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A Jewish Perspective on Death

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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A Jewish perspective


Ahh, where to begin! Perhaps at the beginning, with birth! Every child, Jews in general believe, is born with a pure soul. At birth it has, in equal measure, the potential to do bad and the potential to do good, and we go through life with these choices constantly presenting themselves (I think we all know what that feels like!) Generally very very few of us are totally good (in fact one tradition suggests only 36 people in every generation!) but equally very few of us are very very bad. Sometimes we get it right in life, and sometimes we get it wrong. But, ultimately, God knows both the good and the bad we do, and we have to hope that one will balance the other. A famous passage of the Talmud (a similar version is also found in the Qur'an 2:56) teaches that:


If a person takes a life, it is as if they have killed a whole world, but one who saves a life, it is as if they have saved a whole world


Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5


Thus it seems to me the potential contained in one human life is enormous, and that goes for each and every one of us, whether we or those around us see it.


Which is it?


When it comes to death, things get a bit more complicated for a Jew. There are lots of Jewish teachings on what happens to us when we die, from reincarnation to resurrection, judgment day to cleansing periods. There is also the question of whether we go to heaven or our continued existence is the mark our deeds leave on the world after we have gone. I have my personal favourites, but if I'm honest, I have to say, I just don't know, and in many ways, I think this is what Judaism wanted to achieve in not producing a definitive answer. Perhaps it isn't for us to know, and in not knowing exactly what the world to come will be like, we are forced to concentrate on this life, and on the impact we can have in this world. This is not to say Jews do not believe in an afterlife (and I really hope there is one!!) but that we should worry more about living this life well and right, rather than always focusing on the end goal, which we can't know much about anyway!


Strange but helpful


In May 2006 I had a very interesting experience which I think adds something to this discussion. I was attending a conference in Sweden, when on the Shabbath morning in the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, one of the wardens of the synagogue approached me and, with a concerned look, asked how my father was. I stumbled over my reply. He cut in with, 'It's something in his head.' There was no way he could have known that, three days earlier, we had been informed that my dad would be returning to hospital for his second lot of brain surgery in six months. While I was looking rather stunned, the warden explained: 'I just see things'. And he ushered me into his office, where we spent the next hour talking. The things he was able to relate to me he really couldn't have known. I was truly astounded, and strangely comforted, especially as he had assured me: 'Once they're on the other side, they're fine!'

Now one thing that concerned this psychic was that the Torah very specifically warned the Israelites against involving themselves with magicians, wizards, witchcraft, magic. If such strong legislation was necessary, people were almost certainly seeking out, and getting involved, in these forbidden practices; however the parameters of what 'divination', 'sorcery' or magic actually are were not well defined. [1] My clairvoyant friend had approached the orthodox rabbi in Stockholm to ask for clarification on this and was told that it is forbidden to speak to the dead. This seemed a little unfair, he said, because they were always talking to him.

The rabbis, as well as sages before and after them, seemed to fear the effects that involvement in such customs might have on people. However my recent experience in Stockholm spoke very strongly to me, and in fact offered me strength in a time of great vulnerability. Indeed, since my father died at the beginning of this year, I have been tempted many times to consider popping over to Stockholm to ask my psychic friend how my father is doing. Was it this kind of competition that the rabbis feared, with people seeking comfort outside the normal power structures? Possibly this was a part of it, but I suspect there is also a protective element here – because, as I said above, Judaism has always emphasised the importance of focusing on this life, and this world, rather than death and the afterlife. I would like to think it is this which prompts the Bible to criticise the Israelites' enemies for their powers of divination, and cause the sages to tell us to stay well clear. It is not because they do not possess genuine powers, but because it is none of our business to meddle in the next world, and we must move on when we lose loved ones, and make the most of life here.


Help to move on


Having said all this, Judaism very carefully outlines the rituals one must go through when a person dies, first of all focusing on giving the deceased a respectful burial, and then focusing on comforting the mourners, and giving them various rituals and degrees of restrictions for a year after their loss. These steps help a person accept what has happened and, after an intense one-week grieving process, move back into the world. I have often been surprised at how quickly non-Jewish friends return to work after a loss, and think it is really important to take a proper amount of time to grieve to allow ourselves to deal with what has happened, and thus allow ourselves to become reimmersed in the important tasks of this world and this life.




[1] Sanhedrin 67a, JT Hagigah 2:2 (77d), Berakhot 53a, Erubin 64b, JT Abodah Zarah 1:9 (40a)


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