Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Shall Live by Them

  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם

“You shall keep them, my commandments and my laws;  which if a man does them, he shall live by them.” (my translation)

Va-Yikra (Lev.) 18:5 (The Holiness Code)

“The commandments were given for no other purpose than to help men to live because of them, and not to die.”

Tosefta Shabbat 16-17 (Supplement to the Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud)

“Judaism alone was primarily preoccupied with life. The Torah is called Torat Chayim, a Torah [teaching] for life, not for “eternal life” but simply for this life . . . the laws of the Torah are a preparation for life—the full life of the affections and senses, as well as of the mind and the spirit—‘which if a man do, he shall live by them’ (Lev. 18:5).”

Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differed: An Inquiry into the Distinctiveness of Judaism, 1956


Oftentimes I have been brought up short in a discussion or argument by the sudden realization that my partner in the debate and I have a completely different, and often irreconcilable world view. In these cases, much can be learned from continuing the discussion and I can pinpoint the consequences of each world view in the ensuing conclusions, but there can be no fundamental agreement reached.

I have been having some very intense and fruitful discussions with a friend whose world view, I am discovering, differs substantially from my own. This should not be surprising, given this man’s educated Protestant Christian background, but I have found it so because he has rejected Christianity its own-self. However, unlike so many of the adult children of Christianity that I know, he has not given up a primarily mystical world-view, instead replacing the Christian version with something else. Although I tend to think of this  as  “new age” kind of thinking, that label may in itself be problematic because it is used so glibly by religious and non-religious people in order to put  a premature closure on understanding of it, whatever it may be.

In the discussion we had last Sunday evening, two basic ideas over which we differ became stumbling blocks to any resolution between us about what is moral and what is not. One is the idea that this life is a kind of proving ground or antechamber for some form of existence after death. Or not. The other idea is the necessity to resist evil. Or not. Whether one accepts the second idea is actually related to one’s position on the first.

As those who have been reading this blog already surmise, I do not see life on earth as anything other than an end in itself. It is my identity as a Jew—and an educated one, that fundamentally makes this so. During the evolution from the Biblical Israelite religion to modern Rabbinic Judaism, one of the ideas that did not substantially change was the idea that life is for the living, and that physical existence is very good. Although Judaism has been infiltrated at the fringes by ideas about life after death, normative Rabbinic Judaism has rejected them, firmly insisting that it is what we do here and now that matters. If there is something more after death’s finality, then we do not know anything about it, and it is best to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, because our actions here are what count for our weal and our woe.

The idea that death is not the end, that there is some utopia to be had after death, whether it be quasi-material or wholly spiritual, is related to apocalyptic thinking—the idea that what is, as it is, shall be completely remade into something better by a power that is generally conceived of as wholly good. These ideas (there are two of them, related but distinct) necessarily imply that things as they are now are not good, that human nature is fundamentally flawed, that physical existence and the material world are at least second best, if not downright evil.

Even within its creation stories, the Israelite religion rejected these ideas. The first creation story in Genesis uses words and phrases that, to the eye of those who know the Akkadian creation myth Enumah Elish, sets itself in opposition to it. Enumah Elish is a story of how there is a war in heaven, and the physical universe is created from the killed body of the loser, Tiamat. The implication is that the spiritual gods, disinterested and unpredictable, rule over the physical world, wreaking havoc as they will. The classic Hebrew creation story in Genesis 1:1 –2:1a in contrast posits an ordered universe brought into being through the spoken word, and declared to be “good” at each step. With the introduction of human beings, who have free will, the creation is pronounced “very good.” (The Hebrew word “meod” corresponding to the English “very” is a play on the Hebrew spelling of “Adam”, which means human being).

Throughout Torah (the canonical Five Books of Moses), there is no mention of afterlife or of apocalypse. Rather, law is presented as having real-world consequences: keep Torah and have life and the blessing of your children, discard it and experience death and the curses of those who follow. Life is good, death is evil. Body and spirit are intertwined and inseparable.

