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Leaps of Faith

A writer endeavors to learn exactly how ordinary people arrive at their systems of belief and disbelief

Nelly Reifler
November 09, 2006

In late August, 2001, I got married in upstate New York. The ceremony went off without a hitch; the biggest problem was that the caterer had to run back across the river for more chairs. Then, as we went off for our yichud, we learned that my stepmother’s family had been in a terrible car accident on their way to the wedding. My father and stepmother dashed off, and the evening turned into chaos. Guests ran back and forth to the local emergency room, while we bewilderedly went through the motions of celebrating for the guests who didn’t know what was going on. My stepmother’s sister suffered severe head injuries, and over the next week and a half descended into a coma-like state, then a coma, and was finally declared brain dead. The family decided to take her off life support and immediately began the days-long mourning ritual traditional among Parsis, Persian Zoroastrians who had migrated to India in the 10th Century. It ended precisely two weeks after our wedding. Instead of honeymooning, my husband and I attended hospital vigils and prayer gatherings. My marriage was off to a rough start.

A couple of days after the funeral, as I was starting to feel like I could maybe get back into life, my phone rang. Billy Greene, an old friend, had been murdered, shot in the head as he entered the foyer of his Emeryville, California apartment building. Dylan, my ex-boyfriend who delivered the news (and who lived upstairs from Billy) told me about hearing the gunshot, and seeing the body on the ground. He said that our friends were beginning to gather at the building to mourn together. I was still exhausted from the previous few weeks’ shock, but couldn’t stand not to be there. I told Dylan I’d get on a plane the next day. A hurricane was predicted, though, so I made reservations for two days later: September 11, 2001. I landed an outrageously expensive seat on United flight 93. Then, though sure it was too late, I called another airline on a whim, got a cheaper fare, and cancelled the first reservation.

I had grown up in a West Village apartment with a view of the World Trade Center. That day, in the air, on live satellite television news, I saw the twin towers fall and the wreckage of the plane I was nearly on. By the time we were grounded in Kansas City, I had changed in some incomprehensible way. Five days later, when I got off a train in Pennsylvania and met my husband in the parking lot, I knew that our lives had begun to diverge.

Before the wedding, we had met several times with Tsurah August, the rabbi who would officiate. She was gracious and empathic, but also committed to certain elements of the Jewish wedding ritual that we felt didn’t match our spiritual and political inclinations. We reached compromises and, with her, co-wrote segments of the ceremony. Though she and I grew close while preparing for the wedding, we didn’t stay in touch through the intervening years. I often thought about calling her for counsel, but my personal grief and struggle seemed too puny compared to the collective trauma I saw everywhere. I had spoken with her just once, a day or two after the wedding—until now, five years later. In the interim, my marriage ended and the world changed.

You were still in rabbinical school in Manhattan when I first met you in early 2000. How did you get into the rabbi business?

I had wanted to be a rabbi for ten or fifteen years, but I finally decided to take the plunge and leave the work I was doing, which was corporate consulting, when my mother died at 81. She was 31 years older than me. And I said to myself, “hmmm, look at the next 30 years,” and thought about how many of those years I would be able to work. So at 50, I decided, this is the time.

What made you want to be a rabbi?

I felt a sense of great fulfillment in the study of Torah and prayer, and thinking about and discussing what God is. It spoke to my heart, and the way for me to be more involved was to make that not only my life’s passion but my work. I had this image one day of my life as a kind of pie—not a pie chart, but a pie, a nice deep-dish apple pie—and there was one slice taken out. The biggest part of the pie was my involvement in my Jewish life. I was very involved in a Havurah, an egalitarian group of people who create services together, read together, study together. But the piece of the pie that was missing was my work life, and I wanted the whole pie.

How do you think about and discuss God, picture God? How do you relate to…it?

Many years ago when I first started studying with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi we were looking at the question of, you know, what is God? And how do we picture or experience God? We talked about the big daddy in the sky and the punishing God and the puppeteer. I don’t believe in that. I have a very complex, many-faceted experience of God.

Right now I’m looking out my window and I see a lot of sky and trees and a mist coming up. It’s a beautiful explosion of life, and I am experiencing the work of God and nature. I feel the presence of God, not as an entity but as an expression of the cycles of life. At times when I am in great pain I get my solace by going into the woods and seeing that expression of all the cycles of life; I see that in one tree, in one branch. But other times I might cry, “Oh God, help me!” What is that God? It is kind of big daddy. Not that I believe that there is that daddy up there whose lap I can crawl into, but I want that comfort. And I can feel it.

Do you think there’s anything that responds to you, whether a solid entity with a beard and staff, or something more abstract?

