Interview with Dr. Mark Banschick
- My family survived the Holocaust in the forests of Austria and Poland. I have three great uncles and two great aunts who survived in the forest.
- Because it happened to us, we’re not going to have it happen to anybody else. The Holocaust developed in us a sensitivity to the other.
- My mother was a spiritual hero to me for her capacity to give to others, to her children and her community and in the pleasure she found in giving.
- My mentors over the years were not necessarily people that claimed to be religious or spiritual, but they were people who awoke in me my own belief in myself and what I could find in the world.
- . . . in the end of the story, God doesn’t care about us being close to Him; He cares much more about us tending to our children, repairing the world.
- . . . in Judaism, the prayer is the honoring of life, the prayer is the deed, the prayer is in the deed, every day.
- It may well be that there’s an afterlife, and that there’s reincarnation of souls. And you know, the idea of reincarnation of souls exists in Judaism. But as much as all these things are part of the Jewish world. . . at the end of the story the question is, Do I send my kid to a Jewish day school? Do I support my Synagogue? Do I respect my wife? Do I treat my patients with dignity? Do I honor the Sabbath?
Ann: As you know, I'm going to be interviewing thirty-six people, from twelve different faiths.
Mark: Thirty-six is a magical number, it's double chai. Eighteen is chai, which means life; double chai is a magical number. The Jewish mystics say there are thirty-six people in the world who are the thirty-six righteous. Nobody knows who they are, but their righteousness keeps the world alive, and when we perfect the world, one of the thirty-six will come forth to be the Messiah. The Messiah is already here, he's one of the thirty-six. In every generation there are thirty-six righteous, but no one knows who the Messiah is-it could be someone who takes your garbage.
There's a famous rabbinical story about a great rabbi. He was very close to God, and so he asked God to send him an insight about whom he'd be spending the end of days with, after he died. Who would be his buddy to study Torah with for eternity? And God proclaimed that it would be Nana; it's a word that means, "he's a small one."
The rabbi says, "Who is this person? The Small One?" So he goes around to everybody in town and says, "Who's Nana?" Well, it turns out he's nothing, a nobody! And the rabbi says, "I'm the great rabbi! I want to be with someone I can study Torah with, someone that I can be with at my level." So the rabbi goes and finds Nana, who turns out to be a poor, illiterate Jew. So the rabbi says, "You're Nana?"
"Yes, I'm Nana."
The rabbi's desperate, thinking that he's going to be spending the end of days with this person. "What did you do? Tell me what you've done that's made you holy. Tell me what you've done, I need to know."
Nana says, "Well, nothing particular; I'm poor, I'm illiterate, I don't know any Torah. I can't think of anything that I've done, I'm kind of plain."
So the rabbi goes nuts! "You must have done something!"
And Nana says, "Well, the only thing I can think of is that when my father was old he got sick, and I spent a few years with him at his bedside, tending to him, making sure he was clean, making sure that he had enough food to eat, making sure his wounds were dressed. When he was really sick I made sure that he didn't urinate on himself or dirty himself. Until he died I was with him."
And the rabbi sighs and says, "How fortunate I am to be spending the end of days with you!"
Nana may be one of the thirty-six. We don't know who the thirty-six are. You may think it's the big rabbi, or the important priest, but it may be just the gentle little person who's making a real difference.
Ann: That's a beautiful story. So you were born Jewish, and you were raised Jewish. And are you involved now with the study of Judaism?
Mark: I came from a moderately religious family. My mother always had faith in God; in Judaism we call God Hashem, which means "The Name." So my mother always had faith in Hashem. My father was really a more secular person. I always believed in God, I had more faith than my parents. But I see that as a sociological thing; many Jews came over to America, and they were so excited about the opportunity to be in America that they left much of their Judaism behind; they saw their religion as parochial. Many people besides Jews have done this, I think that's part of the American story. It's not necessarily negative, because I think it allowed many cultures to shed a lot of the nonsense from Europe and elsewhere, some of the encrustations that develop in cultures. And now many people, like me, are rediscovering their roots, but we do it in the fresh way that I'm able to do with Rabbi Tropper. Here's a man who's in rabbinics, and his family has been Orthodox for generations and generations, but the synergy between us is very strong, because I can bring to him something that he doesn't get from his own community.
