Reflections on Tragedy

This article will be the first in our "Sunday Stories." This blog post is writtten by Dr. Gregory J. Davis, a Forensic Pathologist, who worked the scene of the Carrolton bus crash in 1988, as well as the plane crash of Comair Flight 191 in Lexington, Kentucky on August 27, 2006.  Greg is a member of Temple Adath Israel in Lexington.

As a forensic pathologist who daily sees the fallout of human frailty manifested as violence against others and the self, I struggle with what my Christian friends might call “faith.” Such a word carries myriad meanings to a Jewish person who grew up in the mid-south in the 1960s and ‘70s, as it was often a charged term because of the well-meaning but ultimately ignorant persons who tirelessly tried to “score” yet another soul on the evangelical scorecard—their attempts at conversion quaint at best, infuriating at worst (we Jews being complete human beings already, thank you very much).  I’ll write more on that later, but in the meantime: “faith.”

What is faith?  I love Jewish texts, Jewish traditions, Jewish ritual, but “faith”? Ask me what is my theology, and it might depend on the day. Not that I’m theologically fickle; rather, I acknowledge that the ebb and flow of experience cannot help but color the way I see my peoplehood, my Jewish civilization, my “faith stream,” as some are wont to call it.  As the years have gone by, I have run the gamut from a vision of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity intimately involved in humankind’s daily affairs to proclaiming atheism (also a religion or “faith” in itself), but even in the latter milieu remembering the adage that “even atheistic Jews know what God expects of them.”

My forensic pathology mentor, Dr L.C. McCloud, pointedly warned me two decades ago that my work would become technically easier but emotionally more difficult over the years.  I had no idea at the time how true such an aphorism would be, and boy, is it ever.  The question of theodicy has long been with us, a defense of God’s omnipotence and benevolence in the light of evil in the world.  It is a question with which I struggle every day.  Etymologically, one can say that “theodicy” comes from “the judgment of God,” but—blasphemous as it may at first blush appear to many—I wonder if it also may carry the connotation of “we who sometimes stand in judgment of a God who allows too many children to be ill or abused, too many lives cut short, whole peoples to be murdered.”  It is not considered outside of the realm of my peoplehood to argue with God, with the notion of God, with the courses that Creation has taken in the last few millennia. To be so engaged is, in its own way, a form of “worship,” another charged word in this largely Protestant Christian Kentucky, this Bluegrass State that I love. It certainly is not dismissive, this engagement. To argue and debate is what people who truly care do.

Years ago at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where I was taking a ten-day course, a friend told me that she “admired my faith.” I still don’t know what that means. I certainly know there are forces beyond our understanding, that humans are not the be-all end-all of Creation, but beyond that, I question, I ponder, and—as Wesley says to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride when Inigo asks Wesley to remove his mask and reveal himself—I have had to “get used to disappointment” in the theological realm.

I was at Carrollton in 1988, the site of the worst drunk-driving collision in US history (27 dead), doing autopsies. I was at Bluegrass Airport in 2006 after flight 5191 went down, doing much the same thing.  I have been involved in death investigations for 25 years this year. Each of us must ultimately find our way in attempting to reconcile (or not reconcile) the daily tragedies of our lives on this earth with the daily miracles, as well as our visions of what God is or what we think God should be. I leave that to the individual, as no authority should ever purport to tell me what to believe or in what to have faith. To “nail down” a vision of what God is smacks of idolatry: certain things we cannot and will never know.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that my work gives me a profound appreciation for life and, to paraphrase Heschel, a “radical amazement” that any of us are alive to begin with. If, as the siddur (Jewish prayer book) says, mortality is a price we pay for love, perhaps instead of pushing mortality to the back of our minds, a daily acknowledgment of it would spur us to be less emotionally, verbally, or physically violent, and more loving of ourselves and others. With mortality on our minds, wasting time on senseless violence . . . makes no sense.