My Startling Conversation With Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski Zt”l

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Throughout my life, since high school, I had almost idolized Rabbi Dr Twerski zt”l. Here was a man who had the appearance, “levush” (garb), and most importantly, the “heartzik warmth and emotion” of a Chassidic Rebbe, and yet was so fully accomplished, respected, and influential in the secular world.

From what I had heard about the extended Twerski family, these amazing qualities were almost a part of the family DNA, as a number of Twerski cousins were similarly accomplished in the secular academic world and deeply connected to their Chassidic roots.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski, however, was the most relevant to my heart, as he was a psychiatrist who had written so beautifully about the “Tzelem Elokim” in each person and had managed to found a rehabilitation center for drug and other addictions. His seemingly effortless merger of Torah thought and modern psychology and his ability to use both to touch and repair the deepest and most vulnerable places within ones’ heart was just so special.

Additionally, his amazing “middos” and honesty stood out in all his writings. In fact I looked up to him as someone who reached the elusive goal of fulfilling one’s mission in life in the most beautiful of ways. The fact that he had found a way to team up with Charles Schultz and merge his powerful life changing messages with the comic genius of Schultz was just the icing on the cake of my admiration for him. His essential message of using self-esteem as the building blocks of spirituality and his ability to convey that message with such love and genuineness were transformative to my own inner world. His deep appreciation of Torah and mesorah as expressed in his work “From Generation to Generation,” deepened my love of Torah and Judaism and became a book that I gifted to many of my friends.

But the full appreciation of who Rav Twerski was did not emerge until, as part of my rabbinic training for semichah in Yeshiva University, I was asked to attend a JACS Shabbat retreat as a rabbinic observer. JACS stands for Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.

It is an organization that helps people overcome their addictions. The Shabbat I spent with JACS is one I will never forget. The honesty and openheartedness that was palpable throughout the weekend made a deep and lasting impression on me. As it happens, the scholar in residence for the weekend was Rav Twerski. The hope and love he gave to each person in the room, and the way his every word and gesture was valued and internalized, was something I will never forget. Only then did I fully appreciate the power and significance of his teachings and personality and how lifesaving it was to so many in our community.

Flash forward a few years. In my own life’s journey, I found myself struggling with thoughts about life, religion and “emunah” and was looking for someone to speak with. My soul felt tumultuous at the time and I was going to seek out the “very top person” to see if I could find some resolution. Through some connections with Rav Twerski’s extended family, I was able to arrange to meet with him to share some of my struggles and seek his insights.

I sat with Rabbi Twerski and explained to him some of the troubling thoughts I was having about Hashem and his role in the world, about why bad things happen to good people, and many other similar questions that many of us experience at some point. I was hoping for some insight that would provide clearer answers or perhaps suggest some coping mechanism to allow myself to live more peacefully even with a lack of clarity.

After listening to my heartfelt angst, Rabbi Twerski responded with two sentences that still resonate in my mind and heart to this day. Rabbi Twerski turned to me and said, “Benzion, it is absolutely ridiculous to believe in G-d.” He then paused for a second while I tried to replay his words to make sure I indeed heard him correctly. He then continued and said: “and it’s absolutely ridiculous not to believe in G-d.”

And that was it. That’s essentially what he shared with me. I left the meeting a bit shocked, and not necessarily satisfied that going to the top answered any of my questions. But as time passed I slowly took in the significance of the honesty we shared and what Rabbi Twerski’s insights did for me.

Firstly, he acknowledged that on some level, it is okay for a dedicated committed Torah Jew to question one’s beliefs. His statement made me feel that he too understood the struggle and, at times, even shared similar thoughts. Having such thoughts was not a character flaw or something to feel guilty about.

The second half of Rabbi Twerski’s statement was equally profound as he pointed out that choosing not to believe does not resolve anything at all. The same questioning part of our soul that screams for clarity would be just as confused by our choice not to believe. His insight made me realize that the tension of living in an unknowable world that many thinking people struggle with is one that is not exacerbated by belief any more than it is by non-belief. It’s ok to acknowledge struggles with belief as long as one realizes that giving up on belief provides no resolution.

Countless times since then, when faced with challenges, I have reminded myself of Rav Twerski’s insight that sometimes it indeed may seem ridiculous to believe in G-d, but it is surely ridiculous not to believe in G-d.

Years after our conversation, I happened upon a quote which summed up much of Rav Twerski’s message. The quote says: “People who believe in G-d have to explain why bad things happen to good people, people who don’t believe in G-d have to explain everything else.”

The quote is truly insightful. But hearing that message from Rav Twerski zt’l, a person whose sense of life, and people, and Torah and mitzvos resonated so powerfully in my heart, is a privilege I will forever cherish. His honesty in acknowledging struggling thoughts, his sharp insight into the unsettling and unsatisfying perspective one might feel without Emunah, and his calming deep sense of faith based on mesorah, are perspectives I thank him for each day. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.