Sign In Forgot Password

Synagogue & Hospital: A Tale of Two Sanctuaries

Rosh Hashana 2002

by Harold M. Schulweis

In my parents' home, the first course of the Rosh Hashanah meal was fish. Why fish? Because fish allegedly had special virtues. When the biblical flood took place, all the creatures of the earth were destroyed except the fish. Water was their natural habitat. That was their virtue, their capacity to survive. 

But others said the fish symbolize ignorance. As Santayana once wrote, "We do not know who discovered water, but we know it was certainly not fish." For fish live, swim, breathe and breed in water. Fish take water for granted, and are oblivious to the rivers and the sea. Only perhaps when fish are caught in the net and gasp for air do they understand their dependence upon the water for their life. 

On Rosh Hashanah, the preacher said, we are like fish. Like fish we take our environment for granted. We eat, we drink, we breathe the air. So a folk tradition emerged to wear during the Days of Awe a white kittel symbolic of tachrichim, shrouds. Shrouds to remind us of our mortality so that we do not take life for granted. To take life for granted is to sin against life. When facing our mortality, we learn that life is choice. 

This sermon is irregular. It was not originated in the calm and tranquility of the study surrounded by a library of texts. It was composed out of panic and fright, surrounded by walls without books. My stay at the hospital tested my Jewish education, in the sense that the great physicist Albert Einstein defined education. "Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in school." What remains of my education and my faith outside the study and the sanctuary, and within the cloister of the hospital alone? 

In the hospital I enter a new world. I am stripped of all the external marks of my identity. I surrender my clothes for an eccentric hospital gown which opens from the back, that symbolizes the topsy-turvy world of my condition. They have taken my wallet and with it my public status, my driving license, my credit cards, my organizational affiliations. Who am I without a wallet? What is left of my identification are two plastic cards with my name tied to my wrist and my ankle. 

Who am I in this secular antiseptic institution? I am disoriented. Where am I? What is my future? My little calendar book with all the inscribed dates is irrelevant. What do schedules, appointments, deadlines, sermons, lectures, meetings mean facing the uncertainty of the scalpel? The future is enigmatic. I am locked in the naked presence of here and now. 

Returned from surgery, I lie helpless, wounded, scarred, anesthetized, intubated, marsupialated, canulated and heparanized. I am awed at the sophisticated machinery around me, I am intimidated by the technology. 

But as I am about to learn, there is more to the hospital and the art of recovery than mechanics. I am not plumbing, a collection of tubes, wires, pipes and the healers are more than competent technicians. Beneath the masks and white coats, are human beings: the touch of a human hand and the sound of a human voice. I came to know nurses and nurses' aides who raise me up and lay me down, who feed me and help me turn in bed. Josephine, Carmen, George, Carmelita, James and Florence. Let me tell you about Florence. Florence is a nurses' aide. She comes from El Salvador and speaks English haltingly. She announces one day that she will give a shower. I am too weak to resist. But Florence guides me to the shower, stands close to me steadying my unstable legs, soaps up the wash cloth and washes me. Florence is a quiet woman who does not speak much but at one point during the shower she begins to chatter. I don't understand what she is saying but later I understood that the flood of words was meant to distract me from the embarrassment of my nakedness. She senses my discomfort. Her talk creates a curtain of privacy and dignity. It is a small act of human sensitivity. But it brings to mind the rabbinic injunction to care about feelings. One who embarrasses another is as if he sheds the blood of another. I bless the laconic Florence and her sudden burst of words to shield my exposure. 

Florence is not Jewish, nor were most of the nurses and lab technicians, nor my surgeon. In the history of the church and in totalitarian societies, Jews were often prohibited by religious and secular institutions from serving non-Jews as physicians. But never in Judaism were non-Jewish physicians banned from ministering to Jews. In fact, the Rabbis in the Talmud declare that if you meet someone who is wise and good but not of your faith, such as a physician, you are to recite a special blessing thanking God, "Who shares His wisdom with blood and flesh." The Talmud urges us to visit the sick of the Gentiles in the same manner that you visit the sick of the Jews for the sake of peace. 

