- Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God by Daniel Greyber
Some books are written because the world would be incomplete without them. Some are written because the author could not hold the story in. Some are written despite the author’s reluctance, despite the pain writing brings; because something true has to be said.
Faith Unravels is an example of the last of these. Rabbi Daniel Greyber admits that he forced himself to write this book, and we are the beneficiaries of his struggle. The book is a spiritual memoir, the story of Greyber’s path from disaffected youth to rabbi, passionate about Judaism, training and educating young people as the director of Camp Ramah in California, to his crisis of faith following the death of his close friend. The driving force of the narrative is his struggle to connect his experience of God—known in profound ways though passing moments of grief and release—with his experience of deep anger and resentment of that same God who “killed” both his childhood friend and adult soul-brother with cancer.
Central to Greyber’s narrative is his desire to be as honest as possible about his feelings, about his confusion, about his shame, about his doubts. He does not wish to claim what is not his, nor to delude himself about his true feelings. So, for instance, he refuses to take on the rituals of mourning for his best friend—despite his deep pain, despite the solace they might provide—because he feels he would be taking a status that is not his, trespassing against those whose relationships obligate them to mourn publicly: “I felt like I would be stealing something from them; as if their kaddish would be less special if I joined in” (p. 18). He questions his motivations, wanting to know that he acts in truth: “I wonder about the purity of my ego and where my sense of duty comes from . . . do I find meaning in the rituals of religious life because they place me at the center? Idolatry of the self is a constant fear of mine, a special danger for those who presume to serve God” (pp. 40–41).
This insistent honesty makes his crisis of faith so painful. As he mourns his friend Joel, he senses his anger at God rising, his doubt in God’s loving goodness deepening: “I feel like my relationship [End Page 121] with Him is slipping away, that I don’t know upon what I will base my life, but that believing in, much less praying to, God is an exercise in pain” (p. 84).
I am afraid of starting my life over again, of returning to the void at the center of everything and trying to build my life anew, all the while knowing death will come sooner or later. I am afraid of letting go of all the learning and knowledge and love I have found in God and Torah and the Jewish tradition. But I am also afraid I will find the courage to do so. I wonder if I am questioning too much, that greater men endured more loss and blessed God as the True Judge, if my inability to heal is a sign of lack of faith. Am I fit to be a rabbi anymore? Perhaps I can be a Jew without being a rabbi but, I wonder, can I be a rabbi if I feel such anger towards God?(p. 85)
Greyber is relentless in his pursuit of an answer, both to his existential question and his personal/professional challenge. He seeks counsel; he asks hard questions. He turns to the classical texts and teachings of Judaism in search of some answer to his pain, to the unfairness of loved ones dying in their youth. He struggles to square what he understands to be the nature of the God he knows with the reality he faces. He is unwilling simply accept that “God has a plan, and this all makes sense.”
Ultimately, he finds that he...