Temple Israel, Summer 5782 (2022): Spiritual Explorations.
Rabbi’s Weekly Message, June 30, 2022
But that has not stopped people from cherishing definite ideas on the subject. What’s more: entire structures of behavior-- codes of piety-- have flowed from these beliefs. For many cultures, including Judaism, for much of its long history, the notion of facing a posthumous judgement was the ultimate “or else,” giving force to the faith’s commandments.
Therefore, this has not been an idle question. Ideals – even unprovable ones-- are never idle, if they influence actual behavior, and our hopes and fears regarding a posthumous destiny were long quite practical, in that sense.
In this series, I will proceed historically. History implies change and development. That is indeed what we will find. The first installment will look at the evidence from the Bible. We will see that in some ways, it differs from the more familiar world-picture that we will see in the second installment, devoted to Rabbinic Judaism. The topic of our third installment, examining the teachings of kabbaha (the mystical development of Judaism), is different yet again. For the past half millennium, kabbalah has been very influential in certain Jewish circles, and it remains a vital force today. The final installment will look at the widely-varying currents of modern Jewish thought.
But while change is part of the story, we will also see elements of core Jewish beliefs threading through the entire saga. What’s more: at every stage, we will see a concern for our beliefs to link up with the basic Jewish commitment to living this life meaningfully.
- Biblical Israel: We are Finite, but in the care of the Infinite God
We see this in the account of the creation of the human, Genesis 2:7. “The LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” This animating breath—a physical entity, not an immaterial soul-- is God’s gift. It is the way of the world that this gift is bestowed for a finite term. In Genesis 6:3, the ideal term is defined: “The LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh. Let his days be a hundred and twenty years.”
To be sure, there is more than one voice in the biblical chorus. Another voice regards death as the fruit of disobedience of God. But an important element of the biblical view is the notion that the human is naturally a being of limited duration, precisely because the human is animated matter.
This is not a theological problem for Biblical authors. A finite lifespan is accepted as part of God’s created world. In such a world, there is ample reason to praise and worship God, as Creator, and to direct one’s steps in line with God’s teaching. The Psalmist puts it poetically, in speaking about the animals:
All of them [the animals] look to You
To give them their food in its season.
When You give them, they gather it in,
When You open Your hand, they are sated with good.
When You hide Your face, they panic,
You withdraw Your breath and they perish,
And to the dust they return.
When You send forth Your breath, they are created,
And You renew the face of the earth. (Psalm 104:27-30)
In their naturally finite lifespans, humans are animals, too, albeit special animals with the possibility of added dimensions in our relationship with God. The arena for that relation is very firmly bounded by the span of one’s life. The Psalmist does not pull any punches here, explicitly affirming that “the human is likened to beasts that are doomed” (Psalm 49:13) and praying for deliverance from God “Before I depart and am not.” (Psalm 39:14)
What emerges from this is that, for most of the Hebrew Bible, the human yearning for transcendence is not expressed in terms of a hope for personal immortality, resurrection, or reincarnation. Those ideas are all found in later strata of Judaism, and in other religions, ancient and modern, but they are notably absent in most of the Hebrew Bible.
If the Israelite, shaped by the Biblical authors’ theology, was not looking for personal immortality, was there nonetheless some yearning for transcendence? Yes, indeed.
This sought-for transcendence of the limits of one’s natural life found expression in three domains: offspring, land, and most generally, remembrance.
The Bible contains numerous expressions of Divine blessings. Typically, those lists of blessings include offspring. Abraham’s progeny will be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5). One of the indices of having received blessing is seeing one’s children’s children, or even their own children. Again, the Psalmist expresses this poetically:
May the LORD bless you from Zion,
And may you see Jerusalem’s good
All the days of your life.
And may you see children’s children.
Peace upon Israel! (Psalm 128:5-6)
What if a person was not blessed with children? What would secure that person’s transcendence? Both Sarah and Rachel wrestled with infertility, and their solution, prior to being granted a child of their own, was to adopt a child. Adoption has remained an honorable course of action in Judaism, ever since. But there was another biblical solution, filled with dramatic possibility and also tension: the levirate marriage.