So I became religious over time because I felt compelled to do so. It may be grace, or it may be luck, or God was just nice to me, but when I was very young, I had an insight about life that made all the difference: I've known since I was eight that life is a great blessing, that it is very precious and that it's very short. And I've always been in touch with the brevity of life, not so much because I was traumatized-a lot of people are in touch with that because they experienced a death or other trauma. Not me, but I still have this tremendous sense of blessing, every day. Now in a way, what makes me Jewish is that because I had that insight, I then felt compelled to live life properly. It's one thing to have the insight! But I've always felt the pressure to live life properly, to find truth.
Ann: Have you ever lost faith in your tradition or wanted to distance yourself from it?
Mark: Yes, many times. There were times when religion was unimportant to me; in my early twenties I don't think religion was that important to me. It's kind of a waxing and waning thing. Sometimes I just get tired of it and just want to go away [from it]. But you know, it always pulls me back; it's not a straight line at all. Sometimes I think there is no God. Sometimes I think it's all just my own imagination, and Freud was right, it's all just a projection of my wishes onto the universe; you know, if cats and dogs had Gods, they would look like cats and dogs. That's paraphrasing a philosopher named Lucretius. I've lost faith a number of times, but again, I haven't experienced trauma like some other people who have lost faith. To me, losing faith is simply when it doesn't work for me anymore, it doesn't make sense.
Sometimes I'll just look at people who are religious and see them being hokey or mean-spirited or self-righteous, and it makes me want to give up the whole project. You know what I mean?
Ann: I certainly have had that experience, yes.
Mark: The problem with being fundamentalist is that you define yourself by being better than other people, and I can't accept that. Rabbi Tropper says, "If Judaism isn't about love, what's it about, in the end?" If you're rigid it's not about loving each other, so what's it about? It's stupid-it's just about power and judgment and somebody being on top of somebody else.
So I think I've lost faith for two reasons. One is that sometimes as a young man religion was irrelevant to me. But sometimes I just get so fed up with the judgment and the hypocrisy in religious life, whether it's Jewish or Christian or another tradition. That judgment and hypocrisy are everywhere: Exploitation; the stupid need to be bigger than another person; a priest or rabbi actually thinking they know how to live much better than you-instead of giving you the tools to live life well, they expect you to follow them. It scares me whenever I see that, because every one of us has our own unique path. I really believe that God put each of us here with our own thing to do, our own story to unfold, and a good rabbi or priest is there to help each person unfold their story, not to unfold the rabbi or priest's story for them.
Ann: Do you bring any of your religious or spiritual beliefs to your clients in your psychiatry practice?
Mark: I've done that for a long time, and it happens to be one of my areas of interest. Very few people come to me because they have a spiritual issue. Most people come to me because they're unhappy, and they're in pain; then I open up the notion that spirituality can be one way of addressing some of the concerns that they have. You have to be a little bit careful. It's not my job to get those people to be more religious. The best rabbis and priests teach by example. So I can mention spirituality, I can mention my religious commitment, I can inform them that they're making a choice and that this choice is out there.
Ann: Do you study other religions at all?
Mark: When I was in college, I studied comparative religion. I'm really a searcher; the truth is very important to me. I remember I was at the Perkins Pancake House, I used to go to Perkins and have coffee and read books. They'd let you sit there for a long time-I'd give the waitress a good tip! And I was reading Jung…I was really into Jung when I was in college…and Jung was talking about the search for spirituality, and he said many people go to faiths other than their own to find spirituality. He said people do that because they're so uncomfortable with their own faiths, the other guy's looks better. But he said the fastest way to find God is to go through your own backyard, through your own faith. You'll get there much more directly than by going through somebody else's. That rang so true; you know there are moments in life when something you read actually makes a difference! My interest in Buddhism just went-pffft! I didn't suddenly think negatively about other religions; I just thought, "I'm a Jew, I'm proud to be a Jew. Let me go to it. There's more than I'll ever need in Judaism."
