“The Doctor and the Rabbi” by Aimee Bender
A story about the bridges between religion, faith & science
INTRODUCTION BY ALANA NEWHOUSE
Last year, Aimee Bender — two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize and contributor to GQ, Harper’s, and The Paris Review — kicked off Tablet magazine’s new series of original fiction. “The Doctor and the Rabbi” is a short but intense story about the modern interplay of faith and reason, and it moves quickly to the heart of the matter, from the doctor’s doubt to the rabbi’s dependence on his care. Its two characters remain unnamed, at once specific and universal, a rationalist doctor and his fiercely patient rabbi struggling with the eternal questions of doubt, belief, mercy, and love — over coffee and over medical tasks — as they sort through donation piles for a holiday gift drive. In lines like this, Bender expertly sketches out intellectual conundrums in a deeply human way: “He wondered if giving her atheist blood might in fact turn her into an atheist, and he felt guilty at the thought but also pleased — like she could come over to his house and they could browse his bookshelves, shoulder-to-shoulder, and read Sartre together, or a dash of Camus, and then stand on chairs in old-fashioned hats and drop apples from great heights to the floor.”
As part of Tablet’s mission to explore Jewish news, ideas, and culture, the magazine’s year-old fiction series has showcased the best in contemporary and rediscovered short stories by Jewish writers. Published authors include Joshua Cohen (Witz, Four New Messages); bestselling writer and poet Justin Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy); novelists Susan Daitch (Paper Conspiracies), Tova Reich (My Holocaust), and Ellen Ullman (By Blood); newcomer Emily Firetog; and, in original translation, the Israeli writer Dror Burstein. Newly translated Hebrew fiction from Israel Prize-winner Aharon Appelfeld is scheduled to appear this fall. Tablet’s fiction has been named Best of 2012 by Longform.org, and was listed as one of the year’s “coolest literary magazine innovations” by Flavorwire.
“The Doctor and the Rabbi” by Aimee Bender
THE DOCTOR WENT TO SEE THE RABBI. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”
The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.
“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”
The doctor sat in his suit in his chair and fidgeted. Although he had initiated the conversation, he found the word God offensive, the same way he disliked it when people spoke about remodeling their kitchens.
“I’m sorry,” he said, standing. “I cannot seem to understand what you are saying. Are you speaking English?”
“English?” said the rabbi, closing a book. Dust motes floated off the pages into the room and caught the light as they glided upward. She wrinkled her forehead as if she was double-checking in there. “Yes,” she said.
A few months later, the rabbi became sick. She had a disease of the blood, a disease that needed weekly transfusions that she scheduled on Wednesdays so she would be at her best for Shabbat.
The doctor who had come to see her was a doctor of blood. A transfusionist. He had chosen this profession because blood was at the center of all of it. It was either blood, or the heart, or the brain. Or the lungs. He picked blood because it was everywhere. He was never even slightly interested in skin, or feet, joints, or even genitals. It was the most central core stuff of life and death that made him tolerate all those godawful courses in anatomy and biochemistry.
She thought of him as she sat with her husband, staring at their enfolded hands, wondering what to do.
“That man,” she said, looking up. “That man who came by a few months ago.”
When the rabbi was in her paper gown she looked smaller, of the earth, and the doctor did not mind the role reversal.
“I’m so sorry you have to go through this,” he said.
The rabbi lay down on the cold table. She offered her arm. The blood drained from her; the blood of another person filled her. The doctor stood beside her and placed the instruments in a line.
The rabbi came for many transfusions, and she recovered at a brisk pace, filled with the blood of Hindus and Lutherans. The treatments went so well she didn’t have to visit as often anymore, and the doctor missed seeing her at the clinic. After a month had gone by, he went to her office again, where he found her talking to another rabbi, massaging the bottom of a stockinged foot. He stood outside the door as she sifted through her shelves, finding a book, opening it to a page, the two rabbis huddled shoulder to shoulder, commenting, gesturing. The age-old activity of Jews.
The doctor stayed near the door. He was not one to interrupt.