Illustration: School of Rembrandt, “Judah and Tamar”
Both in its narrative and its legal portions, the Bible reflects the idea that the larger family was a natural unit, and that it was responsible for doing what it could to safeguard the transcendence of a member of the family who had died childless. This is the idea behind the institution of “levirate marriage.” The levir was the brother of a man who had died without fathering children. The levir was commanded to marry his brother’s widow. The first child produced in that marriage would be reckoned as the continuation of the deceased. A man might refuse to become the levir, but he would be forever known as having chosen shame, not honor (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Why would someone refuse? He might have considered the obligation too costly to bear. When the time came to divide up the ancestral estate, the levir would have sustained a double burden. First, he would have incurred the expense of raising a son reckoned as his brother’s, not as his. Secondly, the existence of that son would guarantee that the division of the estate would leave less to the levir and his “own” offspring (remember, Biblical society was polygamous.)
Human nature inclining to greed, it is not surprising that two biblical narratives spotlight men unwilling to perform the function of levir. The first is the infamous Onan, in Genesis 38. He failed to fulfill his duty by his late older brother’s widow Tamar, and he died precipitously—the Bible suggesting that his death was a divine punishment. His father, Judah, having by then been bereaved of two of his three sons, was unwilling to send his youngest son, Shelah, into Tamar’s bed. Spurned, Tamar took matters into her own hands, and ultimately received her child from the unsuspecting Judah himself. For those who want to investigate this PG-13 narrative more thoroughly, I recommend that you read Genesis 38.
Illustration: William Hole, “Boaz and Ruth”
The second story also deals with the descendants of Judah, many generations later. The childless widow Ruth was entitled to marry a kinsman of her deceased husband, Mahlon, and she found herself in the care of just such a kinsman, the righteous Boaz. She approached him and reminded him of his levirate duty. He said that he would be honored to accept, but that another man was the more immediate relative. The next morning, he convened an assembly and publicly invited the relative to fulfill the family obligation. The man refused, whereupon Boaz married Ruth. Their child, Oved, proved to be the grandfather of King David. The moral of that story is that the man who refused to bear the expense of securing his dead kinsman’s memory found his own name lost to history—the Bible refers to him as “P’loni Almoni”, which means “Mr. So-and-So”. Conversely, the selfless Boaz and Ruth safeguarded the transcendence of the dead and were rewarded in their own offspring. God, indeed, is watching from a distance!
Illustration: The Daughters of Zelophehad, Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1908
That was the general case. The specific case was an allotment of the land by tribe, clan and family. In the Biblical conception, as we see in the real estate law of Leviticus 25, land was inalienable. It belonged to the family in perpetuity. If in distress, one could lease it, but only until the upcoming Jubilee.
That is the necessary background for understanding the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, Numbers 27 and 36. Their father had died, leaving no sons. Under the older inheritance law, his estate would have passed to his brothers and then to their sons, whereas his own daughters would have been cared for by their husbands, and, if widowed, by their sons. They protested to Moses, and God upheld their protest. They were permitted to inherit their late father’s share in the Land of Israel. Moreover, the change was generalized to any case where daughters, but no sons, survived their father’s demise.
We, today, tend to misunderstand their protest. We think that they were proto-feminists. I rather enjoy that misinterpretation, because it is of a piece with my feminist thinking in general. But I have to concede that the daughters themselves voiced a different rationale, based not on their rights, irrespective of gender, but rather on the value of preserving the name of their dead father. They argued on his behalf, not on their own: “Why should our father’s name be with- drawn from the midst of his clan because he had no son?” (Numbers 27:4) The force behind this protest was the belief that Zelophehad’s name could only be properly remembered if there was some plot of land in Israel associated with that name.
We have seen the focus on producing progeny and also on safeguarding property. But what was the deeper goal of these efforts? The point of these blessings—of having descendants and having one’s landholding remain inalienably the property of one’s family in perpetuity—was to safeguard one’s memory. The memory that one has lived was the abiding aspiration. Only the despairing Job could wish never to have been born (Job 3:3). The Israelite, not driven by grief out of his right mind, was grateful for his mortal span of days, and wished, above all, to be remembered, when those days had drawn to a close.
But that leads to the final lesson: to what end is the striving to preserve the memory that one had existed? Here, the Biblical approach to meaningful living is most clear. The purpose of being remembered is to safeguard the memory of one’s righteousness.
Good is the man who shows grace and lends [to the needy]
He sustains his words with justice.
For he shall never stumble,
An eternal remembrance the just man shall be. (Psalm 112:5-6)
The bottom line is that our human lives are a limited-time opportunity to fulfill God’s purpose in peopling the world. Righteous living makes you, in all your finitude, the junior partner of God, the Infinite. While mortal yourself, you have attached yourself to the Eternal. For the Bible, that is not only enough to satisfy one’s yearning; it is the crown of life.