I have an interest in other religions; I've read about Buddhism, I've learned meditation. I'm very interested in early Christianity, in the first two years when Jesus was alive, and when Jews and Christians were really brothers and sisters-before the church became the Catholic Church and created a whole institution. Elaine Pagel's book has influenced me, The Origin of Satan. I was also very influenced by her book The Gnostic Gospels. She's helped me understand early Christianity, but because I went to medical school in Israel, I had a lot of opportunity to travel around where Jesus taught, and that was very meaningful to me.
For a number of years I was involved with an interfaith study group-when I was at Four Winds Hospital as a unit chief, in the schizophrenic unit. For five years we had a study group comprised of Jews and Christians, and we painstakingly went through the book of Genesis. It took us about five years to go all through the book of Genesis. And then, as a group, we made a pilgrimage to Israel. I'm a sensual person, as in kinesthetic. I relate very much to the land and to place. I'm earthy-I mean I do like books, but something essential in me is of the earth and grounded. I remember sitting on the mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus reportedly gave the Sermon on the Mount, and we read the Sermon on the Mount there. I was so moved by that, because I realized in that moment that Jesus was such a Jewish man! He was a rabbi, and I remember feeling connected to this Jewish man, because what he was saying was something that many rabbis might say, or something I would say. And it left me troubled by what happened between Christians and Jews.
There's another connection I have with Christianity. My family survived the Holocaust in the forests of Austria and Poland-I have three great uncles and two great aunts who survived the war in the forest. Not in the concentration camps, in the forest. They were protected by a gentile woman whose husband was a Nazi. She hid my two great aunts in a closet in the house. And my two great uncles lived in the forest; they built a provisional cave underground, with a fake floor. They still tell stories about the dogs sniffing, German Shepherds. It's hard for Jewish people to have German Shepherds! And one of my uncles died there; he was in the Jewish partisan resistance, and he was killed by the Nazis. But four of them survived the war, and it was because of this gentile woman who risked her life to help them. She would bring them water and food in the forest, and she protected the two girls. And there are now families in Israel and the United States that wouldn't be here if it weren't for this person. My family has almost developed a tradition of living among gentiles-just to remember that we're part of a multicultural world and that there was somebody who stepped forward and risked her life when many people were doing just the opposite. The story ends, of course, with us bringing her over to the States to celebrate her stand for goodness in the face of evil.
I think this story really informs my family; I grew up seeing people with numbers on their arms. It's really interesting being here in Katonah with all these young people, and even many older people…they have no clue about these things I saw every day. My father's men's clothing business…I saw the tailors with numbers on their arms, they were Auschwitz survivors. I can't tell you how regular that was to me, growing up. It was such a grounding in history. The Holocaust doesn't shake me the way it shakes a lot of people, but it's something that's part of my story. And maybe so many Jewish people became secular because they thought, How can God do such a thing?
Ann: That's always been the question. But look what the Jewish people have done in this world…
Mark: Medicine, philosophy, compassion, philanthropy…
Ann: So how could that happen? Did the experience of the Holocaust change the next generation? Have Jews used that experience? Will the children of Holocaust survivors see the world in a different way?
Mark: Well I think-it's hard to know, but I think Jewish philanthropy is outstanding, and it's not just for Jews. The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, for instance, most of the people they serve are inner-city African Americans and Latinos. But it's funded by Jewish philanthropy and now somewhat by the state. And that's not uncommon. The notion of Jewish philanthropy-giving and trying to make the world a better place-is very common today. I'm very proud of that.
One of the great contributions of Judaism is its grounded approach to the world. You know, we're here to make this world a better place. And there is evil in this world, there are hard things in this world, we have to protect our children and make sure that these hard things don't affect them and don't affect us. And then we have to go and make the world a better place. The Jewish response to the Holocaust is not to be passive. We were a very intellectual people, a very cultured people-and there was a certain passivity in the Jewish culture that the Holocaust has undone. You will see Jews fighting, not just Israeli soldiers. I think Christians can understand the Jewish devotion to Israel and our appreciation of our soldiers…not qua soldiers, so that we want our power in these soldiers, but our appreciation that we now have soldiers-we cannot allow people to just kill us.
