Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Temple Israel, Summer 5782 (2022): Spiritual Explorations.

EPILOGUE: A PERSONAL UNDERSTANDING

            Having shown that Judaism admits of several different ways of approaching, let alone answering, the question, “what lies beyond death?” it would be presumptuous for me to close this set of teachings with anything approaching a judgment of which answer is best. But I would like to share with you what works for me.
            Personally, I feel the most resonance with the Biblical understanding—the ideas that we covered in the first installment of this series.
  • The biblical approach teaches me to appreciate the precious gift of life all the more, in the knowledge that life is a loan of God’s animating breath.
  • In its focus on the national dimension of our relationship with God, rather than the personal question of an individual, sentient Afterlife, Biblical eschatology reminds me that the world does not revolve around me.I find that a bracing antidote to the narcissistic tendencies of contemporary culture.
  • I also appreciate the goal of the main line of biblical thinking about our ultimate aspirations: that, instead of regarding this life as mere prelude to ultimate reality, we make this life a worthy concretization of God’s vision for the human tenure on this precious planet.
           That said, I certainly value aspects of what later Jewish generations added to the “tel” of tradition.
  • I savor the nuanced thought of the Rabbinic evaluation of “this world” and “the World- to-Come”. It is well expressed in the maxim of Rabbi Ya’akov (Pirke Avot 4:21), “Repentance and good deeds, even for one hour, are better than eternal life in the World-to-Come; nevertheless, one hour of bliss in the world to come is more exquisite than all of life in this world.” Rabbi Ya’akov is reminding us that we may conceive of the World-To-Come as incomparably better than anything in this current world; but even so, this world, right here and now, is where we can make a different future than would otherwise be the case. Doing right, rather than the reward for doing right, is the highest value in our system.
  • I resonate with the concern for justice that gave form and specific content to our proto-rabbinic and rabbinic speculations about posthumous reward and punishment.This yearning for justice, regardless of the details of the picture, is one of the most telling of Jewish concerns.
  • The basic addition to the rabbinic picture provided by medieval Jewish thought, that the living and the dead are, in some sense, an unbroken chain of generations, provides me with considerable comfort. As one who remembers vividly my own parents and grandparents, but who is also involved in mentoring and loving children and grandchildren, I feel this “chain of generations” from both sides.It is a crucial part of my identity. What I glean from the world-picture that gave rise to the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is the recognition that the specifics of our family history can be spiritually meaningful. Our identities, in relation to the other generations in our circle of shalom, are an irreplaceable part of that self-definition.
  • The desire to marry the Jewish traditions about the Undiscovered Country with the finest in secular thought, apparent in some ancient and medieval, but especially in modern, Judaism, appeals to my desire to integrate my Jewish views with that which I accept as true in general.Watertight compartments did not work well on the Titanic, and I don’t trust the attitude that “this is true for me as a Jew, even though the reverse is true for me as a thinking individual in general” will provide sufficient buoyancy, in the long run.
  • Finally, the “anti-metaphysical” bent of contemporary (non-Orthodox) Jewish thought accords with my basic understanding of religion. This takes a bit of explaining—if readers indicate interest, I would be happy to devote a later teaching to it—but here is a nutshell presentation:
           We use language in different ways.If I say, “he broke my toy,” and then I say, “he broke my heart,” I am not only switching the direct object. I am also employing a superficially-identical structure to express something different in kind, not only in specific content.
           Every discourse that we use to get through life needs the practical, prosaic, problem-solving language of the everyday.So does the discourse of Religion. People ask me, as a rabbi, for behavioral guidance, and I will not help them if I answer them in Zen koans or e.e.cummings poetry (or maybe I would help them! But that’s not the contract, since I am their rabbi, not their Zen master or guru.) But religious language is not confined to this practical domain. By its very nature, religion is our attempt to connect with the Transcendent, to make ourselves transparent to the Infinite, even as we go through our finite lives.
           I believe—at a deep level—that when we use religious language to speak about the world after our demise, we are not in the prosaic, problem-solving domain of speech. We are in the realm of aspiration, not of concretization.Poetry, allusion, figurative language—those are the correct tools for that expression.
           With this understanding, I can be comfortable with terms such as Gan ‘Eden (and even Gehinnom, when I think about what an Arafat or his ilk deserve). But I do not want to convey the thought that those are regions the way that Norfolk is a region. They are more like Mayberry than Maywood, more like Avalon than Allentown.
           Speaking of the Torah, the Rabbis tell us, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” I feel that way about Torah, most broadly construed—the instruction in which our tradition has memorialized its encounter with the Divine.
           Looking at the entire corpus of Jewish thoughts, the one that works best for me, in contemplating death and beyond, is the concluding couplet of the ‘Adon Olam prayer:
B’yado afkid ruchi, b’et Ishan v’a-ira
v’im ruchi, g’viyati, Adonai li, v’lo eera.
When I wake, as when I sleep, my spirit in God’s care I place.
Body and spirit in God’s keep, I have no fear, held in God’s grace.

           I’d be content to have that be the last word, inscribed on my tombstone.