Immortality and Hay Fever
Published on: August 17, 2011
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  • As always, Peter, a marvelous and stimulating piece of writing. I have thought about these things, too, naturally enough, and so let me respond briefly to a few points.

    First, your speculation about the irony of Jews finding their theoretical individualism in the context of a fight against Hellenism of course makes perfect sense. I think further that the universalism inherent in Judaism as a normative religion was mostly late before the novel universalism of Hellenism brought it out. So yes, something notable did happen in the 2nd century B.C.E., and it is something also commented upon interestingly by other scholars, notably Shaye Cohen and his work on the origins of Jewishness.

    Second, is rather interesting that modern non-halachic Jews have a lot in common with biblical as opposed to rabbinic Judaism when it comes to the question of the afterlife. As you know, but as many readers might not know, the phrase translated out of the Hebrew that is used most frequently in the Hebrew Bible for someone’s dying is that he or she will be gathered unto their forefathers. Whatever this phrase meant way back when, it clearly suggests a collective rather than an individual identity in terms of an afterlife. But this is not surprising, because the hallmark of modern. non-halachic Judaism is the jettisoning of the rabbinic interlude––long and formative as it has been. Perhaps even more interesting, again, as you know Peter but many readers may not, the question of an afterlife was a very hot topic within Jewish life from the 2nd century B.C.E. until at least the 2nd century C.E. It was a main point of dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees, and one can see passingly subtle reference to this argument in the text of the Passover Haggadah––if one knows how to read it in the original.

    But never mind that. The 3rd point I wanted to make concerns your dismissal of the biblical and modern, but not rabbinic, notion that we live on in our deeds and in our DNA. This may be illusory, as you say, but it is poetical in the larger sense as well. It could well be, you know, that human beings as meaning making animal are limited to the illusions they create, lest the demons of meaninglessness drive us crazy, and render us incapable of acting collectively. If one has to choose an illusion, better a poetical one than a prosaic one. I do not personally find the rabbinic idea of the afterlife to be any less illusory then the biblical/modern one that you seem to disdain. I do find it less poetical.

  • As always, Peter, a marvelous and stimulating piece of writing. I have thought about these things, too, naturally enough, and so let me respond briefly to a few points.

    First, your speculation about the irony of Jews finding their theoretical individualism in the context of a fight against Hellenism of course makes perfect sense. I think further that the universalism inherent in Judaism as a normative religion was mostly latent before the novel universalism of Hellenism brought it out. So yes, something notable did happen in the 2nd century B.C.E., and it is something also commented upon interestingly by other scholars, notably Shaye Cohen and his work on the origins of Jewishness.

    Second, is rather interesting that modern non-halachic Jews have a lot in common with biblical as opposed to rabbinic Judaism when it comes to the question of the afterlife. As you know, but as many readers might not know, the phrase translated out of the Hebrew that is used most frequently in the Hebrew Bible for someone’s dying is that he or she will be gathered unto their forefathers. Whatever this phrase meant way back when, it clearly suggests a collective rather than an individual identity in terms of an afterlife. But this is not surprising, because the hallmark of modern. non-halachic Judaism is the jettisoning of the rabbinic interlude––long and formative as it has been. Perhaps even more interesting, again, as you know Peter but many readers may not, the question of an afterlife was a very hot topic within Jewish life from the 2nd century B.C.E. until at least the 2nd century C.E. It was a main point of dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees, and one can see passingly subtle reference to this argument in the text of the Passover Haggadah––if one knows how to read it in the original.

    But never mind that. The 3rd point I wanted to make concerns your dismissal of the biblical and modern, but not rabbinic, notion that we live on in our deeds and in our DNA. This may be illusory, as you say, but it is poetical in the larger sense as well. It could well be, you know, that human beings as meaning making animal are limited to the illusions they create, lest the demons of meaninglessness drive us crazy, and render us incapable of acting collectively. If one has to choose an illusion, better a poetical one than a prosaic one. I do not personally find the rabbinic idea of the afterlife to be any less illusory then the biblical/modern one that you seem to disdain. I do find it less poetical.

  • As always, Peter, a marvelous and stimulating piece of writing. I have thought about these things, too, naturally enough, and so let me respond briefly to a few points.