Jewish theology penetrates the hospital that embraces all people even as Hadassah Hospital heals Jews and Arabs alike today. In the hospital I have had reinforced the majesty of Jewish universalism. I think of it now as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is not a celebration of the birth of Abraham or Moses or any event in Jewish history. It refers to the creation of the human being. "And God created the human being in the Image of God." The human being, male or female, believer or heretic, slave or free man, Christian or Jew, Moslem or Jew each created by God, in God's Image. 

One night I awoke to find George, staring intently at two kindled Sabbath lights set on my window sill by my friend Rabbi Levi Meir. George was a 26 year old male nurse whose father was a Buddhist, as was he. He was interested in religion and knew I was a rabbi. We had on previous nights spoken about the kinship and differences between Buddhism and Judaism. That night George wanted to know why the lights on the window sill were kindled. I gave him the traditional answers. Before he left, George asked me whether he should turn off the Sabbath lights so that I could return to sleep. I told him that blowing out the candles on the Sabbath was prohibited. George made an astute observation. "I understand the differences better now. In Judaism, the sacred act is to light the candle. In Buddhism, the sacred act is to blow out the candle." 

The hospital is marvelous for insomniacs. And I thought all that night about George's observation. He caught not only the meaning of the Sabbath lights but also the uniqueness of Judaism and Buddhism. Knowing other faiths, we come to know the distinctiveness of our own. 

In Buddhism, according to its four noble truths, the world is sorrowful. The Buddha, before he was awakened to the truth, looked about and saw birth, aging, illness, dying, death and frustration and came to the conclusion that the world was filled with dukkha, a term in Pali that is translated as sorrow, suffering, anguish, corruption. Life is dukkha. We all live, as Thoreau once put it, "Lives of quiet desperation.” For we are all caught in “samsara” which means “wandering,” an endless round of existence. We are trapped in the wheel of life, in the cycle of birth and death and rebirth and re-death. We are caught in a squirrel cage and we seek “moksha,” a way to escape the dreary treadmill of dukkha. 

How do you get rid of dukkha? For the Buddha you escape the samsara of this world by ripping out the root of dukkha, the root of suffering. That root of dukkha is called “tanha”: craving, desire, wanting, seeking. We must rid ourselves of what in Pali is called “drst” from which we get the English word “thirst.” As long as you thirst for things, as long as you crave for things, as long as you seek attachment to things of this life you are chained to dukkah. But once you are enlightened, once you understand that everything you crave for, every thing and every ideal is transient, ephemeral, imperfect, incomplete you realize that this entire world is “maya,” illusory, your goal, your task will release from you from the treadmill of this existence. Would you be free of dukkah? Dry up your thirst, starve your appetite, blow out the candle. And this is the meaning of “nirvana” or “parinibbana,” to totally extinguish the flame of desire and worldly attachment which the ignorant crave. 

The lotus is a Buddhist symbol for living. The lotus springs from filthy waters. But it floats on the surface never getting wet or cold. It is a posture of detachment symbolic of a life uprooted from desire. Live in the lotus position. 

It is this which George had in mind when he said that the goal of Buddhism is to blow out the candle.  In contrast, the goal of Judaism stands in opposition to the goal of nirvana. My duty as a Jew is to light the candle in this world. 

Of course, in Judaism there is an acknowledgment of dukkha, of the yezer hara of greed, envy, hatred, frustration, of what we call “tsores.” Indeed before creation, the world was dukkha. It was “tohu v'vohu,” empty, void, dark, wet and cold. But in Judaism dukkha is not overcome by self abnegation, by dousing the light, by renouncing the world, by asceticism and self mortification. Dukkha, from a Jewish point of view, can be overcome not by renunciation but by transformation, not by deprecation but by sanctification of the world , not by divorcing the world, but by renewing the marriage covenant with the world. 