So I think there has been some positive change-not only is philanthropy bigger, but there's a consciousness about being properly assertive, to make sure that things like this don't happen again. If you were to look at movements around the world to prevent the genocide of other nations, I would bet dollars to donuts that there is an over-representation of Jewish people on the boards of those organizations. You know, watching out for Bosnia and for other troubled places in the world. The Civil Rights movement in the United States-Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, was right there with Martin Luther King. It was two white Jewish boys who were killed in Mississippi along with a young black boy at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Because it happened to us, we're not going to have it happen to anybody else. The Holocaust developed in us a sensitivity to the other.
The Holocaust is very hard. I really think there's a flaw in the way the Catholic Church, Christianity, presented their Jewish brothers for so many years. In Elaine Pagels book, The Origin of Satan, she argues that early Christianity created its identity by showing that the Jews were wrong, and having the Jews continue to be vibrant in the face of Christianity was intolerable to many of the leaders of the Christian world. So there would repeatedly be derogatory and negative statements made about Jews. Many pogroms happened [as people came] out of church; people would go to church, and then leave and go to loot and pillage. And this happened again and again and again through history. I don't want to be negative-the Holocaust is not completely a Christian problem. It came from deep sources of human hatred, and [it demonstrates] the primitiveness of what groups can do, but I do think that hatred was a fire that was fueled and fanned for a very long time by the Christian world.
I think the Holocaust woke a lot of us up, but we have to be cautious because the Holocaust could happen again at any time. And as much as we're proud to be Jews, there's something about Jewishness that has attracted negativity for a very long time. I don't define my Judaism by anti-Semitism, but I am aware that it's been part of history. One of the great things about America-I'm in awe of this country-is that we really are struggling to raise ourselves up out of this kind of hatred. As a country, we just do not want it any more. We don't want anti-Semitism, we don't want racism, we don't want homophobia -we don't want it already!
That's one of the great stories of America, and the Holocaust has shaken all of us in a way, as a metaphor, as an experience. Hitler happened in our century, in the century we were alive. I will probably have spent more time in the century of Hitler than I'll spend in this twenty-first century. That such a man got to power, in a country that was supposed to be, not only Christian, but one of the great intellectual cultures-the country of Schopenhauer, the country of Goethe, the country of Beethoven… It just teaches us something deep about people. Evil can happen, and we can allow it.
Ann: Who are your spiritual heroes, the people who have most strongly influenced your beliefs?
Mark: My mother. I remember her sitting out in the backyard, taking in the sun and just being aware of the blessing of being alive. My mother was a spiritual hero to me for her capacity to give to others-to her children and her community-and in the pleasure she found in the giving.
My father was not a spiritual person, but he taught me to not idealize anybody-don't turn anybody into a guru, everyone's flawed. Be careful of the sales pitch that someone might be giving you, even if it's garbed in religious words; watch out for the ego that's trying to assert itself behind the words. A deep lesson. My father also taught me, and from my point of view it's spiritual, that I can be independent, that I can make up my own life, live for myself, create a base. He taught me that you should put yourself in a position where you can make decisions that you like, that really come from freedom and not because you're compelled by worries about rejection from the community, or that you'll lose financial status, or something else.
My mentors over the years were not necessarily people that claimed to be religious or spiritual, but they were people who awoke in me my own belief in myself and what I could find in the world. One of my great mentors was a college professor who was German. In fact, later on I learned that although he was not a Nazi, he fought in the German army in World War II. He was enlisted when he was fifteen years old, they were pushed in, they had no choice. His name was Kurt Beck.