I have had the experience of calling out and feeling responded to. When I can get out of my little self and feel the big self of all beings, the response is a kind of peace, a kind of freedom from suffering. It’s a connection. So my inner paradigm, my inner sense of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things is what is really most solid. For instance just hearing your voice this morning, after all these years, I feel joyful. It’s that kind of responsiveness from an entity outside of it all saying, “I hear you.” But I also know that our minds create certain images that help us through hard times.

Was your family religious when you were a child?

Yes and no. My father was quite observant. He died when I was eleven, but I still got a sense of his devotion. He was involved in starting this little synagogue when we moved from Brooklyn to Queens. It was very important to him. His family was very observant—I only remember my grandfather praying. I didn’t understand his prayers, but he always had a prayer book and was always praying. My mother was angry at God, and yet would call out to God. I think it was that God up there that could cause life and death. She loved people and connected with people, and that was her way. She used to say, “I don’t need to go to synagogue. My synagogue is wherever I am.”

When we were preparing our wedding ceremony, my ex-husband and I argued with you about having the words God and Israel in the ceremony. We felt that the word “God” implied a single entity, which we didn’t completely believe in, and we were troubled by certain aspects and acts of the modern state of Israel. So we struck all kinds of bargains: You would have to make our complicated feelings about God implicit in your use of the word, and you’d have to distinguish the biblical or conceptual Israel from the contemporary state.

And they really stayed with me in how I talk about God and Israel in any celebration or service. And I always use your alternative seven blessings, unless a couple wants something really different.

We devoted so much effort to working out the perfect ceremony—and then the marriage itself didn’t work out. I knew in the days, months, even years after the wedding I was having a severe crisis of faith. Since I hadn’t been someone who could easily define my faith, I hadn’t realized I could have a crisis of faith. I remember thinking constantly about how close death felt, how small and simple it really was to exit life; perhaps the questions I started asking sped the recognition that my husband and I had profoundly different ways of seeing our lives—and life in general. I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, how does one live with a lot of trauma?

I wish I had a really easy answer. People say, “God’s God and God works in strange ways and we can’t really understand.” But I think that no rabbi or spiritual leader would have a pat answer. I mean, we don’t know why there is great suffering, we only know that there is. Some people explain it this way: “All the suffering makes you stronger, and it brings you into heaven.” That’s not what I say. I remember horrible things I heard around the tsunami: that people didn’t have enough faith and were punished. I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know the reason for seemingly random acts of violence. I don’t think it’s just human nature. We see volcanoes and earthquakes and hurricanes. I don’t think it’s just random, but I don’t think it’s planned, either. I’m interested in the why, but I don’t think I’ll ever find out the why.

I do feel an almost intuitive knowledge of the how: How do we get through these times? How do we not just skirt them or get away from them, but instead get through them and have the sense that our life is still rich and meaningful…and even feel joy again? That’s the challenge. Very few of us go unscathed. And when things come together the way they did for you, the monumental tragedies and personal and national tragedies, they take away our faith in safety. They pull away the veil of, “Oh, I know I’m gonna get up tomorrow.”

I had enough questions about faith and was obsessed with mortality before. Getting married was a huge leap of faith that was immediately and completely dashed. I didn’t need any lessons.

Those crises burn away any kind of an illusion that we are immortal. We could walk off the sidewalk and get hit by a car. The probability is not statistically huge, but it can happen. So what about our lives right now? And I think that’s really the best thing that understanding we are mortal can bring us: What am I living now? And while I am alive, how am I living? Am I fulfilling my purpose? Do I have a purpose? What do I love? What do I cherish?

The rabbis teach, “Live each day.” Rebbe Nachman lived with a lot of fear and he created ways of feeling that he had a life of meaning. So one of his teachings is—and he built on ancient teachings—live each day as if it’s your last.

You raised two kids alone. I’m wondering if for you, the experience of having a marriage break up was a crisis of faith?

Well, I don’t think I was very aware in those days. I was 31, my kids were little. I was very depressed for a long while, and I didn’t know why until someone said to me, “Do you think it could be your marriage?” Then the trumpets played. It was a kind of crazy marriage, I had been 19 when I met him. The breakup was a relief. It was during the marriage that I had more of the crisis of faith.

I see what you’re saying.

There was really a crisis for me when my father died, and I feel fortunate that rather than turning away and saying, “There is no reason for anything,” I started to look for what keeps us connected.

And we started the conversation with you saying that you had decided to become a rabbi when your mother died.

Yes, but my real spiritual journey started when I was 11 and my father died. Though it started before that, really, because I had a brother who died when I was an infant. So this was always part of my life: What happens when we’re not here, but we’re here? My brother was always present. Those questions had always been there, but then my father died. One of my brothers turned away entirely. He’s an atheist—you know: prove, prove, prove there’s a God. But for me, it’s really about trying to figure out how we are, how it is we keep unfolding and connecting with each other. And I feel grateful.