It was when the rabbi was locking up that she glanced over and saw him. Her color was back. Her eyes were clear. She was an attractive woman, with a kind, bearish husband, one raven-haired child, pink dots of warmth in the centers of her cheeks. She hugged him, and pressed his hand, and thanked him, and he said he would like to talk to her again.
“About God?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
They went to a coffee shop, because she could now go no longer than two hours without food.
She asked him why blood. He explained. The river. They picked at a croissant on wax paper between them. The radio expelled old pop songs. He felt something stir inside him when beside her, but it was not lust, and it was not religion. What was it? “I feel a stirring, when I sit with you,” he said, rolling his coffee mug in his hands. “But it is not lustful.”
“I’m married,” she said, as an afterthought. She had bright blue clay earrings on, formed into the shapes of stars.
“It’s like the coffee tastes more like coffee,” he said.
She sipped hers.
“There’s good coffee here,” she said.
“It’s not that.”
There was a pause. He found it awkward. She did not seem to mind. She dipped a croissant end into her coffee and the buttery layers soaked up the warmth.
“I gave you the blood of other religions,” he blurted.
She laughed out loud, lifting out the croissant. “No problem,” she said. “I like what you gave me. It’s great. How’d you know?”
“There’s a box on the donation form,” he said. “An optional box.”
“Ah,” she nodded.
“I went with those who had checked the optional box.”
“How interesting that it’s a box on a form,” she said, chewing. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
He scratched his nose. “It’s new.”
“Who made the form?”
“Me,” he said.
“You can do that?”
“Sure,” he shrugged. “No one thinks to question an extra form. Plus, it’s optional.”
“So, who’d I get?” she asked, now dipping the croissant torso.
His hands were shaking, slightly. He put them flat on the table, to calm them. He wasn’t sure why he was so nervous around her.
“Christians,” he said. “Of all sorts. Including a Jehovah’s Witness. Several Muslims. A few Jews.”
“Maybe it’s a new route to world peace,” she said. “Transfuse people.”
“And atheists?” he said, tentatively.
“What about them?”
“I gave you atheist blood, too,” he said. He cringed, visibly.
She laughed again. All that warmth in her laugh, like it could embrace someone across a room.
“I don’t hate the atheists,” she said.
“I’m an atheist,” he said, a little too loud, and he reached out for her hand.
For a second, she held his. His hand was much wider than hers and her hands, not usually considered dainty, looked small and slender next to his.
“I’m not here to push anything on you,” she said. “Many Jews I know are atheist Jews.”
“Your eyes shine,” he said. “How do they do that?”
“Blood,” she said.
They slipped into the affair, even though it was not an affair. It was never anything to do with losing clothes. It was not the deep sharing of feelings. It was almost entirely one-sided. It was simple, like he’d slipped slightly into her blood, and she slipped strongly into his thinking. She had one or two dreams in which he played a part, as a kind of helpful direction-giver when lost on a highway, dreams she was only mildly aware of when she woke up and went to shower.
For the most part, she focused on the congregants who needed comfort, and her husband and young son with the amazing brown eyes. The doctor, however, cultivated thoughts of her like a fresh little garden. Sometimes he pulled out her chart just to reread her basic stats because the numbers brought him something akin to joy. To joy, really — the numbers lifted his heart and step, buoyed his day. It was just knowing this person was alive, he thought. That he had helped her, maybe even saved her, and now she was out there talking about all this business he did not believe in.
God, he said, in his car, driving from hospital to home. What a word. Much had been made already of its similarity to “dog,” but as he wound through the streets, he particularly enjoyed conjuring up the image in his head of some kind of old and glowing man on a leash.
Not that he believed in such things, but he wondered if giving her atheist blood might in fact turn her into an atheist, and he felt guilty at the thought but also pleased — like she could come over to his house and they could browse his bookshelves, shoulder-to-shoulder, and read Sartre together, or a dash of Camus, and then stand on chairs in old-fashioned hats and drop apples from great heights to the floor.