You know, my parents are very bright, and my mother is well educated, but Kurt Beck was a whole different level. He was a Vassar College professor, and he was European. This man was not only a professor of chemistry, but archaeologists all over the world would send him samples of pottery that they would find, and he would inspect the pottery, put it in chemical analysis and tell them what substances were contained in that pottery, so that the archaeologists would know about trade routes in ancient times. A brilliant, interesting man; I was very fortunate in the people I came in contact with.
I remember once I had fallen for a girl, and she broke my heart. I think she was very close to me, and the power of our relationship was just too much for her-she withdrew. But anyway, I walked into Kurt Beck's office to go over an exam. He looked at me-this was twenty-four years ago-and he asked, "What's wrong?" And I started to break up, and I told him what had happened, I was very distraught. And the man took me for a walk. I remember this hill of daffodils, it was April or May, and we sat down. Mr. Beck was a very European person-dignified-they don't sit in daffodils that often, in suits! And he said, "Tell me the story."
And I told the story, and he said, "Well, that happened to me when I was young too." And he said to me, "You know, sometimes life is like you're in a small rowboat, in very rough seas, and sometimes all you can do is just hold on. And then the seas will become more calm, and you'll pick up the oars again and get on going where you need to go." We became friends, and I used to go to his house. He lived on a farm, and we picked apples together, we made apple cider. He has a tiny little Rembrandt, which he had discovered in some farm in upper New York State, which must be worth thousands and thousands of dollars. He bought it for five dollars; he was very proud of it. And we'd read poetry-an organic chemistry professor! And he awoke for me a romantic intelligence that I think I have nurtured ever since. It's really been a spiritual asset-to love the rabbis, to love the Torah, to see the poetry in it and to have the sense of self-confidence to swim in it. To have the sense that I'm not just some guy, some kid from the suburbs, but that I also am part of a tradition. So it was this German man who opened up my intellectual life in a way that every mother would love to see for her child going to college. It just opened up my world.
My wife is a mentor in some ways. She has such a commitment to truth, more so than me. I can know something is true, and still do the opposite, because [the truth is] inconvenient for me. If something makes sense to my wife-like God appeared at Mount Sinai, and God asks us to keep kosher-well, she's compelled to keep kosher, she cannot not keep kosher. If something is true, then she's compelled to do it. The strength in that-I find it very beautiful, and I admire her for that. It's not quite me; I like truth, but I'm less consistent than she is. Consistency is not my highest aim, not my highest strength.
There have been a lot of rabbis over the years who were spiritual mentors. I went to medical school in Israel. That was one of the great moments for me-you know, it's like a life journey. My life journey is really self-imposed. For some people, awful things have happened. For me it's more like, I'm a kid who grew up in Great Neck. I got lucky. I had loving parents, blah, blah, blah. I just knew this going to school, and I don't know how I knew it. So I would always challenge myself-I would throw in something more for me to push. So when I finished college, I went to medical school in Israel.
In and of itself, being in Israel for four years was [like having] a mentor. To live in the land! Judaism is so based in the land-to live in the land, to see the vibrancy of the people, to be a part of that people! We are disconnected from that in our lives. To be connected to the land of Israel and just to travel around it and know it-the places of Jesus, the places of Moses. I'd go to Sinai all the time. In some ways, my spiritual mentors are also people who are not alive now. So Sinai is very powerful because of Moses.
Ann: Have you had any profound spiritual experience associated with birth or sickness or death? Have you felt something bigger or more profound helping you, assisting you?
Mark: Well, I feel that quite often when I pray. I remember when I was nineteen I hitchhiked across the United States. Now I find it hard to believe that my mother let me do that. I respect her, she trusted me. It was dangerous; I was in very dangerous places. I was with bears in Jasper National Park. All by myself! I also went through Europe by myself. This was at a time when I looked up to Trotsky-a searching person, you know-I remember reading Trotsky's autobiography while going through Europe. I grew up with communists next door; it's a world people don't know, the Jewish communists. They say if an anti-Semite wants to find something to be angry at Jews about, they'll call them communists, and if they're communists they'll call them capitalists.
