Mortality and the Jews

A reader asks:

Is the Jewish perspective that mortality is a bummer? If so, that is not very comforting, and it doesn’t seem useful… What does Judaism say about death?

GREAT question! There is no single “correct” Jewish teaching about what happens when we die. In every era of Jewish thought, there have been a number of thoughts circulating on the subject. In Biblical texts, people are thought to “go down to Sheol” when they die (Genesis 42:38.) Sheol is a dark place full of dust, thought to be somewhere underground.

At some point in the Second Temple period (500 BCE – 70 CE) Jews began to speculate on a resurrection of the dead. We can see this in the books of Isaiah and Daniel, for instance, “Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades.” in Isaiah 26:19. However, references to this in rabbinic literature are vague and contradictory. Some references seem to be to an “end of the world” resurrection, and some to a resurrection that will take place with the coming of Moshiach, a military leader who will revive the nation.

Modern Jewish thinkers occupy an entire range of possibilities. On the Orthodox end of the spectrum, there is a belief in an immortal soul and at some future point, a resurrection of the body. Many liberal Jews believe in an immortal soul, but without specifics about where or what it is. Some mystical Jews believe that souls are immortal, but that they may occupy different bodies over history (a sort of Jewish reincarnation.) Some Jews believe that life is limited to this life, and this life only, that when we die, that’s it.

One thing that all forms of Judaism agree upon: there is no Hell such as that described by Christians or Muslims. Ideas about Heaven range from the rabbis’ vision of a heavenly Study Hall to some vaguely pleasant future existence.

The truth is, Judaism does not focus on the next life in the way that Christianity and Islam do. For Jews, this life is the immediate concern. The next life, if there is one, we leave in the hands of the Eternal. Our concern is this life. 

Hearing this, sometimes Christians ask what incentive Jews have to be good, since we neither fear punishment in Hell nor look forward to a specific set of rewards in Heaven. What a Jew seeks is a meaningful life, and the way to give our lives meaning is to live this life as well as we can. A life of Torah is a life spent trying to make this world better. Jews differ on exactly the best way to go about doing that, but it is the thing that we all have in common.

So is mortality a bummer? Yes, in the sense that this life is full of good things that will come to an end when we die, and relationships which will be forever altered by that death. But mortality also gives us a sense of urgency about doing good in this world, and about giving our brief lives meaning. Death presses us to make the most of our lives.

You can get a sense of the vagueness of Jewish belief about afterlife in the prayer El Male Rachamim, God Full of Mercy, which is chanted at every Jewish funeral. Whether one takes the images as literal or as metaphor, they suggest that the end of life is a return to the Unity that is the Eternal God, but that the dead also find immortality in the hearts of the living.

God filled with mercy,
dwelling in the heavens’ heights,
bring proper rest
beneath the wings of your Presence,
amid the ranks of the holy and the pure,
illuminating like the brilliance of the skies
the souls of our beloved and our blameless
who went to their eternal place of rest.
May you who are the source of mercy
shelter them beneath your wings eternally,
and bind their souls among the living,
that they may rest in peace.
And let us say: Amen.

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The Interfaith Family Funeral

Articles about interfaith families usually focus on the interfaith couple and their children: making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, making it work. But as most married couples can attest, when we marry we marry not only our beloved, but also all his or her relatives.  And usually it’s still a matter of making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, and making it work.

But when it comes time for a funeral, things can become painful and complicated very quickly, because death is terrifying and loss is excruciating. Even the calmest, most rational people are at their least rational in the time of bereavement. Tradition, which may not be important at any other time, suddenly looms large. And as outreach expert Kathy Kahn once taught me, “We do not get do-overs for funerals.” The emotional stakes are very high for funerals.

So everyone is in a lot of pain, and often there are no written instructions about what the departed wanted for the funeral. Jewish burial and mourning practices are very detailed and very precise, and in many ways they come into conflict with the traditions of other religions and regions. These conflicts can set us up for painful adjustments and conversations.

For instance, I recently helped a student plan his return to Alabama for a Southern Baptist funeral. (I have changed details for his privacy.) There would be a visitation at the funeral home of many hours, with the embalmed body of the departed at the focal point of the room. There would be an open casket service. Afterwards, there might be a meal for the family, and then the funeral would be over. My student said, with anguish, “We don’t look at dead bodies, rabbi! I hate that they are going to embalm my grandfather!” So we talked about ways for him to navigate the funeral without looking at the deceased (in Jewish tradition, we do not look at a dead person, out of respect and kindness.) We talked about and rehearsed what to say to people who wanted to comfort him with talk about Jesus or about the appearance of the dead. Then we talked about arranging Jewish mourning with his Jewish community when he gets home. A tough loss is going to be tougher because he is Jewish and his family is not.

