God is dead! Or so some would say, such as Richard Rubinstein the esteemed former professor of religion at University of Florida and Bridgeport University. As a leading cultural analyst, and a most prominent “Death of God” theologians this is Rubinstein’s response to the horrific atrocities of humankind against itself in the 20th century, especially following the holocaust. God is dead! After all, in the wake of Auschwitz the highly valued norms of modern culture were deeply implicated in creating the backdrop to the mass murder. It is no small wonder then that when confronted by the sinister nature of human reason and the implosion of the modernist paradigm of moral progress, Rubinstein responded with the language, reasoning and rugged individualism that had ironically defined the failure of his generation. In his famous book After Auschwitz he states, “We learned in the crisis that we were totally and nakedly alone, that we could expect neither support nor succor from God nor from our fellow creatures.” Sadly, Rubinstein’s thoughts echo the philosophers of the 17th century who after observing the decline of the church and crowns of Europe, found certitude in nothing but their own machinations, and in the declaration that the only hope, is to confess that here is no hope at all. For Rubinstein the covenant with Israel is an illusion and the only Messiah is death.
If only he and others like him had turned to the Jewish tradition instead of modern sensibilities, they might have found hope reborn. Judaism is a religion of life against death. Death negates redemption; it is the end of growth and of freedom. Death is a denial of dignity. Metaphorically the Talmud tells that the great King David died on a holy day. Seeing the decaying body lying there and untreated since it was a holy day, Solomon burst out with the words from Quohelet (Ecclesiastes), “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion.”(Quohelet 9:4). What greater tragedy can there be for the living than the death of another loved human being? Someone of infinite value, someone irreplaceable has been snatched away, and the inert, empty body that remains mocks the power, the beauty, and the uniqueness of the person.
In a world growing toward life, death is a contradiction to God, who is pure life. In the end then death must be overcome. In the shadow of Israel and Judah’s desolation by the pagans of Assyria and Babylon, a holocaust of some 1300 years priority, the prophet Isaiah uttered these words of hope and vision: “God will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face.” (Isaiah 25:8). Judaism’s ultimate dream then should be to vanquish death completely. Classic Judaism therefore taught that when the ultimate redemption is achieved, when the Messiah comes, all those who have died will come to life again. Resurrection of the dead will nullify death retroactively.
Death is treated as the enemy. We read this week near the end of Parasha Nitsavim, “ Behold, I place before you today life and good, and death and evil…” the divine instruction then is “…Choose life.” (Deut. 30: 19) The daily ritual of Torah establishes clear boundaries for contact with the dead. Death is set up as the negative pole of contact with God. The human corpse is the most intense archetype of ritual impurity. No burials were allowed inside of Jerusalem, the holy city. People who came into contact with a dead body were not allowed to enter the Holy Temple without first going through a teharot, an elaborate purification rite, including immersion in a body of living water, that is a symbolic rebirth from the grip of death.
It is not that Judaism denies the facts of death. When death strikes a family the tradition requires an unflinching recognition and acceptance rather than evasion. The proper response is to show love through caring treatment of the corpse and expressions of grief and loss. But these are the concessions that Judaism makes to the universality of death. Otherwise it is almost as though death is to be quarantined as a dangerous antagonist. Holiness, which is the fullness of life is incompatible with death.
Yet death is a fact of life. How one reacts to it can critically shape all of one’s values. Buddha’s encounter with death when he was a young prince turned him decisively away from worldly life as an illusion and a snare. At Roman orgies, skulls were passed around to stimulate even more frantic excesses, with the epicurean admonition, “Eat, drink, and be merry! For tomorrow we die!” The American way of death has used consumerism, euphemism, and individualism to obscure the reality of mortality.
But Judaism’s general response to the fact of death though, is to fight back. Life is given the highest priority. Almost all of Torah’s laws can be held in obeisance in order to save a life. The physician is commanded to heal. Even partial triumphs – a sickness cured, some months of life snatched from the domain of death – constitute a fulfillment of the command. When someone dies the mourner steps forward and through the recitation of the Kaddish, testifies that his family has not yielded to the crushing defeat. In effect the survivors pledge to carry on as soldiers in the army of the Lord, among the soldiers of life. In essence the Kaddish prayer affirms that God’s kingdom of total perfection and total life will be brought speedily into being, preferably in this very lifetime.