Later in Jewish history, even as ideas from Babylon and the Greeks brought into the culture notions of life after death, separation of body and soul (in which the body was presented as inferior) and apocalypse, the same circumstances also created the need to keep them firmly controlled. Particularly during the first war with Rome (60 – 65 CE), apocalyptic thinking influenced both the Sicarii (those sects fomenting rebellion against Rome for religious and political reasons) and the Essenes, a collection of sects that withdrew from an “impure world.”  The Rabbis understood that in those circumstances, both rebellion and ascetic withdrawal would result in the destruction of the Jewish people and its loss to the future. They therefore carefully confined any apocalyptic messianic ideation to ritual supplication and focused Jewish law and life upon living in the here and now.  

Although stories and ideas about ghosts and demons, judgment of the disembodied soul and life after death have flourished in Jewish superstition , incorporating customs such as lighting a candle for the dead, they are not normative, and tend to take on the flavor of the surrounding dominant culture. Jewish traditions surrounding dying and the dead forbid all of the displays that encourage such thoughts. It is forbidden to pray to the dead, to build them altars, to give them gifts for the journey, to mutilate one’s body or in any other way display excess grief. Life must go on, and as sad and sorry as we are at our loss, our duty is to life and to the living. This is illustrated in the Midrash on a verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):

 It was said that when David died, Solomon sent to the Bet Midrash (House of Study) to enquire: ‘My father lies dead before me,and his body is lying in the sun. The dogs of my father’s household are howling for hunger. What shall I do?’ The Sages answered : ‘Feed the dogs first and then attend to the body of your father, for even a living dog takes precedence over a dead king.’ This is the origin of the verse: “For a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (Kohelet 9:4)

As a Jew, therefore, my allegiance is entirely to this life, the only one that I know, and I do not concern myself with “things far beyond it”, as the Psalmist says. When I weigh moral questions, I weigh them against the standard of life, this life. For Jews, there is no moral calculus that places some posited afterlife against life in the here in now. From the writing of the Talmud until now, no Jew can morally justify an action that places spiritual existence against physical life in the here and now. For example, the witch test--binding a woman hand and foot and throwing her in the water and if she drowns her soul is safe and if she does not drown then kill her—would be entirely immoral and forbidden. (Jews, being Jews, were more likely to be the victims of such acts than the perpetrators).

Many decisions are not moral decisions at all in this sense. For example, the decision to light candles on Shabbat is not an ethical consideration, it is a question of ritual, of custom and tradition. The decision to eat chocolate ice cream as opposed to vanilla is not a moral one either, it is one of simple preference. The obligation to preserve human life and to minimize suffering takes precedence over any ritual obligation or simple preference. One may not ignore a danger presented to human life by observation of a ritual or by preference. For example, a Jewish doctor is not only allowed but is obligated to attend emergencies on the Sabbath—when he or she would ordinarily not do any work—in order to save a life and minimize suffering. Any Jew would be obligated even to rescue an animal that has fallen into a well on Sabbath for that matter, in order to minimize its suffering because an animal cannot possibly understand a need to wait until sunset.

This way of thinking is foreign to my friend and debate partner. Because he believes with certitude that there is some preservation of the soul, some better life beyond this universe, questions of morality are informed differently. Since we did not explore these differences at great length, I cannot say with any certainty how they are informed. However, the preservation of one’s own life and the lives of others is apparently not primary to his moral calculus, and I am not sure how much weight it gets at all.

Further, he believes that this after-life or ongoing spiritual life has great influence on the physical world, and that humankind collectively is to make progress toward a “better way.” This points to utopian/apocalyptic ideation that assumes that the way in which human beings make moral decisions in this world is defective. This seems to be tied up with the conception that pacifism is morally superior to self-defense.

However, I have not gotten an answer to the question of whether my friend identifies himself as a pacifist or not, or what that word even means to him. After an hour or so of questioning and answering, mostly in order to clarify the assumptions he had about how I view life and death and heaven and hell, we called it quits. It was late. There was no resolution to agreement in this discussion anyway. There could not be as we start from very different concepts of life and its importance.

I think the conversation was fruitful for me, however, because it got me thinking about how this one basic idea—that of life after death—has consequences that extend to those who do agree with it.

As I said at the beginning of this entry, the idea of a life after death that is more valuable (better)than this life is bound up not only with the idea that human beings are defective in some way, but also with the idea that it is not necessary or even wrong to resist evil. That idea has grave consequences for the world here and now. That will be the topic of another blog entry.

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