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Rabbi David Wolpe: Coping with fear, anger and uncertainty

Rabbi David Wolpe is the author of several books, including his latest, "Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times." He is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.

CNN: Welcome to Rabbi David Wolpe. We are pleased to have you with us today.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I'm delighted to be here.

CNN: Is this a difficult time for clergy to whom so many people are turning for answers and comfort after the terrorist attacks?

WOLPE: It is a difficult time, but also, it is the sort of thing in some ways that justifies one's life work. Because if religion can't provide some kind of comfort and meaning at such a time, then it essentially fails in its central mission, which is to bring meaning and illumination to God's world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can we understand the concepts of religion and war in the same sentence?

WOLPE: Well, this is a complicated question. It is important to realize that there are things worth fighting for, and the battle against cruelty and evil has often been fought justly in religion's name. Unfortunately, religion, as is true with everything, is often used to justify precisely that which is opposite to its ideals. So, because religion is so powerful in motivating human beings, sometimes people use it for evil purposes.

CNN: What can you tell us about some of the things people in your own congregation have been expressing since the September 11 tragedy?

WOLPE: Well, one interesting distinction that I have seen between my own tradition and some others actually came to the fore in an interview on CNN. I was with a Muslim and a Christian clergy, and I was the only one of the three who spoke of the legitimacy of being angry with God. In the Jewish tradition, there is a long history of anger with God because the Jewish belief is that anger is also an expression of relationship, if done in the context of love. When you love someone, and they act in a way that hurts you, it is not unusual to express anger. So I have found that at the same time that many of my congregants are bewildered and hurt and concerned about what the future will bring, they also feel a sense of anger and a foreboding -- a worry about what the future will bring -- because right now it seems very uncertain.

CHAT PARTICIPANT:Religion is a great provider of comfort to people. Do you feel that the United States should leave the response to God?

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WOLPE: In my experience, our tradition teaches that God does not shepherd this world alone. We are supposed to be partners with God. Remember that in the Garden of Eden, God says to human beings, it is your job to guard and tend to this garden. So we can't leave it only to God, otherwise we have no purpose in being here. It's our purpose to take God's world, which is full of pain and suffering, and seek to elevate it to the kind of place that God intends for it to be, and hopes for it to be.

CNN: There is talk about possible chemical or biological attacks, the attorney general says that the threat of new terrorist attacks is a reality, and people are losing jobs -- how can people cope with such fear and uncertainty?

WOLPE: The uncertainty and the fear are in some ways the hardest part. Roosevelt's oft-quoted line about fearing fear itself is powerfully true because we realize that it is the feeling of fear that paralyzes us, and we spend a lot of time fearing things that might never come to pass. So, as difficult as it is -- and it is difficult -- without ignoring the possibility that something serious and something bad could happen, we have to also continue to live our lives. Because as long as we are in fact alive, to suspend the time we have on earth in anticipation of something bad leads to a life not lived, and for whatever time we have on this earth, it is better to spend it alive, than to spend it always anticipating its end. It's also a better model for children to show them that although life is uncertain, and we cannot know what will happen, we don't stop caring and loving and doing, because this is why we are here.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: The terrorists believed they were fighting evil, and they also believed that their willingness to sacrifice their lives in order to fight that evil would be their direct ticket to heaven. Who's to decide which religion is the right one and which is truly the will of God (if He really exists)?

WOLPE: I think that it is almost impossible to use an objective standard that everyone will accept, but I would say that any faith that is truly godly must treasure human life, believe that human beings have the possibility of godliness within them, and also seek to elevate not just their own spirit and way of living, but that of all of God's creatures and creations. I think that there are forces against life, and forces for life. I understand God to be that mystery which moves us to the side of life.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: During the High Holy Days security was extra tight at the services, and the children see this. How do we explain to them why going to Temple requires added security for Jews after this tragedy in the USA?

WOLPE: I think that we tell them that there are bad people who wish to do bad things, not only to one group or another, because obviously there were people from all over the world at the WTC and on the planes, but there are people who do bad things, and it's our job to stop them, to thwart them, and so we enlist good people to keep us safe.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the theological distinction between justice and revenge?

WOLPE: I would put it this way: Chesterton, the novelist and theologian, said that the good soldier does not fight because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. Justice does not come out of hatred. Justice comes out of a need to restore the balance of the world. Revenge is motivated by hatred. It is hard sometimes to disentangle the two inside of ourselves, but it is important for our self-knowledge to realize from what basis our emotions spring.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does Rabbi Wolpe believe that the US's view on separation of church and state has changed in the last few weeks?

WOLPE: I think that it is still very early to draw any conclusions about permanent changes in the United States. I think that this is still a highly charged time, and it will be a while before we know ultimately what the result in terms of our traditional Constitutional protections will be. This is one of those moments that sociologist call liminal moments, and that means it's a threshold time. What awaits us over the threshold, how much will be the same, how much will be different... at this point, no one knows. What often happens is that everyone suddenly becomes an expert and everyone knows the future. But the best advice I can give is to recall the wise words of the Talmud, to teach your tongue to say: "I don't know."

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about forgiveness?

WOLPE: I don't believe that we have a right to forgive that which has not been done to us. I can forgive the disruption and fear in my own life, and that is probably very healthy to do, but I cannot forgive someone for killing someone else. So, I would say that to the extent that we forgive, it is to relieve the burden of hatred in our own hearts, but that does not mean that we don't still try to create a world in which this can never be done again. Forgiveness does not mean amnesia. We dare not forget what they did, and dare not leave it unpunished.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

WOLPE: This country is not perfect, and we have committed many sins, but we are not evil. What was done to us was evil, and as we grieve for the dead and grieve for the hearts of all those who loved them, we also, I believe from a religious as well as civic point of view, have to steel ourselves with resolve, to seek to create a world in which human beings no longer have the means to destroy human lives wantonly and to wreak havoc each upon the other. I return again to what we said at the beginning -- God gave us this garden to till and to tend. That is a sacred task, if not an easy one.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Rabbi Wolpe.

WOLPE: Thank you very much.

Rabbi David Wolpe joined the chat via telephone from California. CNN provided a typist for him. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, October 01, 2001.


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