The central metaphor in Judaism, more than in any of the world religions and philosophies, is marriage, sanctification of the world. Recall the final benediction at the Jewish wedding – gratitude to God who has created in this world joy, gladness, bridegroom, bride, mirth, exaltation, pleasure, delight, love, peace and friendship. We don't blow out the light. I forgot to tell George, because I never thought of it, that even at the end of the Sabbath, we light yet another candle, one made of many wicks and through the ceremony of havdalah we recognize the differences of darkness and light, of the holy and the profane, of the mundane and the festive. Contrast the ceremony of havdalah with one of the great pagan myths of culture. Prometheus seeks to help man on earth and steals fire from the gods. Zeus is infuriated and punishes Prometheus by binding him to Mt. Caucasus and sends a vulture to tear at the liver of Prometheus. Havdalah stands in opposition to the Prometheus myth. In Judaism, the fire is not something prohibited to man, fire is not something that must be stolen from a sovereign God. It is God's gift to man, to be used and blessed by man. The Jewish God is not jealous of man. The fire is not stolen from God but celebrated as a power that helps us begin the week. The fire enables us to transform the world, forge new shapes for homes and sanctuaries, fuse together the broken vessels of society. “Layehudim haytah orah v'simchah v'sason vikar” – light, gladness, joy humor. 

The flame of the Sabbath lights and the havdalah candle casts out the shadow of dukkah.  

The metaphor of the candle around which my conversation with George revolved led me to the following insight.  

At the core of all religions is a fundamental choice. I can either light the candle or blow it out. Everything depends on my choice. That choice we heard proclaimed in the Torah portion we read last week, before Rosh Hashanah. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you all this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.” 

That verse in Deuteronomy seems simple enough. “Choose life.” Of course choose life. Which philosophy or religion would choose otherwise? It's captured as the instinct for the preservation of life. But think of the major philosophies from Plato, or from the powerful religious movement fifth century Manicheism, Marcionism, first century Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and you will find that blowing out the candle, symbolizing the contempt for this world “contemptus mundi” is a preposition far more prevalent and pervasive than lighting the candle. From the non-Jewish secular and religious perspective, the world is judged as untrustworthy. For this world is ugly, full of base seduction, enthralled by lusts of the body, sexuality, materialism, stained by original sin, “nasty, brutish and short.” The soul is entrapped, encaged in a corrupt and degenerate body. To choose life means something else than it does in Judaism. In most traditions, to choose life is escape from this world to another, to renounce the enticement of this world for another. Salvation in most traditions calls on us to turn our backs on this world. For most traditions, choose life means to focus on other worldliness, on heaven and hell, the hereafter, on the soul, not the body, on the rapture and the apocalypse, on resurrection and transmigration into another world, another form, another place. 

In Judaism, the mandate to choose life is radically and significantly different. Choose life means life in this world, in this place and this time. Listen to the Ethics of the Fathers : “Better is one hour in this world with repentance and good deeds, than the eternal life in the world to come.” 

The life we are mandated to choose is not beneath the seas or beyond the heavens. Life is here and now and life includes the whole of my being, not just my celestial soul but body and soul, aches and pains, pleasure and delight. As we sang Selichot night “The body is thine and the soul is thine.” And as the Torah declares: “Do not hide from thine own flesh.” The light of the candle of this life is not to be dimmed or doused. 

Central to Judaism is love of life and love of this world: a key term in the Jewish benediction is “olam,” “the world,” as in Baruch atah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Every religion chooses life but not every religion means the same thing by life. 

Do you think it is an accident that unlike other major religions, Judaism established no monasteries, no nunneries, no hermitages? 

Do you think it an accident that unlike other religious traditions, there is in Judaism no veneration of celibacy, chastity, cremation, poverty or mortification of the body? 

Do you think it an accident that not one of the 613 precepts calls for asceticism or self-abnegation? 

Do you think it accidental that the ideal figure in the Bible, the High Priest, cannot enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur if he is unmarried? 

Do you think it an accident that there has never been the warfare between medicine and faith in Judaism as in Christianity? 

Everything depends on what you mean to choose in life. Think, for example, of the choice the Catholic church makes when considering saving the life of the pregnant mother, or that of the embryo when an either/or situation presents itself to the physician. Catholic law ordains that the embryo must be saved and the mother sacrificed because while the mother has been baptized and thus after her death begins her eternal salvation, the embryo is unbaptized and after death his eternal perdition begins. In that theology, abortion is worse than murder. Abortion is not just murder of the body, it is destruction of the soul, and the loss of salvation. Choose life for the church means choose salvation. 