So anyway, traveling across the country…I was in Jasper National Park, and I had a moment where I just felt the mountains and the oneness of everything. It's easy to feel that in Jasper National Park.
When I was going to medical school-this was a biggie-I was accepted to medical school in America and in Israel. And my mother and father and all my friends did not want me to go to Jerusalem. You know, everyone wonders, Will it be as good an education? And I was just a young man who wanted to live my life, and I was not going to go to medical school in America when I had an adventure to live. I was going to find my Jewish roots and go to medical school; I was going to have it all, and if a little risk was involved, I was willing to take that risk. This is the chutzpah of youth.
I remember sitting at the Western Wall, praying, and I just felt the coldness of the Wall, the sensuality of the Wall, and I just felt helped, I had an answer. It was a big turning point in my life. Four years in medical school, when you're twenty-two to twenty-six years old, that's powerful. That was a very special spiritual moment, when I felt, "This is the right thing to do."
My father spoke to me on the phone and he said to me, "I want you to come back to America. Why do you want to become a foreign medical graduate on purpose? You have to come back, you can go to Israel as much as you want on vacations."
I said, "If you can tell me Dad, that I'm going to be twenty-two to twenty-six years old another time in my life, I'll do anything you say. But if this is my one chance to live this life, then I have to take the risks and live it on my own terms, and the benefits will be mine and the risks will be mine."
I had this insight about the urgency of life; every year is a unique event. It's not something you can take back, or get back. Sixty has to be enjoyed for sixty, and twenty has to be enjoyed for twenty. And you have to really get into it! That's our obligation. At the end of the story, God willing, I'll be an old man looking back on my life. I want to be able to say I lived a robust life, I searched for truth, I tried to find God. I made my mistakes, but by and large I don't regret not having pursued the things I wanted. I don't want to remember my life as one of passivity in the face of the richness of life's offerings.
Often when I'm praying, I'll thank God. The prayer that's most meaningful to me is a thanksgiving prayer…I'm thankful before God, and I feel very held. So if I'm feeling insecure, I'll sometimes pray. Sometimes I'm an expert witness in court, so I'm being asked to make a decision about custody-I mean I have a big job, and an awful job. And just as awful is that the attorneys are nasty, so I get up on the stand and they want to tear me apart. I'm just trying to do a good job, and they want to make me look bad. I'm not a bad expert witness, but it's not without a cost. So sometimes when I'm driving to these things I'll say, "Modeh ani l'fanechah melech chai v'kayam Shehechazarta bi nishmati b'chemla raba emunatecha." It's just the morning prayer…when you wake up in the morning you say, "Thank You God for returning my soul to me, You didn't have to do it; thank You very much for giving us the world, You didn't have to give it to us; nothing is required of You; thank God the world is here-I really thank You God for Your faithfulness to me." And when I say that, whatever I have to do next is okay. I feel very held.
Ann: Have you ever been at the edge of despair?
Mark: I think I'm very fortunate. There are two experiences I think that have given me some sense of despair. I saw a woman this morning whose child has brain cancer. I want to help this lady, but why does God do such things? I've lived such a blessed life. God has been so good to me, and I just thank him every day as much as I can. I don't know what I did to deserve such goodness. I'm not perfect-I'm very far from perfect; I fall short a lot. There are so many people in this world who suffer for no good reason; for no reason this thing happens to their children, or they can't have children.
When I was twenty-seven years old I had a tumor in my right femur. I was a doctor at the time, and I was at Georgetown Medical School, a resident there. We didn't know whether it was malignant or not, and a malignant bone tumor in young men is a bad thing-they're usually sarcomas. So I didn't know whether I would make it or not, and I remember praying just before the surgery; I just prayed to God. And I felt meaning in that. I think that's the most despair I've ever felt, going into the surgery with this tumor, not knowing what they would find, and being a doctor and knowing that if it was malignant that could be a death sentence. And I was protected. Another man could have lost his leg or his life.
Ann: Now how about spiritual practices? Do you have specific practices that you follow that keep you open to cherishing and loving and serving life?