In other cases, I have assisted families in planning funerals that would meet the needs of both the Jewish and Christian relatives.  Even if there is agreement about “no open casket,” the Catholic side of the family may want to say a rosary together at some point, for comfort, even if the dead person is actually Jewish. My role as officiant is often to assist in explaining why (1) the Jews don’t want to be there for the rosary, and may not want to hear much about it, either, and (2) the Catholics really need the rosary for comfort, that they intend no insult to the dead.  You can insert many other practices for “rosary.” Sometimes there is no way to accommodate both traditions, and then the challenge is to help the family make choices in such a way that the relationships of the living are preserved intact and the feelings of all are acknowledged.

The best I can tell you is that if you are anticipating a death in your interfaith family, think ahead and think lovingly not only of the person you are about to lose, but of the people with whom you are about to be left behind. Talk with clergy early. Recognize that even if the person who died is of one tradition, family members of another tradition will need support and care. Let the funeral home know early in the process that yours is an interfaith family.

If you are not in the part of the family in charge of planning, recognize that planning a funeral is complicated and is usually done very quickly, without time to consult with every individual in the family. Take responsibility for your needs and emotions. It is OK to say, “I don’t want to participate in X,” but it is better not to combine that with “how dare you suggest such a thing.” Figure out what you can do to meet your needs and to honor the dead.

When my father died, I did not view his body. I sat with my family at the funeral Mass, but I did not take communion. I said “Amen” to prayers that I could affirm. I had a pocket sized book of Psalms with me to read when prayers were said that I couldn’t affirm. In that book I had a copy of the Kaddish; after the graveside service was concluded, I quietly stood beside his grave and said Kaddish. I didn’t make a production of it. At the meal afterwards, when I saw that everything on the table was stuff I did not eat, I asked the kitchen what they had that might work. Fortunately, all unadorned veggies are kosher.

It is possible to navigate these difficult things, but it is easier to do it with support. I wish I had asked my friends and colleagues back home to support me in sitting shiva. I didn’t do that, and regret it now. My shiva time, such as it was, happened on an airplane with my son and it wasn’t enough. This is my own fault: I didn’t ask for what I needed from my Jewish community. I won’t make that mistake again.

The point of all this is to say that funerals are tough for those in interfaith families. Ask for the support of your clergy (of both traditions, if possible.) Tell others what you need, but try to keep in mind that it is hard for everyone, and you may not be able to get everything you want. Be kind not only to others, but also to yourself.

If you are anticipating a loss in your family, I wish you comfort in the arms of family and friends. Ask for support from your faith community in order to get what you need. Know that others have walked this road, so you are not alone.

A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)
“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!

Questions, not Answers

WRNLogowide2

I am one of a group of rabbis who post on Kol Isha (Voice of the Woman), the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Today was my day to post, and so I’m going to direct you over there for today’s thoughts on Questions, not Answers.

Honestly, after writing that one, I’m all out of words.

“Baruch Dayan Emet” – Why Do We Bless God When Someone Dies?

Angel of Grief - Hill Family
Angel of Grief (Photo credit: Mike Schaffner)

The traditional Jewish response to news of a death, any death, is “Baruch Dayan emet,” “Blessed is the true Judge.”

Here are some reasons for this ritual:

1. If there is a ritual formula to say when I get shocking news, I am less likely to say something inappropriate.  Death is solemn, and even when it is expected, it can be a shock. People say stupid things when they are shocked. Having a script for the first few moments can be very helpful.

2. The statement acknowledges that I do not know the sum of that person’s life. I am not qualified to stand in judgment upon them. By saying that only God is so qualified, I either affirm faith that God is the only true judge, or (if I am not a believer in a personal God) I acknowledge that only God, if there were such a person, can sit in judgment.

3. Making a statement of humility (“I cannot judge”) reminds me not to say something stupid with my next words.

4. If the death is tragic or inexplicable, it is a way of saying, “I do not understand how this could have happened” without starting a conversation about the possibilities. It keeps us away from platitudes that might get in the way of healthy grief, or other statements that might be unhelpful to the mourners.

5. The longer form of the blessing appears first in the Mishnah Berachot 9:2 (“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the Universe, who is the True Judge.” We are told in that Mishnah that this is a blessing to say at the reception of any bad news. Rabbi Louis Rieser teaches that this is a way of acknowledging the Presence of God at a moment of high emotion, when we are most overwhelmed by loss.

6. The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we human beings are relentless with our words. By providing a simple ritual of humility with many possible interpretations, Jewish tradition gives us a container for our words at a time when they can do terrible harm. There is no need to say anything more, after “Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner or stand as a mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life, and with these words clear the way for the long process of grief.