Desensitized to Death
Traveling through South America for 10 days with my wife for my fortieth birthday present four years ago reminded me of how, above all else, Judaism is a religion of life. Indeed, its emphasis on life is probably its single greatest distinction from Christianity.
Everywhere we had been, from the ancient Inca capitol of Cusco, to the Peruvian Capitol of Lima, to the Ecuadorian capitol of Quito, we had passed enormous churches with the figure of a bloody savior adorning the towering cathedrals. We saw saints bones buried throughout the cloisters. In the famed San Francisco Monastery in Lima, there were catacombs which defy description. Enormous piles of bones and skulls that have been accumulating for centuries were all round.
Now, these phenomena are common to Catholicism and are not distinctive to the Church in Latin America. But what made all of this memorable was the fact that the Catholic Church was attempting through all this emphasis on blood to appeal to the indigenous, Indian population, and convert them to Christianity. There was a tacit acknowledgement that an emphasis on death was sure to move them more than an emphasis on life. In the celebrated La Compania Church of Quito, there was a four hundred year old painting depicting the most gruesome punishments in hell that was in store for the natives should they fail to give up their pagan ways.
But as I looked upon so much of this gruesome iconography, I wondered to myself what price had been extracted through this desensitization to death? While I was virtually gagging as I walked through collections of bones, many of my Catholic brothers and sisters were posing for photographs.
Judaism is a religion of life. Moses could not have made the essence of our faith clearer than when he said, “I place before you today life and death. And you must choose life.” Jews are conditioned to detest the site of blood, and are warned never to consume it. We bury our dead far away from our cities and holy places. Death is supposed to awaken within the strongest sense of rejection and revulsion. We fight death to the death. It’s supposed to make us shudder.
Catholicism’s emphasis on death was a tacit acceptance of the futility of life. The Church was showing the indigenous people that yes, life sucks and then you die. It is filled with misery, poverty, and sickness. But, that’s ok because death ultimately gives meaning to life. Through faith in Christianity you will avoid hell and go to heaven, an act so blessed that it will redeem your wretched, desolate, earthly existence.
Some of our evangelical brothers and sisters emphasize the same. Yes, there isn’t the iconography of a crucification adorning the Church. But the songs that are sung, accompanied by an impressive sounding rock band, is that the blood of the Christian savior – the blood of the lamb – atones for our miserable sins, without which one is eternally barred from the doorway of heaven. It is his death, rather than his life, which is central.
By contrast, it is the mandate of Judaism to wage an unending war against death. Our ancient Biblical prophecies are not about avoiding the firepits of hell and living forever in disembodied heavenly bliss, but about war being forever abolished so that man can create heaven on earth. Our religion is not about the soul being rewarded in heaven but about bodies finding purpose on earth.
There is an important upshot here, and it is this. Israel has lived with death for sixty years. Every year it innocent men, women, and children who are murdered through terror attacks. Yet Israelis mourn each and every one of them. The Jewish people are simply not reconciled to death.
Years ago when I was the Rabbi at Oxford I hosted a debate on German reunification. The German government sent in an expert to defend their side. I hosted the participants at my home for dinner just prior to the debate. The gist of what the German expert said at dinner was that we Jews ought to finally get over the holocaust and stop hanging it as an albatross over the German neck. Yes, we were shocked by his words. But he was a refined gentleman and did not mean to cause offense. He meant to say that we Europeans have also lost a lot of people, too. Heck, the Black Death killed one third of the entire European population. So, just move on already. We all suffer. Stop harping on about the loss of life.
But what this misguided and ignorant man did not understand is that we Jews are healthy because death still shocks us. We talk not only about the holocaust but about the Jewish babies killed by Pharaoh in Egypt, about the million or more killed by the Romans, the untold numbers slaughtered by the Crusaders and the Inquisition, and the hundreds of thousands dismembered in the most gruesome way by Chemielnitzki’s Cossacks. No passage of time can dissipate the horror or provide comfort because our religion fosters within us a permanent hostility to death.
Which also explains why, even when Jews are surrounded by death, they choose only life. No matter how provoked we have been by the Nazis or the Arabs, we have never created a suicide bomber. We never, G-d forbid, target civilians. And we teach our children to reach out to our enemies rather than hate them, because even when all around us there is only death, we choose life.