Monday, April 5, 2021

Death With Class

Miller Introduction to Judaism Class #15: This week (אי״ה), Abq Jew is scheduled to teach Class #15 in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program being offered this year (and next year!) by Congregation B'nai Israel of Albuquerque.

Miller Intro

What follows are Abq Jew's notes, sources, resources, and itinerary for teaching this class. Yes, it's sort of a hodgepodge. A medley, as they say in the music business. A mishmash, if you will. Or, if you won't, a grand and glorious potpourri. 

Stones On a Grave


Understanding Jewish practices toward illness and healing, particularly the mitzvah of bikkur holim. Exploration of Jewish ethics regarding end-of-life, including questions about life support, autopsy, organ donation, etc.
Overview of funeral and burial practices, as well as mourning practices including shiva, shloshim, and yahrtzeit. Jewish views on the afterlife. 

Judaism teaches us to approach life’s hardest moments with compassion
and community. In this class, we’ll explore the sacred practices that help us
navigate grief and heartache, and move from sadness to renewed life.

Abq Jew

Here are a few connections to songs, lectures, and writings that bear on this often difficult subject. Mostly taken from - where else? - the Abq Jew Blog.

Crossing the Bar

Crossing the Bar is a song based on an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem of the same name. This particular version was recorded by the bluegrass band Salamander Crossing from their album "Bottleneck Dreams."  

The poem itself is an allegory for death.  It was written near the end of Tennyson's life.  "Crossing the bar" could be interpreted to mean "crossing the sandbar" out into sea, transitioning from life into death.  

The Pilot is a symbol for God.  Tennyson wrote that "The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him...[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us."

The song itself is strangely beautiful in that even though it is a metaphor for death it isn't especially sorrowful.  There's a touch of reflectiveness here.

Bikkur Holim

Debbie Friedman’s Healing Prayer
Mi Shebeirach:  Rabbi Drorah Setel wrote a beautiful article about the creation of this prayersong in the Jewish Daily Forward.  The article begins:
As word spread that Debbie Friedman was gravely ill, people around the world prayed for her recovery. Many turned to “Mi Shebeirach,” her version of the traditional Jewish prayer for healing and probably her best-known song. Our prayers and our loving song did not prevent Debbie’s death, but neither were they offered in vain. Indeed, for Debbie, the purpose of “Mi Shebeirach” was about much more than physical healing.
The story of “Mi Shebeirach” begins in 1987 . . . .
Rabbi Drorah Setel is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and president of the Buffalo Board of Rabbis.  Rabbi Setel co-wrote the Mi Shebeirach with Debbie Friedman and is interviewed in the film  A Journey of Spirit.  Continue reading her article here.

Abq Jew Note:  This video will fill your heart and break it at the same time.

Kicking the Bucket

When Is It Over

Here is an ELI Talk by Dr Michael Slater (President of the Board of Kavod v'Nichum (Honor and Comfort), a non-profit educational and advocacy organization on end of life issues.
Living Jewishly Means Dying Jewishly, Too. 
In much of society today, death is to be avoided at all costs - in polite company and modern medicine alike. Jewish tradition, explains Dr. Michael Slater, has a very different approach. 
In a talk that is part memoir, part history, part communal call-to-action, we see the wisdom of Judaism as not only life-affirming, but death-affirming, as well.
Gail Rubin

Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death ® (based right here in Albuquerque!) says -

Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant,
talking about funerals won’t make you dead.
And your family will benefit from the conversation.

Jewish Mourning Rituals

Kavod Ha-Met
Honoring the Dead

And A Call for Chevre Kaddisha Volunteers: Abq Jew has often written about the important and holy work that the Chevre Kaddisha does in our Jewish community of Albuquerque.

It's the ultimate mitzvah, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz tells us - participating in a tahara, the ritual purification of the body of a Jewish person before that person is buried.

Nichum Avelim:
Comforting the Living

12 videos about Jewish death and mourning


And Then What?

Torah and Talmud and Zombies

But how does the World to Come actually work?  Well, you've got two ideas that compete with each other (in the sense that you only need one of them to answer the question):

  • Resurrection of the Body.  This is the high octane form of the afterlife.  Yes, God has the power to lift us up from the dead, and to enable us to . . . well, exactly what is hard to say.
  • Immortality of the Soul.  This is the unleaded afterlife.  Since we have no need for our physical components, they are jettisoned . . . well, exactly when is hard to say.

Where did these ideas come from?  Rabbi Gillman suggests that the idea of the soul and its immortality came from Plato & the Greeks.  (It did not, he says, come from within Judaism - our words nefeshneshama, and ruach originally meant something completely different.)

As for the idea of the dead rising from their graves - well, we're not really sure.  Probably not from within Judaism; probably not from the Egyptians (whose idea of the afterlife is very, very different from the Jews').  But maybe from the Persians, whose Zoroastrianism solved our theodical problem by positing duotheism - a Good God and an Evil God - which is, theologically, easier to deal with than monotheism.

And what did Jewish religion do with these competing ideas? Rabbi Gilman points out that Traditional Judaism refused to choose, and adopted both of them. (Not only adopted - required their belief, and claimed them to be Biblical.) Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, found the immortal soul easier to stomach than the idea of the Age of the Living Dead.

The Final Tisch; No Zombies

One Big Table:  As Abq Jew stated in Torah and Talmud and Zombies:

What Traditional Judaism has in mind [when we speak of resurrection] is the righteous sitting at tisch with The Holy One, Blessed Be He, scarfing down Leviathan chunks.
How does this work?  Here's an interesting view, reported by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his Ethics of the Sages: Pirke Avot: Annotated & Explained (available from the publisher, Jewish Lights, or from Abq Jew's Amazon Store):
Heaven and hell are a single feast, with everyone seated at a grand table overflowing with the finest food and drink.  The only rule is this: you must use the utensils provided, each being six feet in length.  Those who attempt to feed themselves with these tools starve, for they cannot maneuver the tools to reach their own mouths.  Those who learn to feed others are themselves fed in turn.  The first are in hell, the second in heaven, but the feast is common to them both.
Abq Jew finished reading Rabbi Neil Gillman's The Death of Death. In the final chapters, Rabbi Gillman dismisses the doctrine of the immortality of the soul - it's just not enough - and makes a very strong case for the traditional Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. 

Only resurrection of the body, says Rabbi Gillman, will prove God's supreme power, solve the problem of the misfortune of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked (tzaddik vi'ra lo, rasha vi'tov lo), and make each of our individual lives eternally meaningful.

Seat at Night
Sea at Night        Anton Melbye

Crossing the Bar

Yizkor Candle

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