In My Own Words: Being a chaplain, not a theologian

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I never expected the words to come out of my mouth. But as the only chaplain available, I said the one thing I knew would bring comfort to the person who had told me proudly that he was a regular churchgoer: “Your friend is safe because he is resting in the arms of Jesus.”

Wow, that was totally unplanned and unexpected – not what I figured would occur when I set out to lead the memorial service. On the car ride home, I thought about that statement. What first came to mind was that I’m a chaplain, not a theologian. My regular wisdom – “you’ll carry the memory of him with you” – was just not working. Then, without really thinking about it, I reacted, trying to bring comfort to a person who had told me of his love for Jesus. What came to my mind next was something my mother would say when I tried to discuss theology with her. After explaining a theological idea, she would ask, “How do they know?”

How do they know? That’s a relevant question. Many people would answer, “Because it’s written in our holy texts,” “it was divinely inspired” or “God spoke directly to [fill in the blank with the appropriate name].” However, every religion claims to be divinely inspired and each has its own particular theology. What it really comes down to is belief.

My personal definition of theology is very different from the ones found in dictionaries. For me, theology is the belief that keeps you from running out in the night screaming in despair. My own personal theology is not one many people would find comforting. Yet, the most important part of chaplaincy work is bringing comfort to others. I don’t have to agree with their beliefs in order to do that: I just have to recognize what is meaningful to them.

This is not the first time I’ve faced conflicting theological beliefs. When visiting a Jewish woman in the hospital while I was still in rabbinical school, she told me not to worry: she was going to be fine because God would not give her more than she could handle. My personal reaction was that hospitals for those with mental health issues and prisons are filled with people who were unable to handle what God/their lives had given them. Yet, I would never take hope away from someone: It was her belief that gave her the strength to handle what was happening to her. Plus, to echo my mother, “How do I know that’s not true?” 

When it comes to my personal theology, I’m more than willing to contemplate that I might be wrong. In fact, there are times when I hope (pray?) that I am. My thoughts on life after death are that we once again become part of the universe – maybe in nothingness or maybe as part of the mystical Ein Sof, considered in Judaism to be God’s essence. I don’t actually find either of those ideas comforting, but they ring true for me. But, as much as I don’t believe it, I would love for there to be a heaven where I exist as myself and am reunited with loved ones who are no longer with us. (And if that heaven has a large library with all books past, present and future, I wouldn’t complain either.) 

But to be serious: what better purpose can we all have in life than to bring comfort to the mourner, to the sick or to those unlucky enough to have suffered from a natural or manmade disaster? The list of the ills that can happen to people could fill pages. Our personal theology shouldn’t get in the way of meeting people where they are and helping them with their needs. After all, the Jewish way of comforting a mourner – “May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” – reveals we are never truly alone in our suffering. I’m just willing to expand that comfort to “all those living in our the world,” regardless of their religion.