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Against Death: The Story of a Sacred L’Chaim

After the Holocaust, everything changed; death was an unambiguous instrument of evil. It was now time to cherish life and sanctify it.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

Years ago, I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a Holocaust survivor. In meeting with his children, I learned that after moving to Canada he had intermarried; and even though they, the family, were not Jewish, it was important to them that their father have a Jewish funeral. Right before the service, the family asked if I could add a “friend” to the list of speakers; as it turned out, this “friend” was the family’s pastor. The pastor (along with the man’s son) gave speeches about how the deceased was in a better place, and we should be happy that now he was in heaven. During my own concluding remarks, I gently explained that in the Jewish tradition, we have a religious obligation to mourn, because Jews consider death to be a tragedy; we take very little comfort in otherworldly realities.

I reacted that way because I couldn’t stomach such a rosy depiction of death being offered at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, a man who had struggled so valiantly to survive. And while I still stand by what I said then, my words were an oversimplification given that the Jewish tradition includes much debate on this topic.

Death is the focus of the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. A Kohen is forbidden to come in contact with a dead body, which is impure. At the same time, the Kohen is obligated to bury those in his immediate family, a law that Maimonides considers to be the source of the obligation to mourn close relatives. But why do we consider a dead body to be impure? Why is there an obligation to mourn for a relative who dies?

In an article entitled “I Will Make the Unclean Spirit Vanish From the Land,” Rabbi Benayahu Broner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Tzefat, compares the views of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik on this subject. These three important thinkers take very different positions on the Jewish attitude toward death.

Rabbi Kook takes the view that death is an illusion; true life exists in another realm, in the next world. In his characteristically flowery prose, he explains that this is why kohanim are prohibited from coming into contact with dead bodies:

“Death is a false vision … what humans call death is only the strengthening of life and its power. It is because of the endless absorption in pettiness …[that causes] one to depict this strengthening of life in a sad and dark way, which one calls ‘death.’ The Kohanim are raised up in their holiness, [and held back] from hearing this falsehood …[and they can do so] only by averting their eyes from the spectacle which brings these deceptive impressions to the soul.” This is why the Torah says regarding the Kohen: “He shall not go in where there is any dead body,” and “he shall not defile himself for any [dead] person among his people.”

In other words, the Kohen is forbidden from coming into contact with a corpse because death represents a false consciousness, one that distracts from the truth of eternal life. Elsewhere, Rabbi Kook endorses the view of Maimonides, that the primary purpose of the mourning rituals is catharsis, for the mourner to achieve calmness and closure. He explains Maimonides as saying that mourning is only accepted by the Torah as a concession to the weakness of human character, to help one overcome emotional pain, but a person who knows the truth would not grieve.

In short, Rabbi Kook sees death as the passage of an individual to a better place, the very same idea that disturbed me at that funeral.

Rabbi Hirsch focuses more on the psychological aspects of death and mourning. He neither romanticizes death nor bewails it; instead, he is primarily concerned whether grief will distract one from their divine mission. He explains that mourning needs to be carefully managed. Confronting a dead body weakens man’s resolve. Death is fundamentally a loss of control and freedom, and a person in contact with a dead body might become passive and lose hope. (This is similar to the view of Rav Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari). Extreme grief can lead one to depression. He notes that the Hebrew word for mourning, “evel,” sounds similar to the Hebrew words for fool, “evyl,” and darkness, “aphel.” Mourning can bring gloom and cloud one’s vision, and cause the mourner to lose sight of their purpose. According to Rabbi Hirsch, our mourning rituals are designed to allow emotions to be expressed and lessons to be learned, without distracting from one’s ultimate mission. Kohanim must avoid death completely because they are educators and have a responsibility to teach others how to proceed with their mission in the face of death. To Rabbi Hirsch, death and mourning are obstacles to personal growth that need to be dealt with thoughtfully.

He explains that mourning needs to be carefully managed. Confronting a dead body weakens man’s resolve.

In sharp contrast to the previous views, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees death as the opposite of holiness. Judaism, he declares, has “a negative attitude towards death”; the laws of impurity make it clear that death defiles anything sacred. In Jewish law, life is the paramount value, and one can violate the entire Torah in order to save a life. He attacks the view that death represents salvation from a broken world; if death were truly a “better place” for the deceased, he asks, “Why mourn and grieve for the departed? Why rend our garments, sit on the floor, and say ‘Barukh dayyan emet?’” The laws of mourning make it clear that one must view death as an unalloyed evil, an affront to all mankind. We must battle fiercely against death. This is why Halakha obligates us to heal the sick and extend life. To Rabbi Soloveitchik, death is not deliverance; on the contrary, it is the destroyer of life and the enemy of everything good.

In Jewish law, life is the paramount value, and one can violate the entire Torah in order to save a life.

I have always been drawn to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s views regarding death and mourning, and remember giving my very first sermon on this topic. And I believe that there has been a shift among rabbis in the last century regarding death. Unlike 100 years ago, very few would embrace Rabbi Kook’s views today. This is due in large part to the Holocaust. In the Warsaw Ghetto several rabbis, including the world renowned scholar Rabbi Menachem Zemba, said that Jews would no longer aspire to be martyrs, to die “al kiddush Hashem.” Instead, they would now pursue “Kiddush Ha’Chayim,” “the sanctification of life.” Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, one of the prominent religious leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto, said: “This is a time for sanctifying life … the enemy is demanding the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obligated to defend it, to protect his life.” After the Holocaust, everything changed; death was an unambiguous instrument of evil. It was now time to cherish life and sanctify it.

My late friend Jack, who was a Holocaust survivor, taught me how to cherish life. After the war, he toiled and struggled to rebuild his life, pouring himself into his family, his community and his business. When we would be at a celebration together, Jack would go to the bar with his friends (many who were survivors as well), and have a drink. Jack would say l’chaim, to life, with a special twinkle in his eye; he had gone through so much, and here he was! Those l’chaims were filled with love, laughter and joy, and made a profound impression on me. They were a sacred embrace of life, a small moment that made the world a better place. L’chaim!


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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