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February 9, 2017 2:36 pm

Reflections on Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition

avatar by Edward Alexander

Graves at a Jewish cemetery. Photo: Wikiwand.

Graves at a Jewish cemetery. Photo: Wikiwand.

After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflections on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, by Hillel Halkin; Princeton University Press, 2016; 232 pp.

Is there any subject more compelling yet more repellent than the afterlife? Hillel Halkin’s book, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflections on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, is at once scholarly and passionate, secular and religious, detached and autobiographical. It has forever more made it difficult for us to offer the traditional Jewish birthday greeting derived from Moses’ life span (“Ad meah ve’esrim” in Hebrew, “Biz hundert un tsvantsig” in Yiddish) without also thinking: “After 120.” Following that somber thought will be this syllogism: “I am a man; all men are mortal; therefore I must die.” As Shakespeare put the matter in Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers, come to dust.” As Halkin says in his introduction, “We’re in this together.”

Halkin, who has spent most of his adult life in the Israeli town of Zikhron Ya’akov, is America’s greatest contribution to Israeli literature. His Letters to an American Jewish Friend — which challenged American Jews with the question, “Why don’t you really come home?” — remains, forty years after publication, the most powerful Zionist polemic ever written. He has translated Sholom Aleichem into English, written a scintillating study of Yehuda Halevi, a verse autobiography of Shmuel HaNagid and a prize-winning biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky. His many translations from Hebrew into English are so good that a prominent Israeli novelist told me he had stopped using Halkin as a translator because, “I had the feeling he was in competition with me,” i.e., making the novelist sound more eloquent than he wished to sound. Halkin is also a formidable philologist and — or, so I am convinced — was the writer of the pseudonymous “Philologos” column that ran in the Mosaic for 24 years.

Imaginative representations of the next world (“HaOlam HaBa” in Hebrew) suffer from a fatal flaw: They purport to describe “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” World literature has been enriched by the forays of Homer, Vergil, Dante and Milton into the world which we would inhabit much longer than our sojourn on earth, perhaps for  eternity. Halkin has now given us a rich sampling of the vast Jewish literature on death and the afterlife. (He has been lucky in his editors: his Letters book was suggested to him by the late Maier Deshell, then editor of the Jewish Publication Society, and this one by Neal Kozodoy, editor of the Tikvah Fund’s Library of Jewish Ideas.)

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Since most readers of this review, like the reviewer himself, have attended colleges where we studied mainly the mind of Western Christendom rather than the literature of the Jews, we have been more conversant with non-Jewish conceptions of the afterlife than with Jewish ones. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the most dehumanized and disgusting figure is Ciacco, the glutton. But for Jews, eating — although strictly regulated by laws that set them apart from lawless and oppressive gentile communities in which they lived — is anything but a potentially sinful activity. “When the Moshiach comes, we will have a banquet,” sing the Hassidim. Jewish imaginings of the afterlife do resemble Christian ones in recognizing that one cannot have a heaven without a hell; but the Jewish version of hell is much less a place of mud, frost, fire and filth than the Christian one; and “nowhere in early rabbinic sources do we find such glee taken in hell’s sufferings” as the Christians (sadistically) imagined for heretics. Nevertheless, the current bumper crop of Jewish haters and defamers of beleaguered Israel would do well to recall Maimonides’ dictum: “One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel..shows himself indifferent when they are in distress…goes his own way, as if he were one of the gentiles and did not belong to the Jewish people — such a person has no share in the world to come.”

The way in which Halkin’s history of ideas can suddenly become personal is exemplified in his treatment of the Hebrew Bible’s reverence for the bones (not flesh) of the dead, as in burial caves where one is “gathered to one’s fathers”; or in the belief, which took hold of the Jewish imagination,  that the dead would travel to Jerusalem by tunnel on Judgment Day; or in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones — “My bones,” as Halkin writes, “beside my ancestors, my children’s bones besides mine, I would have formed part of a never-ending chain.”

The personalization appears quite differently in Halkin’s treatment of the Hebrew Bible’s relentless emphasis upon the lifelong hunger of childlessness, in the stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and the parents of Samuel and Samson. Hannah, in fact, actually invents silent prayer in order to plead for a (male) child, who turns out to be Samuel. (The custom of referring to one’s firstborn son [as my father did] as “a kaddish” expresses the belief that the living can influence the fate of the dead. But in this matter Halkin demurs: he has chosen not to recite kaddish for his own parents, whom he loved, after the shiva period is over. If, as he clearly believes, his mother and father– his now extinguished Sun and Moon —  really were virtuous, what need of the kaddish to protect them in the life beyond life?

The great literary gift bestowed on us by this stunning book is Halkin’s translation of large sections of Shmuel Hanagid’s 64-poem “unparalleled document of mourning” (for his older brother, who died in 1041). In the gradualness of its movement from grief and thanatophobia to consolation and acceptance of death as a part of life, this great elegy by Hanagid (“the emperor”) may call to mind Tennyson’s masterpiece, In Memoriam. That poem comprises 131 sections, written over a 16-year period prior to its publication in 1850. What we shall not find in Tennyson is Hanagid’s structure, which follows the Jewish calendar of mourning: death, funeral, first week, first month and the following eleven months. That structure, Halkin suggests, “reflects the natural workings of the human heart.”

In conclusion, we should recall that the practice of reciting the mourner’s kaddish began in the years just after the Crusades, when a superabundance of mourners led to the tradition of linking personal grief with the collective grief of the Jewish people. Halkin is an Israeli as well as a Jew; and for him Israel’s constant burden of peril is epitomized by “the literature of a Jewish state that by now has sent four successive generations of its youth into battle, often to die or be maimed.” This modern version of the akedah (binding) tears at the heart, but (like the original one of Isaac by Abraham) it has a redeeming purpose. As Halkin wrote in 2007: “In the 1930s the Jews were a people that had lost a first temple and a second one; yet as frightful as their next set of losses was to be, they did not have a third temple to risk. Today they do. And in Jewish history, three strikes and you’re out.”

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction Publishers).

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