He returned to the rabbi’s office. His mother was not well. She had cancer. She was in the hospital. Her illness had little to do with blood, or at least not his kind of blood, and so he’d stood around her hospital room, awkward, without a task. He watched the TV, attached to the ceiling with metal straps and hooks, the show pointing down upon them. He loved his mother, even though she seemed to be so private a person he had not understood much about her. She only ever told him on a daily basis about her day.
“I went to the grocery store,” she would say. “I got my hair done.”
“What else?” he asked once.
“I ate potato chips,” she said. “I talked to your Aunt Sophie.”
“About what?” he said.
She hummed, thinking. “About everything, I suppose,” she said. “And how are you?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I bought a radio. But what do you mean, everything?”
She paused on the phone. He could hear her unpacking groceries. “Sophie tells me about everything she is thinking and feeling,” his mother said. “It’s very interesting.”
“I so enjoy hearing what Sophie has to say,” she said.
“I have been unable to work very much this week,” he told the rabbi. “I took two days off.”
“Makes sense,” she said. She was wearing a navy blue suit, maybe because she had attended a funeral, or a business meeting. The daily workings of a rabbi’s schedule were highly mysterious to him.
She was also surrounded by cardboard boxes of donations for a charity drive and had just started sorting items into piles. A kid clothing pile, an adult clothing pile, a book pile, a toy pile.
“Want to help?” she asked.
“Sure.” He took the free seat. She had a pile of books in her lap and was separating them into kid and adult levels.
“And my son is not doing well, either,” he said, settling in. “He lives with my ex-wife. He failed algebra.”
He opened a donation box. Sweaters. The rabbi was divvying up her book piles, but he could tell she was listening. She divvied quietly.
“I tried to tutor him,” he said, “but I didn’t know how. I forgot algebra.”
The rabbi nodded. “Who remembers?”
“My ex-wife doesn’t like to talk about it,” he said. “My mother is doing a little better. They say she can go home tomorrow.”
He listed all the people on his fingers. Mother, son, ex. Looked at his hands. Ham-handed, he’d been called, as a boy. Big fingers. He had turned out to be very deft with needles, which had surprised everybody.
“And how are you holding up?” the rabbi asked.
“Fine,” he said.
He folded up the sweaters. Two had fairly large moth holes eating up the sleeves. “This okay?” he asked, showing her.
“Agh, no,” she said. She pointed under her desk. “Ungivables.”
He tossed over the sweaters, began folding others.
“What a stressful time,” said the rabbi.
“You say that to all the visitors,” he said, smiling a little.
She smiled back. “I still mean it.”
He folded the arms in carefully, then made the sweaters into tidy squares, smoothing down the fronts, so that each one looked new, like it had just been taken from a box at a department store and placed upon a table.
“Let me ask you a question,” said the rabbi, balancing the last book in the adult pile. “You’re here to see me. Why?”
“Because I like seeing you.”
“I like seeing you, too. But you could go to a friend. To a colleague.”
“You think doctors know how to talk about this stuff?”
She pulled a pile of animal toys into her lap, including an unusually large red plastic chicken.
“Bock-bock,” she said, moving the chicken up and down.
“I like seeing you,” the doctor said again.
“Well,” said the rabbi, steadying the chicken in her lap. “I ask because I have a rabbi kind of thing to say.”
“Let’s hear it,” he said.
“It’s not a secular comment, is what I’m saying,” said the rabbi. “It will probably piss off the atheist.”
“I get it, that’s okay,” said the doctor, pressing hands down on his pants. He placed his neat pile of sweaters in the adult pile. “I came here. Let’s hear it.”
She touched the plastic comb on the chicken’s head, gently.
“You could pray,” she said. “Either on your own, or with us.”
“Oh, that?” said the doctor, shaking his head. “The ‘p’ word? No.”
“Not to an old-man-in-the-sky kind of God,” she said. “Not to solve all your problems. Just to ask for some help.”
“Oh,” said the doctor. “Nah. I don’t do that sort of thing.”
“Why not?” she said. There was no edge to her voice. Just interest.
The doctor put a small bottle of bubbles in the kid pile.
“Bubbles!” he said.
He looked back at her.
“Just because I think it’s useless,” he said. “And a little creepy.”
