God disappeared from picture, says rabbi with cancer

Rabbi Moshe Levin was raised on the same street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as the Lubavitcher rebbe. He attended yeshiva from kindergarten through college, and once prayed at his Orthodox shul before going to a friend's bar mitzvah ceremony in a Conservative synagogue.

Levin also has cancer. It seems safe to assume, with his background, that he has insights about Judaism and healing.

When it comes to Levin's relationship to God, illness and recovery, though, discard your assumptions.

"How I deal with illness from a Jewish perspective is based on my journey where little by little God disappeared from the picture," said Levin, ordained in the Conservative movement and now the rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. "I don't see God as the author of the Torah, recorder of my actions, distributor of rewards and punishments, and ultimately I don't see God."

Levin made his remarks before a dozen people at a workshop entitled "Why Me?" His talk was part of Chochmat HaLev's "Conference on Jewish Healing: Healing the Vessel" last weekend at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. In all, more than 200 people attended the event.

"Before you pick up and leave," Levin continued, "I daven with tallis and tefillin nearly everyday. I say a brachah (blessing) before and after I eat. And I live an intensely Jewish life. But I have given up turning to God in the face of tragedy, illness and trauma."

Levin was brought up to believe Judaism was the only civilizing force that gave the world a moral code. The first shock to Levin's theology came when he studied philosophy and economics in Israel in the 1960s. There he met Israelis who were not observant or Orthodox, "but who believed that the Torah developed in a natural process similar to the literature of other people, and they still wanted to study it."

Levin's evolution continued at a U.S. Air Force base in Thailand when he was a military chaplain during the Vietnam War. He was shocked to discover that the moral values of people living in a Buddhist world mirrored and often exceeded his own.

"One of the Christian chaplains asked a Thai father whose child had died how he was doing," Levin recalled. "The man smiled as he gave his answer and the other chaplain assumed that the man was happy because his child was in heaven. But this man's smile was a cultural value to ameliorate bad news for others. That helped me realize that Jews are just a people, not better than others."

He does not believe that his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an incurable cancer, in February 1990 gave him a divine license to teach about healing and illness. "I don't believe that God has the power and ability to run the world," said Levin, who gravitates toward Reconstructionist Judaism.

"God is not one to decide who gets sick, who gets well, who gets rich, or who gets poor. I'm not blessed and I'm not cursed. I just have a couple of screwed up cells, and that just happens. Period. It's of no meaning to me to say, 'Oh, God, please heal me.'"

What does guide Levin is a profound belief in the wisdom of Jewish tradition. The Talmud, he noted, requires us to carry two notes. One says, "I'm nothing but dust and ashes," he shared. "The other one says it is for my sake that this world was created. They mean that I am totally insignificant and simultaneously I am a miracle."

Levin said he'd "been very privileged in the 20th century in Brooklyn. I had family, and we had money and food. What was there to complain about? And who's to say that I'm entitled to 80 or 90 years? Even if I lose my speech, I am still a miracle. Am I going to complain if I have a limp, diabetes or am blind in one eye? Hell no. It is miraculous just to be alive."

Levin acknowledged that his heretical ideas might seem out of place at a conference on Jewish healing and in the larger Jewish community. But he feels that Judaism's primary function is to teach us "how to behave, not what to think.

"I regard every single day as a gift. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us to live in awe and wonder. I don't think that's a Jewish principle, but it comes from the Jewish experience of 4,000 years of history. And another thing I've learned since my diagnosis is my need to be honest."