Mark: Honestly? I think the biggest spiritual practice I have is sending my kid on a bus every day to a Jewish day school. At some point my wife and I had to decide what to do about the children's educations. The public schools here in Westchester are perfectly good-and this is where the rubber meets the road. We decided to go with a Jewish day school, and not just a Jewish day school, but an Orthodox Jewish day school. This was before we became Orthodox. We just wanted our child to get the culture at it's very deepest, the whole thing. He can always reject it if he wants, but we wanted to download it. We didn't want ignorance to be in the way of our child's connection to Judaism. So this commitment involves a major bus ride and a long day for him and a lot of money. But it's become something that has enriched our lives tremendously and has made us happy. Gabriel comes home happy, and he even reads Rashi! Rashi is an eleventh century Jewish commentator on the Bible. Our son is ten; he reads Rashi in the original script that Rashi invented for himself…not just the Hebrew, but Hebrew in a script that was written in the eleventh century! And he likes it! And so he comes home with all this; he lives the Jewish life. We live in Westchester, but he could be anywhere. He's embedded in the Jewish world.
And so that's led us to become more religious, to really keep kosher, to study. Rabbi Tropper comes to visit me once a week. He's the head of the yeshiva, and it's a very great honor that he teaches me Talmud and Torah. That is a great spiritual practice. In the Jewish world, in the end it's what you do and how you teach your children, more even than what you feel. I can talk about what I feel, but the self is not as important in the Jewish world as the other, particularly when that other is your child. And it's an anchor. Some religions you can get into your religious spirituality, and it's nice to be close to God. But in the end of the story, God doesn't care about us being close to Him; He cares much more about us tending to our children, repairing the world. My youngest child's name is Micah. There's a very famous line in Prophet Micah, where God says to Micah, "I don't want your sacrifices or pledges. What I want is for you to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God."
So in the end of the story, it's not about all the stuff that we give to God, it's about what we do with other people. Obviously, we have to start with our children. So I think the biggest spiritual practice I have is writing that check out to the Jewish day school.
Another spiritual practice is being the vice-president of my local synagogue, just showing up at the board meeting, and having these debates about what we're going to do with our money, and fundraising, and worries, and expansion, and membership and how to handle people who don't have the means to pay…all the political stuff that you have to do to make the institution a thriving place. So when Gabriel, my ten-year-old son, shows up at synagogue with me on Saturday morning, he can lead the service. You know, he may reject it, but he has it in his soul. And when the president gets up there and has announcements, Gabe will raise his hand, the president will call on him in front of the whole congregation, and Gabe will say, "Okay, now we need donations for the kiddush," which is the brunch that comes after Shabbes services, the Sabbath services, "We need donations, I'm going to go after everybody!" And everyone laughs-it's so cute, it's funny. But he's organically part of the whole thing.
Ann: The whole community loves him; he's part of the community.
Mark: That's what you want to give your children, real community.
So there's all sorts of private spiritual practices that have to do with praying, going to services. One of the things I struggle with-here's a Jewish spiritual practice! I live in the suburbs, I'm ten miles from the nearest Orthodox synagogue, and you can't drive on Shabbes. So a Christian cab driver picks me up every Shabbes morning. He opens the doors for me, I do nothing; I carry no ID, I carry no money. We pre-arrange this thing every week: He picks me up at my house, and he picks me up at shul (synagogue) when it's over. And I pay him on Sunday. Now if you ask a rabbi, it's probably not kosher, because I got in the car. But at the end of the day, this is something between God and me.
Ann: Now does your wife go with you?
Mark: She won't go. As I said, she's more Orthodox, she's more committed. If you're not supposed to do it, then that's it [for her]. But for me, showing up at synagogue is such an important thing, that I will risk it…I'll offer the trip to God. And I hope that God understands, and I hope he laughs. I don't claim I'm so holy; I'm trying to make a compromise to make this work.
When I asked the cab company how much this was going to cost me every week, you know what they said? Thirty-six dollars. When they said thirty-six dollars, I knew it was right!
Ann: Your spiritual community is important to you. Do you have more than one community?
