Title: To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times
Author: Naomi Levy
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Rabbi Naomi Levy attempts to address questions about life, death, and grief in her book To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times. Levy does an engaging job of weaving together personal stories from her life and the lives of members of her congregation in Venice, California along with basic lessons in coping with sorrow. Her tales of strength, courage, and ultimately success can serve as inspirational to many readers. A great deal in this book can help others to see that it is indeed possible to move beyond any of the tragedies which might afflict us and still thrive. I suspect that most theists will enjoy this book and find much which will reinforce their basic faith.
However, as an outsider and a skeptic, I can find much in the way of assumptions and premises which I consider problematic or flawed. Promotional literature states that her books offers prayers which ...no matter what our religious beliefs remind us that we are far, far stronger than we ever imagined. I strongly disagree with that claim.
At many points Levy shows a strong humanistic streak, encouraging us to find it within ourselves to rise above our circumstances and persevere in the face of adversity. On the other hand, her prayers tend to give just the opposite message. The prayers ask for God to offer us strength and courage, or Renew my strength, God. Restore my hope. Give me the courage to stare down adversity... And so it goes, begging an unseen spirit rather than looking inward to find it personally. Pleading with a god to solve our problems is decidedly anti-humanistic and is not at all a reminder that "we are stronger than we imagine." Instead, it is an effort to tell us that we are weak and need this spirit to cope.
Another issue which arises in any work such as this is the Problem of Evil. This philosophical and theological question is that, if God is perfectly Good and also omnipotent, how can it allow evil to occur in the world? Many theists have attempted to address this conundrum, offering various explanations ranging from the value of free will to denying one of Gods attributes, like omnipotence. Personally, Ive never seen any of these attempts do very well, although some have been interesting and creative.
Levy does address this, but I do not believe that she does a very good job. She, too, admits that she asks Where was God? in time of tragedy especially her own, because her father was murdered when she was just fifteen, sending her into a long-running crisis of faith and hope. The question is posed to her that, if it is not in Gods hands to prevent tragedies, then What good is God?
Levy has no answers to offer. She cannot explain why God allows evil to happen and humans supposedly his beloved children to suffer and despair. She cannot explain what the point of God is and why we might have any need for him or his presence. She hasnt even heard a satisfactory explanation from other religious leaders who have taken on this issue.
So what does she do, exactly?