Cancer and the High Holy Days: Rethinking Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Cancer survivor Lani Horn, who helped me through some painful times during my cancer treatment, writes in a piece for about anger, justice, and the search for deeper meaning in the Jewish holy days. She talks about a moment of clarity during a workshop for survivors, where she witnessed much talk about "making meaning out of the cancer experience, deepening our gratitude for the ordinary, becoming more compassionate." Snip:

After losing my brother, two breasts, and almost three years of my life to illness and hospitals, I was over these platitudes. I stood up to speak. “This is all fine. I get it. But my problem is that I am mad at God.” I even talked about the Unetanah Tokef, which had been a grueling part of the High Holiday liturgy since Jeremy died. Who shall live and who shall die?

A surge went through the room. I had uttered the unspeakable. Afterwards people came up to thank me for my honesty. One was a hospice chaplain, himself a cancer survivor.

“Remember,” he said, “there is a such thing as holy anger. Think of the prophets. Anger can be a spiritual feeling.”

For the first time, I did not feel like my anger separated me from God. It was an honest description of my relationship.

Yes, I was angry. Who shall live and who shall die? Why him and not me? And why him at all?

Read the rest: Rethinking Who Shall Live & Who Shall Die (Raising Kvell)

(Image: Dad's Grave's Broken Headstone at the Jewish Cemetery in Mumbai, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from Avi Solomon's photostream.)


  1. People go to such lengths to integrate their experience of reality with their religious metaphysics, and the results can be as intricate and strange as any other conspiracy theory.

    While I would say it’s better to simply throw away the religion part and thus avoid this mental struggle, losing the crazy output it generates would probably be an artistic loss….

  2. What a waste of intellectual energy. Blaming and/or thanking a non-existent entity for something that was either random or genetically predisposed. There’s plenty of real folks to be thankful for – doctors, researchers, nurses, family friends. Resorting to ancient superstition that can have no possible truth nor applicability to the modern world is just nonsense.

    1. People always claim that spirituality provides comfort in times of crisis, but then we atheists see things like this that make no sense at all and seem to increase the emotional burdens. Wouldn’t be much more easy to accept that there is no higher power making these decisions, there is no such thing as good or bad luck, karma, etc. Things happen because they happen, no other reason is necessary. When people un-shoulder these metaphysical burdens I would think they would be much better prepared to deal with real life. God knows :) life is hard enough without adding additional layers of meaning to it.

  3. If I must be angry at a capricious all-powerful supernatural arsehole, I’ll have to choose Zeus — say what you will about him, the guy seems to have a lot more fun and a better sense of humour than the one who took away his title of Top Invisble Bearded Sky Man(tm) (Western Division).  A god like the Abrahamic one doesn’t deserve such fine worshippers.

    It’s truly great that the author has transformed her misfortune into something positive through empathy and love toward others, but that can be done without wasting a portion of what remains of her life being constantly angry at a non-existent entity.

  4. Wow. Lots of blaming the victim going on.  Not that I disagree that blaming god is pointless.

    By believing that things happen for a reason, people set themselves up for all sorts of unnecessary angst.

    1. By believing that things happen for a reason, people set themselves up for all sorts of unnecessary angst.

      If you don’t believe that things happen for a reason, you apparently live in a universe without cause and effect.

      1. Clearly that poster mean reason in the sense of purpose rather than reason in the sense of cause.

  5. Tucked in the essay is a beautiful, powerful, poetic sentence that’s ringing like a gong in my ears: “There is randomness that we cannot grasp defying any sense of justice.”

    1. Yes, that randomness negates the entire premise that God does things to us for a reason.

      As my favorite bumper sticker ever states, Shit Happens.

    2. I love this line.

      Cancer is something that has always been really outside of my experience, but I’ve been paying more attention to it since Xeni began posting about it. (and admittedly since I started watching Breaking Bad around the same time) 

      I was tempted to skip this essay at the mention of Personal Gods ™ but it’s not the point of the work. (nor Xeni’s post for that matter) Also, “I was over these platitudes.” was a plenty-good hook.

  6. Really, smug atheist guys in this thread? A cancer survivor who loses her brother to the disease talks about her experience, through the lens of the culture in which she was raised, and the best you can come up with is “she’s wrong”? 

    There’s so much to appreciate in this piece. Who the fuck cares if you’re atheist or Jewish or Christian or whatever, there’s a human being with a human story here. I wish more commenters would, you know, read the goddamned thing I’m linking to and treat the writer behind it as human, and just hear their story—instead of using the brief summary in the blog post as an excuse to fap out to their chosen dogma.

    1. That’s what happens when a subject with an answer comes along. People stop being compassionate and instead provide an answer. I do it all the time, and my wife hates me for it. She has gotten to the point where she explicitly says, “Don’t provide an answer. Just listen and acknowledge my story.”

  7. As a Jewish woman, albeit one who identifies religiously as “agnostic, or something”, I found this piece very powerful and comforting. I lost my mother at age ten to breast cancer, and I had prayed every night that she would get better. When she didn’t, I more or less stopped believing in God. Learning to re-evaluate my emotions and faith over the years has been quite a journey and I appreciate this piece. Thank you, Xeni.