Mark: Spirituality without community is not a Jewish concept. I have many spiritual communities. Our Katonah study group is a beautiful spiritual community. I'm involved with rabbis in Jerusalem; I go to Jerusalem once or twice a year to study with rabbis over there, and I'm very close to a lot of people. I feel that my neighbors next to me are part of my spiritual community. I care about them and the safety of our neighborhood; we watch out for each other's children.
Ann: That's a very important community; you're not saying prayers together, but you're honoring life.
Mark: See, in Judaism, the prayer is the honoring of life, the prayer is the deed, the prayer is in the deed, every day. There are laws between man and man, and laws between man and God. The laws between man and God are all about religion, praying and going to Yom Kippur services, etcetera. But probably the harder rules, the harder laws, are the laws between man and man-to treat each other well, to treat each other with love and proper dignity-and it is a prayer every day when we do that.
Ann: This is a really hard question, but why do bad things happen to good people, and even bad people? Is this part of life, that there must be hard things that we have to endure?
Mark: I feel that life ultimately is a tremendous mystery, and we have to acknowledge that mystery. And while I really believe Judaism is the closest to the truth-that God appeared at Sinai, and Moses had connections to God, and the Torah is very true, and Talmud is very close to true-I also believe that those things are, in the end, approximations of something that's deeper and much more difficult for us to understand. In the end those things are words to human beings, and I think that God is much deeper and more difficult than we know.
There's a terrifying face to God too. I don't understand it-it's a spiritual black hole of sorts. As a Jew, I believe that everything comes from God. Our purpose on the earth is to take this world with all its concealed light-all its concealed light, all its functions-and try urgently to make it a better place. Build hospitals, do psychotherapy, try to be better husbands and wives, own our own bullshit-whether it's greed, sexuality, vanity-vanity is probably the biggest of them all in our world. The human response to the woman with the child with brain cancer is despair for their experience; the human response is to do everything we can to make their experience better. It's just beyond our ability to know what cancer in a sixteen-year-old is about. That being said, our response cannot be a passive response.
Technology is embraced by Judaism. We're not frightened of technology; we're not frightened of the Internet or the Human Genome Project or medicine or Prozac…because ultimately, all this also comes from God. The issue is, How should human beings use it? Technologies are not, in and of themselves, evil. They are opportunities for good and for bad, that's all. And we're to choose good.
Ann: And human beings themselves: What is our place in the world? Are humans better than animals, is there something special about human beings?
Mark: I know the answer? We're part of this mystery. It's just a blessing that we're here. We have to remember: We don't have to be here, and the world doesn't have to exist. It's all a big opportunity, it's all in what we do with it. Are we better than animals? I don't like the distinction better…we are spiritual beings in our own way, we are close to God. We have the capacity to be close to God, so we are distinct from the animals. The animals are on a lower level from a hierarchical point of view, if you want the hierarchical point of view, biologically and spiritually. We all have our place; it's one big piece of life, and we're all cells in it.
Ann: Do you believe in an afterlife?
Mark: I don't think about it very much. In the Jewish world, by and large, it's not thought about. But there's a very famous midrash (a teaching or commentary on Torah) about Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth." The big question that the Rabbis asked was, Why does the Torah begin with the letter Bet? The letter Bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, so they would argue that the letter Aleph was very upset, "Why was I not chosen to be first? I should be the first!" Well you know, everything in Hebrew goes from right to left. So Rashi says that the reason the Torah starts out this way is to bracket what is knowable from what is not knowable. The letter Bet looks like a bracket (v), implying that we're really not able to know what's underneath this world, or what comes before, or what's above. What we can know is everything going forward from creation-and that is the Torah.
It may well be that there's an afterlife, and that there's reincarnation of souls. And you know, the idea of reincarnation of souls exists in Judaism. But as much as all these things are part of the Jewish world…at the end of the story the question is, Do I send my kid to a Jewish day school? Do I support my synagogue? Do I respect my wife? Do I treat my patients with dignity? Do I honor the Sabbath?