Monday, 30 January 2017

Death - and what comes after

Dear Rabbi Jonathan,

Sadly, my Father passed away recently, after his long illness. As a result, I have been thinking a good deal about what happens when one dies, and I was wondering if you could provide a Jewish perspective on that part of life? I have received the copies of A Judaism for the 21st Century, and the Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition prayer book from your office. I look forward to begin reading them when I return home in the next week or so.



Rabbi Jonathan responded (at length - sorry!)
Hi Jane,

Thanks so much for letting me know.  I am sorry to hear about your mother's death and the loss it must be to you - but at the same time it doesn't sound as if her last months were very comfortable, and sometimes there is blessing along with sadness, and especially when the dying person and the family have come to terms with the inevitable and said their goodbyes with love and mutual support.  It is course true that we will all die - and that there are better and worse ways of doing so - but animals, nature - even rocks and mountains, eventually die or wear away (even before we advanced humans so selfishly started helping the process along!) - and that only God is truly Eternal.

You ask for a Jewish perspective on 'that part of life' and I hope you draw some comfort from the following - in Judaism we believe that the soul too is eternal - that in some sense it returns to 'the shelter of God's wing'.

Other than that we have a variety of beliefs - but overall I would say that we don't know what, if anything, is after death, and that our emphasis is on living this life as well and fully as we can.  If we have some concept that we may be judged when we die, we at least know that God will not be unreasonable:  God will not ask me 'Why was I not like Moses?, but 'Why was I not like the Jonathan I had the potential to be?  But, because we don't believe that anyone has actually died and come back (and I don't mean to decry stories of peace, white lights and other 'near death or temporary death experiences), we simply don't know what, if anything, is after life.

Biblical Judaism (say 1500 BCE to 70 CE) seems fairly pragmatic.  Over and over, Torah repeats, our ancestors got old or sick, they lay down, they may have had a chance to call the family together and tell them they loved them - or other home truths - and then they die.  Sometimes the phrase 'gathered to meet their ancestors' is used but in all probability that means that, once their flesh has gone and only bones remain, they are pushed into the collection with their ancestors bones. or gathered into a pot (ossuary) and put with the other pots (and perhaps believing, along with that action, the 'obvious' idea that the 'life force' that animated their body had returned to join the life force that had also animated their ancestors before them).

Rabbinic Judaism (starting say 586 BCE and taking over from Biblical on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) had a variety of problems to resolve, and the idea of life after death, familiar from the Egyptian tradition, seemed to address a key challenge - that of reward and punishment. It might seem that God was not always rewarding the observant, as Torah repeatedly promises, or punishing the wicked - but just wait till they died!  Then the virtuous who had lived a life of poverty and illness would be rewarded in perpetuity - whilst the rapacious sinners who seemed to spend their affluent lives by their pools and travelling in luxury to far flung, verdant oases would suffer for ever after they died!

It is true that they taught that life after death was not only the soul but body too, and the idea of a physical resurrection (the literal meaning of 'M'chayei metim') led to burial of bodies facing Jerusalem, so that, at the appropriate time (perhaps the day of Judgment?) they would all travel to Jerusalem where they would emerge alive again. This is also the reason why Judaism has traditionally been opposed to cremation - not only is it disrespectful to the body that has been the container and carrier of the holy (the soul), but that God (who can do anything) can apparently not recreate a person if their 'luz' (cockyx) has been destroyed?  (If one was to argue against cremation for Jews today, I think that the disposal of so many of our people by this means in the Shoah - Holocaust - is a stronger argument, though it should be noted that many Shoah survivors choose to be cremated, so that their bodies are disposed of as were so many of their family members).  Though by no mains 'mainstream', I should also mention the kabbalistic (mystical) belief in 'gilgul' (rolling), transmigration of souls.  Once a person dies, their soul is reborn as a new baby (with the opportunity to cleans it of past sins).  If you look hard enough, you can find many things in 4000 years of tradition!