She laughed. “Okay,” she said. The red chicken bobbed in her lap. “Fair enough.” She glanced at the adult clothes pile.
“What beautiful folding,” she said.
He had opened another box and found a mushed pile of t-shirts, washed but unfolded, as if they had gone straight from the dryer into the donation box.
“And,” he said, after a minute, shaking out a t-shirt. “Just to play along. You know. I wouldn’t want to use up the line space.”
“What line space?” she said. She placed the chicken in the kid pile. “You mean like margins?”
He swept his hand in the air. “No, a line,” he said. “A line-line. Like in the post office. Let’s say there’s a line. Of people praying. And I added my prayer to it. Well, I don’t want to take up someone else’s space in line with my half-assed half-believing baloney prayer.”
She laughed, again. Now she had a pile of very-loved stuffed animals in her lap. She was looking so well. He could not help but feel a little proud of how she was looking. He had made sure she had gotten very good blood.
“You atheists,” she said. “Scratch the surface and so many of you are so old school.”
He coughed. “What do you mean?”
“As if there’s a line!” she said. She released the herd of stuffed animals into the kid toy pile.
“But one prayer could edge out another prayer,” he said.
“I don’t see how,” she said.
“It’s just logic!” he said. He felt the sweat beading up, on his forehead. All those sweaters, all that wool. It was May. They were doing a clothing and toy drive for some holiday. Tu B’Shvat? Or was that January? Wasn’t that about trees? Who needed sweaters now?
“If I’m… praying,” he said, growing a little impatient, “and there are people across the world who pray five times a day, well, I think their prayer should be heard first, before my prayer, because they have, well, ‘earned’ their prayer spot in line, just as I would earn my place in line if I attended a museum opening and arrived at noon with a sack lunch for a three pm opening. There!” he said, sitting back, folding his arms.
The rabbi leaned in. She seemed to have forgotten about the piles for the moment. Her eyes were beams of light. “But there’s no line,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re using an example that doesn’t fit. An example that is of this daily world. You have to think differently.”
“All we know is of this world,” he said.
“True,” she said. “True.”
The doctor sniffed. “Or don’t you think the prayer lines get scrambled, with too many people praying?”
“I don’t think it’s like the phone system,” she said.
“Why not?” He held himself tight. “Six billion people on the planet, right? Some of them pray every day. Several times a day! All day!”
“But — ” she said.
“I have no interest in cutting in the queue,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a merit system,” she said. “Or a queue.”
“But it would have to be, right?” he said. “There has to be some linear order. A way for whomever is supposedly listening to decide what to listen to first?”
She pushed her hair off her face. “I’m not sure God even has ears like that,” she said.
He laughed. “Well, then it’s even more pointless than I thought!”
She paused. She was looking in the middle distance, gathering. He could see she did not want to flood him. So much flooding, alone, pouring out of her eyes.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, slowly. A leftover giraffe fell on the floor.
“Here,” he said, picking it up.
She furrowed her forehead, thinking. Took the giraffe, absently stroked its back.
“The best way I can think to describe it,” she said, “is the way, when you’re driving on the freeway at night, how everyone can see the moon in their window. Every car, on the road. Every car feels the moon is following that car. Even in the other direction, right? Everyone in that entire hemisphere can see the moon and think it is there for them, is following where they go.
“You’ve had that experience?”
“Many times,” he said. “I see the moon right out my window.”
She kept petting the giraffe, as if it were a cat. Petting the little giraffe ears.
“That,” she said, “is a little closer to how I imagine it works. Whether or not you pray has absolutely nothing to do with the person to your left. It’s like saying you shouldn’t get the moon in your window, or else the other cars wouldn’t get the moon in their windows. But everyone gets the moon. It’s not an option, to not have the moon in your window. You just see it. It’s there.”
She paused. The window in the office grew golden with late afternoon.
“Half the world can’t see the moon,” said the doctor.
“It’s not the greatest example,” said the rabbi.
“Plus, the moon is far,” the doctor said, brushing lint off a t-shirt. “That’s why everyone has access.”
“True,” said the rabbi.
“So, is God far?”
