RABBI JACK RIEMER, DD
Published at SUN-SENTINEL.COM AND THE BOSTON JEWISH ADVOCATE
I confess that at first, I was hesitant to review this book because the author mentions me in the acknowledgements and thanks me generously for having made a few minor suggestions. But then I realized that if I did not review this book, I would be depriving many readers of a book that they need in order to help them get through the crises in their lives, and that I had no moral right to do that.
So let me recommend this book---especially to those wounded souls who have been struck down by a crippling blow to themselves or to someone whom they love---a blow that has shaken their faith and that has made them question the religious beliefs that they were taught in their childhood.
In Rabbi Agler’ case it was the death of his daughter, Talia, a beautiful girl in her mid-twenties, who was jogging near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. after a day working at an international development firm, when she was struck by a motor vehicle and killed. From the point of view of physics, what happened is easy to explain. A machine made of steel that weighed several tons collided with a human being made of flesh and blood. There is no mystery here---at least not from the point of view of physics.
But from the point of view of metaphysics, how can this event be understood? How can a girl who was engaged in doing good deeds lose her life in an instant for no reason that the human mind can comprehend or that faith can justify? How could the God that we pray to---the God whom we praise as kind and loving---have done this or allowed this?
Like many people before him, Rabbi Agler had to wrestle with the question of: Is God all powerful, in which case how can we not blame Him for the evil and the suffering that we experience in this world, or is God not loving, and not kind, in which case how can we worship Him or even respect Him? What kind of a belief system can there be that can pass what he calls: “The Tragedy Test”?
In the first half of this book, he systematically examines and then rejects each of the clichés that are often repeated in times of loss. He takes up the claim that ‘God knows better than we do”, the claim that God needed your loved one more than you do”, the claim that “things happen” and various other phrases that were told to him, and shows how each is morally indefensible. If God was able to save Tali and didn’t, who needs a God like that? If God needed Tali more than this world does, what kind of a world is this? If things simply happen in a world to which God is indifferent, what kind of a faith is this?
And then, in the second part of this book, Rabbi Agler slowly and surely constructs a different kind of faith, one that is more mature and less glib than these suggestions are. He speaks of “The God of Law and Spirit” who does not control nature, but who has implanted within us the will to struggle with nature. He speaks of a God who cares about love and kindness, and who depends upon us to make this a more loving and a more kind place in which to live. He cites with approval the wonderful passage in the Talmud that says that if a thief steals wheat, morally such wheat should not grow---but that nature goes by its own laws. And then he goes on to describe a positive faith, one that fills us with responsibility to work with God to make a better world, one in which God has given us the gift of reason and the gift of compassion, and now calls upon us to use these gifts for His sake.
There is much more in this book, but I hope that this is enough to tempt you to read more, for I believe that this is a book that will speak to the minds and the souls of many people and will give them the strength and the courage with which to live good lives, despite the blows that come upon them.