I believe that just as Biblical Judaism transitioned into Rabbinic Judaism over some hundreds of years as the world and Jewish situation changed (between the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE to the destruction of the Second temple by the Romans in 70 CE), so now we are several hundred years into a transition to what we might call 'Autonomous Judaism' which started with the 'Enlightenment' and where Rabbis, if they are to survive at all in the long term, must transition to being teachers and guides and companions on the journey, rather than the 'authorities' of Judaism.  That is the way I view myself and my colleagues.  And in regard to your question, what do we believe about 'Life after death', or rather, 'Death and what follows'?  Drawing on the vast and wide range of beliefs I have mentioned (especially now with the help of the internet!), a Jew today can believe what they feel is most genuine and convincing to them.  In the area of belief, as long as it is not viewed as the sole and exclusive truth, a Jew has a lot of freedom and no one to tell them they can't believe - though they can engage in discussion about where the belief stems from, whether it is a fair deduction from Jewish teaching and experience, and whether they wish to invite them into their home and community!  So, for example, Jews who chose to believe in Jesus as God or son of God, distinct from every other human being, are well outside normative Jewish belief, which acknowledges Jesus probably existed as a charismatic Jewish healer living in the Galilee, a child of God like the rest of us.  To return to the question - and my response:  I believe that the (p'shat) straightforward reading of the Torah rings true.  We are born, we live, we die.  Life after death (or life after we have died) is influenced by our life, our children, our friends and families, our good as well as our bad deeds.  The world (and the unknown future) is not the same as if we had never existed.  We will live on in our children, and/or those we have touched and influenced, and their memories of us.  But I feel comfortable that when I finally close my eyes and cease to breathe, I will be in permanent oblivion, more restful than the deepest restful, dreamless and unaware sleep, and safely 'in the shelter of God's wings' (of course this is a metaphor - God does not have wings or any other bodily parts - God is an all embracing invisible spirit permeating the entire creation).     

When a loved one dies, it is traditional to say the words of the Mourner's Kaddish (page 598 in Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition, and see also the English readings from page 592 leading up to it).  The Mourner's Kaddish (Sanctification) praises God, maker of the universe.  It does not mention the dead - effectively what it is saying is that, even at times of great pain and loss, when are hearts are breaking, we still acknowledge God, who created the rhythms of the universe, including the cycles of nature and life.  

The funeral is done as soon as possible after death (out of respect for the body and the knowledge that living with your loved ones unburied is the most painful time, and practically, because decomposition in hot climates and without cooled morgues commences very quickly.  I am not sure how Christian burials started being done later, but believe that is why it became necessary to have the perfume of flowers accompanying the burial).  For the first week, the mourners traditionally stay at home, and sit on low stools (to be near the earth, either reminding us of our own mortality and/or of being closer to our loved ones) - this is called 'sitting shivah'.  Because they stay at home, but need a 'minyan' (quorum of 10 which makes a minimal community rather than individuals, so sometimes this service in the home is known as the 'Minyan') to say the Mourner's Kaddish, people traditionally come round to hold at least the evening service with them, and bring food so they don't have worry about mundane things like shopping and cooking, and to keep them company and talk about their loved ones. If you don't know what to say, the tradition offers you the formula 'I wish you long life', though I'd be cautious about saying that to an older person who has just lost their lifetime partner.  It may be the last thing they want at that moment.  If you don't know what to say, say nothing.  Just being there is important.  Hold their hand if appropriate, or give a hug. That's just as effective - certainly better than some of the terrible and trite comments like 'God took them early because they were such a wonderful soul'. Let them speak if they want to, or not. 

At the funeral and shivah or minyan, the formula 'Adonai natan vAdonai lakach' is said.  This literally means 'God gives and God takes'. Since I believe that God gives us all finite life, and sometimes terrible natural or human tragedies happen, but God never 'takes' life, I prefer the interpretive translation that you'll find in our prayer book after the prayer for lighting the candle after a funeral (with the prayer for lighting a yahrzeit candle), on page 619, by Rabbi Frank Hellner: 'God has given, and now God has received back'.  

The month from death is known as 'shloshim' (thirty), when they can go out and the mourning is a step less intense, and then the reminder of the year it is a step up again.  

The Mourner's Kaddish prayer is traditionally said for a year after the death, until the first 'Yahrzeit' (Yahrzeit is Yiddish for 'year-time'), anniversary of the death, when the formal mourning is said to be over, and the final step is made back into normal life, albeit without your loved ones physical presence. Some years ago, research showed that this mourning pattern, marking the end of the first week, the first month and the first year, was the optimal way to recover from bereavement. The first and subsequent anniversaries are marked by a 'Yahrzeit candle' which burns for 24 hours or so, on every anniversary, as we particularly remember our loved one, and mention their name and say Kaddish in synagogue.  These traditions can be observed by someone who is Jewish even if their loved one was not, of course.  It is to help the bereaved to manage and come to terms with their grief - and gain some reassurance and support from the idea that both God and their community are still there for them and in some way share their loss - they are not left to grieve on their own. 

I hope that is useful.  It was longer than I anticipated, and I am glad to have had the chance to lay it down in these terms.

Finally, a Progressive version of the tradition is to say to a mourner 'Hamakom y'nakhem et sha'ar ha'avelim' - May God grant you consolation along with all mourners.  

Rabbi Jonathan

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