“I don’t think those distance terms apply in the same way,” she said.
“Then I don’t understand the example.”
“It’s not — ” she said, clasping her hands together around the giraffe. “It’s not so literal.”
“I am literal,” he said. “I think literally. The moon is also unresponsive.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard to find the right example. I’m not saying pray to the moon,” she said. “Truly. I’m just trying to think up a way to talk about why there’s no queue, you know?”
“You don’t think God has ears?”
She sat back in her chair. “Not like our ears.”
He laughed, short. “I’m a doctor,” he said, putting all the folded t-shirts into a tidy stack.
She re-settled herself. Her face was warm, flushed.
“And are these prayers to be answered?” he said.
She seemed to be resting now, the urgency quieting, and he could see her shifting modes, back to her regular rabbi self, her teacher self, returning to the statements she said maybe once a week, twice a week, to different audiences. “In Judaism we pray for a variety of reasons,” she said, gently tucking the giraffe next to a few worn teddy bears. She closed her eyes. “Out of gratitude. Out of despair, asking for comfort. Out of confusion. Out of anger, in defiance. To be with. To share oneself. Not for results, tangible material results, especially on Shabbat — isn’t that interesting? We’re not to ask for anything tangible on Shabbat, which is, I think, one of the nicest times to pray all together.”
He flashed on an image of a hamburger, at a drive-through near his home, in a tinfoil pocket.
“Right now it might be helpful,” she said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
He wiped his hands clear on his pants. “I still think it’s hokum,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. She opened her eyes. Her forehead relaxed. “That’s okay. I’ll stop. I just wanted to talk it through with you. I’m glad you stayed.”
He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. It was hot in her office.
“I apologize for being so stubborn.”
“You weren’t stubborn,” she said, leaning over and unpeeling the tape to open up a new box. “You were actually pretty open. In a way, in my book, we just did it.”
“Prayed, in a way,” she said. “Wrestled with it.”
“Why do you say that?” He sat up taller. For some reason, the thought made him angry.
“Because you’re leaning in,” she said, unfolding the box flaps. “Because I am tired, in a way that I recognize. Because you seem to be fighting up from under some water. Into what, I don’t know. Into something. Because we were talking about it deeply,” she said. “I could feel it.”
“We were having an argument!” he said. He stood up, but her office was too small to pace so he turned away, and stepped away, and found himself going through the door and going down the hall to use the bathroom. Down the long dark narrow hallway, with its closed office doors, and framed yarn art telling stories of the Old Testament. Once inside the bathroom, the motion sensor light clicked on; it was the end of the day, and no one had been in for over an hour. The space held the loneliness particular to an unused bathroom, the glare of fluorescent lights, the echo of sink and crumpling paper, the tired isolation of one person in an office building, alone, at night, working too late. He used up 10 paper towels on his face and neck until he was sufficiently dry. He washed his hands carefully in the sink. He took the back exit.
The rabbi sat in her office for 45 minutes, unpacking the last donation boxes, to see if he would return, but he did not return, and so she shouldered her bag and walked the seven blocks home.
The doctor found his car in the parking lot, one of the last three there, and joined the flow on the street. He drove with his air conditioner fan on full blast, into traffic as the sun set, into dusk, with the full moon rising in his rear view mirror, almost taunting him with her big presence in his car alone and every car around and none of it being how he liked to think or was interested in thinking. And yet. Why did he love the rabbi? He loved her. He got home, and looked through the mail, and he had driven past the drive-through, so instead he sent out for a meatball sandwich, which he ate in pieces, because it was too unwieldy to eat all at once, and even the bread he cut into bite-sized parts. He could feel it, just feel it, the glimmer of something that he did not understand. He would never call it God. He would not call it prayer. But just beyond his sandwich, and the four TV shows he watched back to back, and his tooth brushing, and his face washing, and his nighttime reading of a magazine, and his light switching off, just the faint realization that there were many ways to live a life and that some people were living a life that was very different than his, and the way they lived was beyond him and also didn’t interest him and yet he could sense it. Comfort and fear rose together inside him. Like standing in the middle of a meadow, where no one had his back.