Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Tenfold: Judith, and a professor lecturing on the Book of Job

My biggest fear when lecturing is causing an existential crisis of faith for a student. It’s happened to me twice. The first time. Judith had tears in her eyes as I deconstructed the book of Job. I felt cool for being flippant with the text, I was young and coming after all. I stopped to ask if everything was okay. Choking back tears, Judith explained Job is her favorite biblical book.

When diagnosed with MS at 13 years old, Judith couldn’t figure out how she wronged God to warrant such a fate. It was the book of Job that helped her see she had done nothing wrong to warrant this and, like Job, hardship didn’t keep her from creating a new way of life while grieving for a time she no longer had. Judith taught the class the wisdom of this biblical book.

Job endured his friends’ blame for being sick; he must have wronged God. Judith, like Job, felt cast out of her life and community. And just as Job’s companions blamed him for his illness, Judith first blamed herself for having MS .

Someone, perhaps her pastor, directed her to Job. Judith read and learned Job’s suffering came without a known cause. He had wronged no one and understood that hardship sometimes comes without explanation. One must grieve, Judith explained, one must not attempt to cheat despair by hiding from it, one must learn to live with it. She interpreted Job’s sickness as a symptom of his agony. There’s no way, she spelled out, that Job stopped grieving for losing his first ten children, just as Judith still grieved for the control of her body that was no longer within reach. Creating life each day was still within her. In fact, she had to create much more of herself than she had when able-bodied. Designing was easier before her MS diagnosis.

Judith created an outstanding life, not just for her, but for all those around her, giving more joy to others than anyone else I’ve met. Her warmth always produced a wonderful class atmosphere. She wasn’t shy, her tongue had few guards. Judith had a lot to teach us. She also cracked us up. Every class she took with me was better because she was in it.

When first meeting Judith, I was impressed with her wheelchair and asked if I could take it for a spin. Laughing, she said, “yes, but don’t wipe out, it’s fast.” As I pushed the pedal to the metal, I wiped out. I can still hear laughter as I made sure I wasn’t bleeding anywhere. I was fine.

One day, Judith came to tell me she was excited about the end of the year goodbye senior formal. She had a new man in her sights to take her. He declined her invitation. Another young man also said, no. Judith then asked me to take her. I said, “I’d love to, but I can’t as a faculty member.” I thought I would get in trouble taking her (a student) to a dance. A week later Judith told me she had found a date, her dad was going to take her. My heart fell to my toes.

I went to ask my department chair if I could take her. “Yes!, he answered, and chided me for saying no, and told me the department would pay for my ticket. I don’t remember if the department paid for Judith’s ticket.

Judith insisted upon walking into the ballroom instead of riding in. She was grand, the queen of the ball. We had a wonderful time sitting with her friends and some faculty members she liked, eating fancy food and dancing to wondrous music. Judith danced without her wheelchair. She, too, helped create one of my best memories.

I have taught Job over 20 times since that class. I pay Judith’s lessons forward to this day. One must never short change grief, but one must also never lose sight that no matter how bad it is, one can create a different way. It’s difficult, Judith’s challenges showed us this.

I heard from Judith after over a decade of being out of touch. She’s married and has created a incredible world for herself and family. She also told me how much I meant to her. I’m writing this to let her know she changed my understanding of Job and life. When down for the count, I visit memories of Judith to remind me I am creative and play a role in creating the environments in which I live. Judith taught me that my responses are a chance to create new ways.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College