher really let us in today. Sharing his personal illness stories allowed us all to acknowledge some of our own brokenness. I think of my favorite text, one that I hold so dear it’s on a ring I wear wrapped around my thumb every day. The text is from Pirkei Avot. “Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.” And in Rabbi Diamond’s darkest time, he got a lesson in pastoral care from a priest. I keep a physical reminder on my thumb. Rabbi Diamond’s experience arrived through a holy embrace.
And embracing our brokenness is pretty important, especially if we’re going to acknowledge our flaws, our worst inclinations, and learn to work with them. When I lived alone, I would regularly leave dishes in the sink and think, eh, that’s a problem for future Sara Beth. I had nobody to blame but myself, as opposed to when I had roommates and could blame them for everything. But knowing myself and my habits, I was sometimes able to roll up my sleeves, put my rings on the counter, and get to washing the dirty dishes. So there’s dirty dishes caused by us, and also bigger brokenness with bigger repercussions. Sometimes, also caused by us. 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 has been real banging my head against the wall with you.