By Rabbi Benzion Scheinfeld
Educator and Director of Camp Kanfei Nesharim
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 “hartzig 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 one’s heart was just so special.
Additionally, his amazing middos and honesty stood out in all his writings. 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 my 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 Shabbos 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 Shabbos 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.
Fast-forward a few years. In my own journey in life 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 a suggestion of some coping mechanism to allow me 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 had 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 went on, 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 OK for a dedicated, committed Torah Jew to question and even think at times that it can “feel ridiculous to believe in G-d.” His statement made me feel that he, too, understood the struggle and at times even shared similar thoughts, and that having such thoughts was not a character flaw or something to feel guilty about. For here was a devout Chassidic Jew who understood how belief can often feel or seem ridiculous.
The second half of the statement was equally profound, as he pointed out that choosing not to believe does not resolve anything at all, as living in a world thinking there is no Creator and there is no G-d is equally ridiculous, that 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. The world is an unknowable mystery and will remain so for sensitive, thinking people. And it is OK to acknowledge struggles with belief as long as one realizes that giving up on belief is ridiculous as well.
Countless times since then, when faced with challenging emunah struggles, I have reminded myself of Rav Twerski’s insight—that sometimes it indeed may seem ridiculous to believe in G-d, but it is similarly ridiculous not to believe in G-d. And after noticing a possible stalemate in our brain at times, we can consider ourselves lucky to have been born into a mesorah that guides us in these powerful, unsolvable questions.
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 understanding 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.