I’m not in the mood to linger in Sorrow today. But, I need to comment on a very sad, and to me almost inconceivable, loss.
My friend and colleague, Emily Gottfried, passed away yesterday. I’m not sure, but I think she was still in her 50’s. It is tragic for anyone this young to die. But when someone has lived their entire life with an ethical system based on making things better for others, it is especially horrific. I know of no one who has lived for the betterment of the world with greater commitment and dedication than Emily. She is, in the words used to describe Gandhi, a “mahatma” – a “great soul”. The world is less a compassionate, generous, joyful place without her.
Now, as a rationalist wannabe, I struggle deeply at times like these, and I want to share that struggle for a moment.
In Judaism, when someone dies, we say “Baruch dayan ha’emet”. Basically this means “Blessed be the true judge“. I get it. I understand it. Yet, it drives me crazy. You see, to me this phrase is not unlike what my Christian friends say when someone dies: “he’s in a better place”; or “she’s with Jesus now”; or “God needed him for a higher task”. “Baruch dayan ha’emet” really means something like “We have to praise God even for bad things” or “We don’t understand but God’s plan is just“.
We are actually taught in chapter 9, verse 2 of the Mishnah Berachot (where this blessing is first used) that this is a blessing that should be recited when we receive any bad news. Of course, death is the worst news so we most often see it in the case of someone’s passing. But, I have never been able to see things with faith like that. I can’t just accept the death of a pillar of the community who dies in their 50s. If that is what I had to accept to be Jewish, I could not do it.
Fortunately, in Judaism, it’s acceptable to question things; even to be angry with God. This is a good belief system for me. When I realize that I’ll never again stand with Emily Gottfried at an interfaith service; that I’ll never again stand against genocide or in solidarity with the need to remember the names of every single person murdered in the Shoah, with Emily as my partner; that I’ll never again listen to Emily Gottfried sing; I’m not just sad, I’m pissed. I’m angry because if anyone deserves to live to a dignified old age it is one who has devoted her life to the dignity of others. Simply put, it’s just not fair.
Like they say, “life is not fair”. But not being fair is not the problem. I can deal with unfairness – it surrounds us in every aspect of our lives. One can justify unfairness in any belief system. All you need is randomness to have unfairness. You don’t need a Godhead for that. Unfairness basically fits into my worldview, I just need to live with it. But when you start to say that things are bad because some higher power has a plan that you just don’t get to see, that “God” let’s someone die so that He can use them up in “heaven”, that the “master of the universe” is always right and it’s cool that your friends die because they get to be in “a better place”, I just can’t accept it. Better for me is the belief that no explanation exists aside from the fact that we are fallible beings, with fallible minds, and fallible bodies; and sometimes things just happen. At least then I need not try to convince myself that their is some giant mind in space who is just playing games with us little mortals! Maybe bad things just happen and the story is no more profound than that. That’s my inclination, anyway.
Emily Gottfried was Director of the Oregon Chapter of the American Jewish Committee for 9 years and became Executive Director of the Oregon Area Jewish Committee when we became our own independently affiliated Oregon nonprofit. The OAJC website reminds us that Emily also chaired both the Inter-Religious Action Network and the Human Rights Council of Washington County. She was the Treasurer of the Coalition Against Hate Crimes, a participant in the Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger, a member of the board of the Vision Action Network of Washington County, a member of the City of Portland Human Rights Commission, and a member of the Oregon Food Bank Policy Advisory Committee. In short, if something in Oregon has to do with equality, justice, or insuring the dignity of every single human being, then Emily was not only involved but was a leader. I’m sure the world did a lot for Emily; but I often wonder if she didn’t do more for the world than it ever could do for her.
So right now I’m very sad about losing a friend and a colleague. I’m angry about what seems like a deep injustice in the universe. But life goes on. And, though I wanted to honestly tell you about the questions that go through my mind, I also know this:
The best way to honor the life of a woman who devoted that life to promoting human dignity is to rededicate ourselves to the work. So, in memory of Emily Georges Gottfried, I do just that: I commit to never-ending my quest to maximize liberty, equality, and the dignity of all humanity. I will always question the religious doctrine that says that what happened is “just”. But through that questioning, I hope to grow to be a better actualizer of Emily’s vision.