In Judaism, “choose life” calls for saving the life of the mother here on earth, not the child's soul in another world. Jews don't save souls. Jews save lives. Jews don't save souls because in its theology the soul is not endangered by the supernatural curse of original sin which condemns the unbaptized to damnation. The implications of choosing are consequential. 

“Choose life!” But what if nature decrees otherwise? What if the God of nature has chosen death? In 1885, a virulent outbreak of smallpox hit Montreal. The church saw this plague as the judgment of God and opposed the use of vaccine to combat smallpox. In 1826, Pope Leo XII banned the use of condoms in the battle against syphilis because it would be a circumvention of God's judgment. Fundamentalist theologies feel the same way about the human effort to overcome AIDS. Sir James Young Simpson urged the use of anesthetics, like chloroform, to ease the pain of child-bearing women. Christian clergymen argued that the use of anesthetics would contradict the divine curse against Eve in the Garden of Eden. “With pain shall you bear children.”

If God curses, will you bless? If God governs the universe, if God decrees who shall live and who shall die, who will be afflicted and who spared, how dare mere human mortals interfere against God's use of nature and history? It is still addressed to research scientists in the realm of bioethics in the instance of human cell research. It was articulated by the Pope in Poland last month, “How dare you play God”? How dare you heal what God has struck down or tamper with nature which is God's domain? That is not a Jewish question. The Jewish question is not “How dare you play God,” but “How dare you not intervene when nature visits plague upon populations and creates havoc with life? How dare you fold your arms refuse your obligation to imitate God's attributes of compassion, mercy and love? How dare you not use your God-given talents to create, discover, invent, sweeten the bitterness in life?” 

“Choose life” in Judaism does not mean to accept whatever is given in life as God's will to life, sickness, plague or pestilence with equanimity and passivity. “Choose life” in Judaism is a call for human activism, a cry for human beings to act, to heal, to reform, to transform that which “is” into that which “ought to be.” “Choose life” means to struggle against death, to control nature, to add life. 

Do you regard medicine or science a humanistic secular intervention in opposition to faith and piety? Only if you think of God and man, as the pagan does of Zeus and Prometheus, as opponents, rivals, enemies in human healing heresy. But in Judaism, God and man are allies, friends, partners. “Choose life” in Judaism means to encourage God's attributes in human beings, to turn curses into blessings, to turn darkness into light, to turn dukkah into simchah

Who lights the candle? You and I. Who chooses life? You and I. Who heals the sick? You and I. Therein lies the distinctive spiritual humanism of Judaism which leads the Psalmist to declare of man: “I made you but little lower than God.” Man is “shutaf lakodesh baruch hu b'maasey bearshith, the human being is co-creator in a divine partnership with God in the creation of the universe. “Man is the language of God” (Menachem Mendel of Rymanov). The core of these Holy Days and of Judaism is the awareness of choice. 


In the sanctuary of the hospital, I have experienced the physician not as some medical mechanic or a dispenser of pills, but as an instrument of Godliness whom the folk tradition honored by calling the doctor who is called to the Torah for an aliyah “Moreynu,” our teacher. In the hospital, I understood existentially the unique relationship between science and faith Judaism did not succumb to the false segregation of the secular from the religious. “Medicine is prayer in deed.”

The physician is a holy instrument. In appreciation of the role of the physician, the Talmud Sanhedrin declares, “It is forbidden to live in a city in which there is no physician.” My heart is filled with gratitude for the men and women who choose life and help us choose life. I am honored by the presence of my cardiologist whose competence and compassion added life, Dr. Neil Buchbinder. We are all patients. The word “patient” is derived from the Latin “pati,” which means to suffer. That is the human condition as is “compassion,” cupa passio, which means to suffer with, so essential for our recuperation. My deepest appreciation to you members of VBS for your “care,” a word etymologically related to “cure.” To care is to cure. I will never forget the curative forces that sustained me, the therapy that revived me. God is able to light a light from darkness. But we are not able to light a light from darkness. But we can light one light from another. Each of us is a spark of an eternal light. For this new year, a prayer for light and life, for health and peace, in good times and adversity, let us remember our vows. “Do not blow out the candle.” 

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784