Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Of God and Cancer

James Kugel is Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and a prolific author. He has had a distinguished career. But a few years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and the focus of his energy switched from writing and researching to fighting for his life. He won. And he has since written a book about his experience titled: In the Valley of the Shadow (Free Press, 2011). I have not yet read the book, but I understand that his scholarship and faith intersect in a unique way as he faces his own mortality.

Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with him talking about his experience of fighting cancer and writing the book.

I didn’t decide to write this book right after getting cancer. After I finished chemotherapy and the rest of my treatment, I was in this sort of “waiting mode” that most people who have had the disease will recognize. You can’t really just leave it all behind you, because you don’t know if it’s over yet. But with time, you start to settle a little less tentatively into your chair: I began working on other things, other books.

Still, I never really lost the reality of the state of mind I had in the weeks and months after getting the diagnosis — that sudden realization that the background music of everyday life is now just stopped, completely silent, and the very real feeling that goes with it, what I call “smallness” in the book. So that state of mind is really what the book is about, from start to finish.

It seemed to me so important to try to capture that feeling for readers and dig into it, because it has always seemed to me profoundly connected to being religious. (In fact, long before I got sick I wrote a little chapter about it in another book of mine, “On Being a Jew.”) So after about seven years, I thought I would try to think myself back into that state of mind and understand why it seems so real, and so important for what it means to be a religious Jew. Books about Judaism are often full of high ideas, but they sometimes spiral off into abstractions. I thought that if I kept coming back to cancer, it would help me stay honest and down to earth.

Interviewer: The book’s title omits the rest of the biblical expression, “the shadow of death.” Everyone knows the actuarial reality of cancer — why did you leave “death” out of the title?

I guess I liked the idea of stopping just short of quoting the whole phrase, because that’s what we do in our own lives. The simple fact is that we are all under the shadow of death, and we all know it. But you can’t live your life obsessing about death, so we tend to leave it out most of the time, without quite forgetting it entirely. We get as far as “in the valley of the shadow...” and then go on to something else.

Interviewer: People facing possible terminal illnesses often turn to God for solace, or turn away. You were already a man of faith, a biblical scholar. How did that faith help you face cancer?

I suppose people who are religious are somehow almost always conscious of living in God’s presence, so in that sense they don’t “turn to God” at all. In any case, that’s the way it seemed to me: just a continuation, kind of “this is what’s happening now.”

You can read the whole interview here.

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