Jewish Emphasis on Life Makes Death Rituals a Gift to World by the Forward

Jewish Emphasis on Life Makes Death Rituals a Gift to World

It’s sometimes said that religion originated out of the fear of death. We all face the abyss, and we all grieve when our loved ones pass away. From this utter meaninglessness, the theory goes, myths of meaning arise.

A review of Biblical literature, however, calls this theory into question. Unlike many indigenous and shamanic traditions, unlike other ancient Near Eastern religions, and certainly unlike Christianity, Islam, and later strands of Judaism, the Bible is strikingly uninterested in what happens after we die. Theologians chase after scraps – a mention of Sheol in Genesis 42:38 and Isaiah 14:11, a witch’s séance in 1 Samuel 28:3-25. If “what happens after we die” is so important, why is it not mentioned in any of the core passages of the Bible?

And what scant evidence there is, is contradictory. Despite the above (and other) references to Sheol and life after death, Psalm 115:17 tells us that “the dead do not praise God” (a text which has not stopped generations of Christians and Jews from depicting heaven as a place where the dead do exactly that). And Job laments that death is an eternal sleep. (Job 3:11-19)

I bring all of us this up not out of academic interest, but because the striking, almost shocking disregard for the afterlife in these strata of the Jewish tradition should resonate with our own sensibilities. Although some still cling to various beliefs in the afterlife, surely those of us whose worldviews are shaped by science do not. Our hearts still yearn – more on this below – but our rational faculties understand that heaven and hell are relics of earlier ways of thinking.

What happens after we die? Only agnosticism is justified here. If Occam’s Razor – the principle that the simplest explanation is probably the right one – holds, then what happens after we die is a ceasing of brain function; possibly the release of DMT, the chemical in the pineal gland that creates the near death experience (and is sampled ahead of time by some psychedelic enthusiasts); and then – that’s it, subjectively speaking. At some point, there is a last moment. Then, no more moments.

Of course, Occam’s Razor was originally a philosophical position meant to prove religious ideas (specifically, the existence of God), not disprove them. It’s not clear what the “simplest explanation” of a phenomenon actually is. Perhaps the “soul” really is an ontological entity, neuroscientific evidence to the contrary, and if so, perhaps it exists independently of the body. Who knows.

Yet as someone who has experienced a heavy amount of illness and death among my circle of loved ones this year, I’m not inspired by these attempts to rescue the idea of immortality from the clutches of scientific reasoning.

First, this is not how I think we ought to live. When reason and reflection lead us to question a comforting idea, we shouldn’t plug our ears and prolong ignorance. Whatever an authentic life is, it must have a close relationship with truth. That is true for climate change, true for our tribal and nationalistic commitments, true for our prejudices – and true for our superstitions and myths.

Our best data tells us that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the well-functioning brain. There’s no there there, no “me” running the show – just the appearance of “me” that is actually part of the show. That’s what the evidence suggests. Not only is there not a soul after I die, there’s not a soul right now either.

I don’t find this attempt at rigorous thinking to be depressing – I find it inspiring. Thoreau wanted to “front the essential facts of life.” We should similarly aspire.

I also find this account to be a source of comfort. There is a last moment, it seems. Suffering, joy, subjectivity – all have and endpoint. It is unimaginable, but it appears to be the case. When I have yielded to it, this view yields a great peacefulness.

And a great affirmation – into life, as Franz Rosenzweig said at the conclusion of his great Star of Redemption. Because this existence is all there is (or at least, all we can be sure of), it is what matters. How richly have we lived? How much have we loved? How much suffering have we alleviated? How many lives have we touched?

Each of these questions, I think, is more profound than “is there life after death.”

Imagine if we as an American Jewish community affirmed and underscored those parts of our tradition which resonate with this view. To be sure, it is only one view of many expressed in Jewish history. Faced with the existence of evil unpunished and good unrewarded, Talmudic rabbis held that this whole world is but an entryway to the next one. Imagining (or experiencing) webs of spiritual connection, Kabbalists held that we all live many lives, returning again and again in the transmigration of souls. Maimonides, despite obvious reservations, felt compelled to concede that Judaism taught the resurrection of the dead.

I do not mean to denigrate these perspectives, or insist that the more materialistic one is somehow more authentic. It is one view among many.

But it is one suited to our cultural moment. Myths of the afterlife, like other supernatural stories, turn the rational away from religion. And I am struck, time and again, by how many people are relieved to learn that they don’t have to believe this stuff to be good Jews. American Judaism has been so influenced by Christianity that it has unwittingly adopted its view that to be religious is to believe certain things. And if you are an “unbeliever,” you are not religious.

Nonsense. Only one of the ten commandments is about belief – and fewer than 10% of the 613. The world stands on Torah, Sacred Service, and Deeds of Lovingkindness – not belief in pearly gates. For some, of course, “Sacred Service” implies theism – but it needn’t. What matters is how we act.

I am not suggesting that the lack of an afterlife be the center of a new Jewish marketing campaign. The idea is silly, and anyway I have no interest in marketing Judaism, or in convincing people that they would be happier if they were like me.

But I am suggesting that belief should not be the prerequisite for the transformative power of ritual. I know firsthand that the heart still yearns for what the mind has disavowed. Those yearnings are sacred, they are real, and they can find fulfillment in rituals – like shiva, kaddish, and the cheshbon nefesh for those nearing death.

Perhaps because of Judaism’s emphasis on life, Jewish death rituals are often beautiful, stark, and wise. They are a gift we can give to the world – perhaps first and foremost to that majority of American Jews alienated from traditional belief structures. They offer mourning without myth.

And they offer ways to think about ritual in general, foregrounding the personal, backgrounding the myth.

For all these reasons – the courageous coexistence with truth, the humanistic valuing of the this-worldly, the affirmation of action over belief, and the capacity of ritual to evoke the nonrational – precisely the conception of death that some see as capitulation, I see as an invitation.

In the great silence, there is peace — and sadness.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Jewish Emphasis on Life Makes Death Rituals a Gift to World


Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

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