The one notable exception to the arm’s-length treatment of death is the period of the High Holy Days that we are preparing to embark upon. During this period the Jewish tradition invites us to concentrate our attention on death to a degree that many of us may be somewhat uneasy with. But human beings cannot be fully mature until they encompass a sense of their own mortality. To recognize the brevity of human existence gives urgency and significance to the totality of life. To confront death without being overwhelmed, driven to evasions or dulling the senses is to be given life again as a daily gift. People generally experience this gift through a trauma: an accident or a critical illness or the death of someone close. Too often the encounter fades as the presence of death recedes and the round of normal life becomes routine reality. As part of the divine genius which stands behind the construct of the Jewish calendar, the Yomim Noraim (the ten days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) encounter death in an annual experience in hope that the experience will help liberate life. This is the time for the individual to concentrate on mortality and the meaning of life. The real power of the “Days of Awe” is their ability to tap into the deep human feelings and fears of death and enhance appreciation for God given life. During the next ten days tradition can guide us to take up the challenge of death on three levels:
The first is to deal with the constant gradual, partial encroachment of death in each of our lives. Life is also a process of dying. Routines and stagnation are forms of death in life. People often stop growing long before they are recognized as dead. Such a “dead” person cannot be an agent of redemption. The key to vital living is perpetual renewal of life; a renewal that the tradition seeks to attain by generating a continual process of examining life and constant rebirth. The awareness of being judged for life and death is a stimulus to stop living routinely.
The second level of the challenge is to deal with encountering abrupt, total death itself. The tradition, the prayers, and the tenor of these Holy Days beg us to focus on the vulnerability of our lives, and our human limits. To live truly redemptive lives we must discover that we live by God’s grace through His daily miracles. The question then that we should ask ourselves during these days of introspection is whether or not we are acting in consonance with the inherent value, purpose and meaning of God’s universe?
If you are truly appreciative of life , then the High Holy Days move to meet the third challenge of mortality – to harness death into a force for life. On Yom Kippur, we enact death by denying ourselves the normal human pleasures. It is not a morbid experience, however, because this encounter with death is in the service of life. The true goal is a new appreciation of life – in other words, “choose life.”
To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy. Only one who realizes the vulnerability of loved ones can treasure every moment with them. The encounter with death turns the individual toward life. Death can only be opposed by life just as death-in-life can only be opposed by growing in life. Instead of standing there, letting death constantly invade life, we can strike back by raiding he realm of death and turning this encounter into a spur to life.
We do not embark on this journey as lonely pioneers; rather we follow the multitude of Israel who has lived out this drama according to the tradition and in the service of life. Moreover we follow Israel’s greatest son, Messiah Yeshua who braved a death upon the altar and estrangement from life in the bowels of the Earth. And when he deemed it done, he declared that he had given us life, and life more abundant. So this week as we say sh’lichot (penitential prayers) – as we prepare to set out on this ten day process of self-interrogation, be reminded that he encouraged us to “pick-up our crosses daily” and follow him. Down a path of mortification, ironically life waits at the end of the road. These are ten days of awe, but it should not be a time of terror, for relief from sin emerges at the end. And God forgives! So Torah declares that “The Lord your God will open your heart and your children’s hearts.” Why? “For the sake of giving you life.”
This is why the ten Days of Awe is basically hopeful, and at its exhausting end even joyful. This is why the liturgy bursts with life. “Remember us for life, King who loves life; write us in the book of life, for your sake, Lord of Life”
This period seeks nothing less than the removal of sin and the renewal of love. Those who confront their own guilt and failure in human and divine relationships – in the context of community oneness and divine forgiveness – can correct errors, develop new patterns, and renew life. “ For I do not desire death of the wicked, but that he turn from his paths – and live.” To turn is to be reborn. May each of you come through the Days of Awe this year reborn – forgiven and pure, in accord with your peers, in harmony with the cosmos, and at one with God.