  8. LIVE and LET LIVE.  We have the right the CHOOSE our religious beliefs including the choice of “none.”  We have the right to CHOOSE our politics.  Cancer is not a choice.  Not ever.  Under any circumstances.  We do everything right:  Cancer.  Some do everything wrong:  Healthy.

    Look beyond the surface, TRY a little empathy.  There is no way to “do cancer” and unless you have walked that path under identical circumstances and I mean IDENTICAL.  I find it very mean-spirited to make commentary that diminishes how Lani has chosen to integrate the way cancer impacted her life into the tapestry of her life.

    Yes, when we share our stories in public places, it opens up alternative points of view.  But must we demean others.  Where is the sense of simple human decency and compassion for another person.  Not for their religion or their politics but simply because we are all people-walking the same planet, mostly trying to figure it out.

    This saddens me.  Lani, Xeni…. I know what you both experienced and I am sorry people have chosen to write with a blind eye and seem to have summarily dismissed each of you.

    Hugs and love to both of you…..


    1. Replying to my own comment because there was a remark passed about my “Live and Let Live” …. Was a bit mean spirited but I sometimes find myself in situations like this.  Live and Let Live, in MY world, does not only apply to those who agree with my view.  I learn by listening to others.  I agree to disagree.  I don’t use words that are inflammatory or incendiary. I try to live my life with empathy and NO, I am not a tree hugger.  I’m a street bitch who can get razor sharp with my tongue if necessary.  I only choose that route on rare occasions but I have no qualms about doing so if I feel it’s necessary.  It’s far better to at least attempt to see where another is coming from before spewing hateful/hurtful things.

      There are ways of making a point without being mean.  But then, to do that requires thought, intelligence and other traits that seem to be lacking in those who are quick to cram their ideas down the throats of others—-And… to do so in a way that is so close-minded.  I prefer to find common ground, to build a bridge rather than hurl a grenade.  If grenades make someone else feel better, I’ll just step out of the line of fire.  Live and let live, Like I Said.

  9. Moderator’s note:  Context matters.  In this context, complaining about religion is dickish.  Don’t be a dick.

  10. While I understand the emotions, I really wish people would stop being angry at their deities, and start being angry at the real culprit: the industrial processes that fill our world with carcinogens. For example the fossil fuel industry alone is responsible for 4.5 million deaths per year from pollution and related problems, and many of these deaths are in the form of cancer (*).

    We spend so much energy looking for cures, and caring for those who suffer from cancer. But we rarely acknowledge that much of the cancer epidemic is entirely avoidable, if we just stopped filling the world with substances that harm us.

    (*) That thought provoking statistic is from this report that just came out:

    1. Dont go all environmentalist on cancer. Long before the industrial revolution there was cancer. I’m no expert on biology but an archeologist and just today held human bones in my hand that were 5000 years old (Warburg Galeriegrab 1). Guess what … one of the femoral bones showed signs of cancerous growth.

    2. It’s not that straightforward. My wife decided to pursue that angle after our son was diagnosed with leukemia and she met several moms from a nearby town with the same disease. What she’s found is that there is something environmental going on, perhaps, but it’s very difficult to differentiate it form the naturally-occurring cancers. Too many variables, not enough data.

      The Erin Brockovich case was relatively easy to solve, because there wasa big source of pollution that was easy to identify and correct. Most cases of environmentally-caused cancers are lost in the noise, so to speak.

      Based on what I’ve learned from her and from other reading about the subject, cancer is a byproduct of life and we’ll never eradicate it because it’s part of the way that our bodies grow. The best we can do is to acknowledge this, and adjust our perceptions and treatments of cancer to maximize quality of life rather than length of life. Dying in an ICU, as one of my workmates recently did, is seriously wrong.

  11. I guess we atheists should focus more on understanding the emotional experience of victims of horrible circumstance, rather than criticize their chosen source of consolation. 

  12. I have cancer. I’m queer. I’m still an observant Jew. And the prejudicial atheistic remarks above are nothing new in the Jewish experience.

    Being angry at G-d is still having a relationship. Being disappointed at a lack of appearance, or delivery of a much-desired request, is still having a relationship. Expecting the relationship with G-d (or spiritual community, or family) to always be easy, rewarding, or even understandable, strikes me as emotionally undeveloped and intellectually incoherent. We’re complicated, or ideas need to acknowldedge complexity, our relationships are going to be complicated. Everyone’s balance of the emotional and rational is going to be different.

    Whatever keeps folks going through the hard times IS the right way. Given the historical record, the Jewish take on spiritual practice and deity has worked well for Jews. (How many 3000 year old communities of Greek, Roman, or Carthaginian Pagans remain? AFAIK, only Zoroastrians are also survivors from the Classical era). If skepticism or atheism are evidence-based as claimed, we must examine the lived evidence to judge whether belief is an effective, reasonable strategy for coping with adversity.

