A Personal Explanation

A Personal Explanation

I am indebted to my good friend at Jewwishes for first calling this book to my attention in an excellent review she recently posted on her blog. Follow the link to see her review.
But I found some more information about the author, Rabbi David Wolpe which I found immensely interesting in Tom Telchotz’s article written on my daughter’s birthday last September. If you follow my blog at all you know that I am vitally seeking to find people of faith telling us in their own words what their faith is like-in this case Why Faith Matters. Here are some of his comment about the author which have persuaded me to put this book on my must read list for 2009.
(Tom Telchotz’s article -excerpt)
“Wolpe is turning 50 this Friday, Sept. 19, and has been the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles for the past 11 years. “Why Faith Matters” is his sixth book, and he wrote it not as a polemic response to the “New Atheists,” but as a personal book about his own journey.

“He was born in Harrisburg, Pa., where his father, Gerald Wolpe, was a Conservative rabbi. When David was 10, the family moved to Philadelphia, when Wolpe’s father became the rabbi of Har Zion, a large Conservative synagogue on the city’s Main Line.”

“In ‘Why Faith Matters,’ Wolpe explains that as a teenager, after seeing the vivid documentary footage about the Holocaust in Alain Resnais’ ‘Night and Fog,’ he became an atheist, embracing Bertrand Russell as one of his sages. Wolpe said he is attempting in this book to speak to his younger self. Yet, to a great extent, Wolpe now regards atheism as a failure of the imagination.”

His central argument boils down to a rejection of the notion that “the only thing that is real is what you see or measure.” Faith, he argues, adds another dimension to our experience of the world.To Wolpe, religious faith is “an orientation of the universe,” a way to invest all we do and all we experience with wonder and with meaning.

“Wolpe’s own journey led him after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania from teenage atheist to studying to become a rabbi at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University). He spent a year in Israel and was ordained in 1987 at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, where he wrote his first book, “The Healer of Shattered Hearts” (Henry Holt & Company).

He brings the same approach to his brief in defense of faith, embracing the objections others avoid. For Wolpe, the notion that religious ritual is primitive or some form of magical thinking misses the point…

Similarly, Wolpe feels that study of Scripture offers its own pleasures at every stage of life that we encounter it. For him, it is not the literal words alone, as much as the experience we garner from studying Scripture that faith adds to our lives. Not unlike a psychiatrist interpreting a dream, we may care less about whether it’s true than what we can learn from it…

Wolpe knows these questions well, not only as a rabbi but from personal experience. His wife is a cancer survivor, and Wolpe himself has had neurosurgery for a benign brain tumor, as well as chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that remains incurable, but for which he is now in remission. Wolpe told me that it was on the day he finished chemotherapy that he decided to write “Why Faith Matters.”

Religion for Wolpe “is a complex of things, rather than an abstract set of beliefs.” What Wolpe feels is lost in the discussion of religion by “the new atheists” is the positive benefits of religion, such as community, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to charity and charitable acts and of believing that there is something larger than oneself, having boundaries, submitting to a “higher power.”

By contrast, faith, Wolpe said, can also make a “disturbance” of life, making life more difficult. As Wolpe put it, the sense that you are put on this earth for a reason carries with it responsibilities and challenges to meet a higher standard. Speaking with Wolpe, you get a sense that this is particularly true for him; that he is a person who is always pushing himself…

Similarly, in “Why Faith Matters,” Wolpe suggests that faith, religion and religious practice are to be valued — if not for what they offer us then for the benefits they offer our children by learning to look beyond themselves, to be charitable, to treat others as they would like to be treated…

Clearly, you don’t need religion to teach these ideals, but these are aspects of religion that rarely receive recognition from its critics. Faith, Wolpe believes, offers us a chance to give our children a way to suffuse their own lives with meaning and better prepare them for the challenges they will encounter…

The objective narrative of our lives is mundane and prosaic: We are born; we live; we die. It is the subjective that colors and enriches our experience. We all know the power of music or art, of laughter and love to transport us. Why then, not add faith to the list? And what of the connection between the two?

It is also worth noting that “Why Faith Matters” is a book meant to settle the soul of David Wolpe, given that his first impulse when concluding chemotherapy was to write a book.

“I love literature,” Wolpe said. “I have always found consolation in words, in both reading them and also writing them and speaking them. One of the really great gifts of being a rabbi is that you are expected to translate your experience into something that other people can understand and benefit from. That forces you to reflect on it and create some kind of mosaic out of the jagged pieces of a life. And that’s really a great lesson.”

And so, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Wolpe has given us — and himself — a memorable gift.”

Tom Teicholz (to read more)