Kate Bowler is a historian of the American prosperity gospel—"Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith." Ask any Jew, and they will scoff, of course, at such a precept being in Judaic belief. Yet there is a vast disconnect between official doctrine and the desperate flailings of the mind. For I see others, and also am guilty of, believing and acting on such a mindset.
Chevi Garfinkel says, "Don't confuse bracha with accomplishment." Finding a life partner is a bracha. Having children is a bracha. Being healthy is a bracha. There is nothing one does to achieve that. There are wonderful people out there who are unmarried. There are wonderful people out there who are childless. There are wonderful people out there who are ill. If one believes that bracha comes from earning, the logic that would follow is that others "earned" misfortune as well.
Blessed is a loaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very different categories: gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude. “Thank you, God. I could not have secured this for myself.” But it can also imply that it was deserved. “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.” It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck.
If Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be “luck.” “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she argued on her cable show. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.” This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
For all the development of empathy, petty thoughts, feeding on fear, still lurk within. My brain, pathetically, has lurched to the blame mode—the very blame mode that I have been subjected to by others—when I hear of others' horrific pain. Because in my selfish, primitive, chimp-mind, I want guarantees: This can't, won't happen to me.
One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?
I can also hear it in all my hippie friends’ attempts to find the most healing kale salad for me. I can eat my way out of cancer. Or, if I were to follow my prosperity gospel friends’ advice, I can positively declare that it has no power over me and set myself free.
I struggle with this. It is so easy to say, to write, to nod matter-of-factly, but when in that situation, all that mental prep struts out the door.
. . . And God is always, for some reason, going around closing doors and opening windows. God is super into that.
The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?
Well, for me, it feels like He's not talking. But that's because I'm not really listening.
It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. . . The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.
Being frum is not about being certain. We are certain about a number of things; the existence of God, the validity of His Torah, the laws He gave us to follow. Often there are clear descriptions about divine reward. But remember Acher and that incident with the young boy who died while performing shiluach hakan for his father (two "long life" compensations right there)? Judaism was not decommissioned because of it. Acher is faulted for his inability to comprehend.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.