    Perhaps the atheist/skeptic questions are “Which human needs are being met by belief?” “What aspects of belief are most helpful?” “Whom is belief best suited for, and who should try other methods?” “Which other approaches are at least as efficacious as belief?”. Rationality isn’t condemning folks for using what works – that’s prejudiced cruelty. Rationality is finding and encouraging what works best in each instance.

    1. I agree that those are great questions. Unfortunately the answers, if you or I or anyone goes out to test them, will not actually help me. I, as a human, simply do not have the ability to reach into my own mind and cause myself to believe or disbelieve in something in response to evidence that it would be good for me to believe it – that level of willful self-deception is not available. If it turns out that belief in God has net positive value, then I must simply accept my impoverishment and move on.

      On the other hand, I *can* cause myself to change beliefs in response to evidence about their factual accuracy. I can ask things like, “What should I expect the world to look like given the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god? What should it look like given the nonexistence of such a god? How does the world actually look?”

  13. Be neither an athiest or a believer. Both positions suggest an attachment to mental positions. Words cannot capture reality, they can only point, so both terms did not apply.

    My 2¢:
    It does not matter what happens to us, only what we think about it. I won’t give example because we could never agree on what’s good or bad – because it’s ultimately subjective. The experiences we have – according to me – are lessons in consciously manifesting how you want to feel about life. Wanna suffer? Then your experience seems to focus on pain and discomfort and all the shitty bits. Wanna be happy? Then it’s a chance to discover more about how the challenges of life bring you closer to God, or brings people together or whatever it is that makes you happy. 

  14. It is possible to be at peace with cancer without referencing any gods.  It’s possible to feel no anger.  Really, it is.

  15. thank you for this article.    and I, for one, am grateful Xeni is still alive and with us.     and oddly, I was more penitent yesterday than years past.  and as a cancer survivor,  yeah,  well, yeah.

  16. Xeni expressed most of what I wanted to say in response to comments on Lana’s story. Think before you post a comment. What is your intent? Are you adding anything useful or just using an opportunity to express your beliefs?
    I also want to add that I’ve been speaking with Lana on the internet for quite awhile. Not once did she ask me why I was an atheist or try to sway me away from my thinking. It’s never been an issue in our friendship. Her beliefs shouldn’t be an issue with you.

    1. Speaking as a fellow cancer sufferer, I can tell you that the internet and real life are both filled with billions of references to religion with regard to this disease. Going through the stage of being angry at one’s god is the norm, not the exception.  People you barely know tell you they will pray for you.  Support groups are NOT supportive if you aren’t referring to their god while you talk.  This thread is one of the few places I’ve ever seen that hegemony challenged.

      Imagine what it would be like if a serious medical condition you suffer from was virtually always referenced from within the framework of, say, Hinduism.

      1. I don’t see the purpose or usefulness in challenging Lana on her beliefs.  Her story is not about questioning religion’s place in illnesses.  It’s about reconciling conflicting emotions with her already established belief in a god.  Do you not see the difference?  Are you not able to find appropriate places with the “billions of references to religion” to bring up your points?

        1. Why is her reaction to be respected and supported and mine to be questioned?

          (Small factual point: I have not challenged Lana on her beliefs, here or anywhere else.)

          1. I’m not sure if you’re understanding what my point is. I am an atheist. I have the same perspective as other atheists do with respect to religion being interjected into many aspects of our lives, whether we hold those particular beliefs or not. I don’t know what your religious beliefs are or are not. They are not relevant to her story. I don’t think it is being respectful to question someone’s belief in a god, merely because she told a story that includes a belief in a god.
            If, for example, she wrote, “Since I don’t believe in a god, I had a difficult time finding a person to talk to whom I felt comfortable with…”  Would it be appropriate or relevant for someone to post, “Well, it sounds like things would be easier if you accepted God. I don’t know why atheist’s can’t see this?”

          2. “I don’t think it is being respectful to question someone’s belief in a god, merely because she told a story that includes a belief in a god.”

            Show me where I did that.  What I said is that going through the stage where one is angry at one’s god is actually very common, not unusual at all in cancer.

            This would be the second time, in fact, that I am making a point of stating that I am not questioning your friend’s belief in a god.

            Perhaps your argument is with other posters, but it was easier to click on mine.

  17. thank you to those who spoke respectfully about my very personal story. thank you to those who actually read my post before commenting.

    i am dismayed at the number of folks who do not hesitate to make a lot of assumptions about what i wrote without even clicking through –– but that is more than offset by the kind and supportive comments from people with and without religious beliefs.

    1. “There is randomness that we cannot grasp defying any sense of justice.” I am still thinking about this beautiful sentence you wrote. I’m amazed that some read this and hear, “See? There is no God,” while others hear, “See? Only God knows his/her reasons.” I hear frustration and loss and search for purpose.
      You spoke to me of things personal and true and deeply familiar, but seen through a lens I’m not very familiar with at all. My opinion: sharing these things is one of the best forms of bravery. Thanks.

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