Cracking the Theodicy Nut

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There may be no harder writing than an effective, religiously distinct eulogy that does not depend on particular beliefs to be appreciated. And yet, it can be done.

I lost a good friend last week. Liz and Larry Bleiberg have been my friends for two decades. We met through work -- Larry was a colleague -- and through our synagogue. Even when they left town, we stayed as close as conversations, occasional visits, and Facebook would allow.

To say that Liz was lively is to use too few syllables for the proper effect. She was smart, glib, funny. A great audience. A natural actress. An effective executive. So when more than three years ago, she was having problems with judgment and motor skills that could not be easily explained, she went to the experts.

I'll lay lottery ticket odds you've never heard of her diagnosis: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. It's an illness of unknown cause that, best I can understand, attacks the switching stations in the brain that allow us to integrate feelings, information, words, and all the other discreet parts that come together to create a personality. And it affects physical coordination.

So while Liz was still in there, it got harder and harder and harder for her to literally pull herself together enough to communicate and participate in the world. Her death was both a tragedy and a terrible relief for those who loved her.

I wasn't able to attend the funeral. Jewish tradition calls for the ceremony and burial to be held very quickly, and there was no way for me to get there in time. But Larry sent me a copy of the two eulogies delivered at the service. One was by one of Liz's sisters. It was warm and funny and emblematic of Liz and her quirky but close relationship with her family.

The other was by their rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama. Rabbi Jonathan Miller has made actual news over the years. Notably, he quickly and publicly responded to the state's just-sworn-in governor last year, after Robert Bentley said that anybody "who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister."

But this week, Miller was operating in a pastoral and not political realm. I was so impressed with his work that I asked Larry if I could share some of what Miller wrote about Liz.

His eulogy was notable to me for what it did not try to do: explain the apparently senseless way that Liz died. Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize why an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God would allow such pain, is the hardest nut to crack for religions that believe in that sort of deity.

The most direct answer that Judaism (and Christianity) has is in the Book of Job, where God basically tells Job that from His perspective everything is just fine. Trust that it all works out. Which is not necessarily the most satisfying of answers.

Miller didn't go there. He listed some of the highlights of a life with many. He performed the expected and necessary nod to her family and acknowledged their pain. He praised their frankly heroic efforts to treat Liz with love and dignity through the long months of steady degeneration.

And he tuned to distinctly Jewish, Talmudic stories that are not among the most familiar.

The first involves Rava and Rav Nachman, sages who lived about 1,700 years ago. Rav Nachman was the elder and Rava asked that he return to him in a dream after he died. Which he did.

Rava asked him, "Was death painful?"

Rav Nachman replied, "It was as painless as lifting a hair from a cup of milk. But were the Holy One to say to me, "You may return to that world where you were before' I would not wish to do it. The fear of death is too great."

The takeaway Miller wanted was for his listeners not to live in such fear of death that they cannot take the pleasure from living. (Liz was always fascinated by all sorts of funereal customs. As the rabbi pointed out, one day she hauled their son, Harrison, into a casket store that sits to this day next door to a Dallas deli. Larry was bemused.)

Miller's next citation was one of the many, many Talmudic judgments on disputes that can come up in everyday life. Say a funeral procession and a bridal party come to an intersection at the same moment and only one can proceed. Which has the right, under Jewish law, to go first?

The bridal party goes first.

When Liz started her final decline, Larry and Harrison were in Poland on a synagogue trip -- a trip Liz had firmly told them to take. They got back in time for goodbyes. But the Talmudic tale was a way to ease any guilt they might have had for being away at the fateful, unexpected moment. Life is first for the living and not, the rabbi explained, about dying.

Here's a larger lesson I pulled from that eulogy: great religions carry wisdom that transcends faith. One need not accept the dogmas of Judaism to find comfort in a long tradition that finds value in life while understanding the inevitability of death.

No matter what the listeners' theologies at that funeral -- and I know there were several theologies present -- I imagine that many left that service with at least some thoughtful words of consolation.

That's not an easy target to hit.

For more details about my friend, here is her official obit. It notes that donations can be given to CurePSB, the organization that battles the disease that killed her.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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