    First, your speculation about the irony of Jews finding their theoretical individualism in the context of a fight against Hellenism of course makes perfect sense. I think further that the universalism inherent in Judaism as a normative religion was mostly latent before the novel universalism of Hellenism brought it out. So yes, something notable did happen in the 2nd century B.C.E., and it is something also commented upon interestingly by other scholars, notably Shaye Cohen in his work on the origins of Jewishness.

    Second, it is rather interesting that modern non-halachic Jews have a lot in common with biblical as opposed to rabbinic Judaism when it comes to the question of the afterlife. As you know, but as many readers might not know, the phrase translated out of the Hebrew that is used most frequently in the Hebrew Bible for someone’s dying is that he or she will be gathered unto their forefathers. Whatever this phrase meant way back when, it clearly suggests a collective rather than an individual identity in terms of an afterlife. But this is not surprising, because the hallmark of modern, non-halachic Judaism is the jettisoning of the rabbinic interlude––long and formative as it has been. Perhaps even more interesting, again, as you know Peter but many readers may not, the question of an afterlife was a very hot topic within Jewish life from the 2nd century B.C.E. until at least the 2nd century C.E. It was a main point of dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees, and one can see passingly subtle reference to this argument in the text of the Passover Haggadah––if one knows how to read it in the original.

    But never mind that. The third point I wanted to make concerns your dismissal of the biblical and modern, but not rabbinic, notion that we live on in our deeds and in our DNA. This may be illusory, as you say, but it is poetical in the larger sense as well. It could well be, you know, that human beings as meaning-making animal are limited in this regard (if not others) to the illusions they create, lest the demons of meaninglessness drive us crazy, and render us incapable of acting collectively. If one has to choose an illusion, better a poetical one than a prosaic one. I do not personally find the rabbinic idea of the afterlife to be any less illusory then the biblical/modern one that you seem to disdain. I do find it marginally less poetical.

  • I’m irresistably reminded of Woody Allen’s pithily scornful rejection of the idea of a metaphorical afterlife. It runs something like, “I don’t want to live on through my deeds or in the memories of other people, I want to live on through not dying!”

  • Michael Moreau

    What a dreary, morbid and uninspiring way to look at Scripture. Who would want to worship a God who offers no hope for an afterlife and eternal fellowship with Him for his people? What a sad and pathetic view of the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reveals a wonderful and glorious plan for redemption and salvation for His people in the Holy Scriptures, beginning in Genesis. Prayerful study and faith in the promises of God will render these other gloomy theories as the sad and misguided human foolishness and folly that they are.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Interesting article.

    I find the belief in an afterlife (heaven or hell) brings purpose to our time on this planet. It also brings responsibility for our actions, but then, also, hope.

    Proponents of alternatives suffer one major problem: since none of us KNOW the answer, what if their “choice” is wrong?

    And, to answer their question, “What if I am wrong?”, I will answer…..then I have lost nothing, and the world may be better for my temporary presence as a responsible citizen of this world.

    Peace.

  • Kris

    “This is why the loss of children, or the inability to have them because of infertility, were feared more than death.”

    This can lead to a literal interpretation of Rachel’s complaint to Jacob: “Come-now, (give) me children! If not, I will die!”

  • Father John Price

    Have none of you read any of the dozens of recent (since 1976) books on “near-death” experiences? As pastor, Army Chaplain, and hospital chaplain, I’ve spoken now with 187 such people. I have only found 2 Jews with the experience. Neither had the fuller experience of the full 10 steps Dr Raymond Moody spells out in LIFE AFTER LIFE or in his later book, REFLECTIONS ON LIFE AFTER LIFE. The latter was written after 2,000 plus people contacted him about their own experiences. There are a half dozen books by MD’s who have explored the phenomenon. The philosophical, theological, religious, ethical, pastoral, and faith implications are enormous. Educate yourselves on this important phenomenon. More people are being resuscitated, so there are more stories than there were 40 years ago.

    I’ve written a book about all this which is in the pre-publication phase.

  • cja

    The essay reflects the recent mood of people/culture and verifies the pervading pessimistic outlook deemed by atheists to be the truth. I for one, can’t think of any discovery that was advanced by a person with a closed mind. If one’s mind is closed, it stands to reason it will know less, not more; to exist and think with that kind of limitation is absurd. So, why is society at this time of history, moving towards such close-mindedness?

    Quite simply, the argument of the essay is not true; we are indeed an intelligent species and we do indeed live after the death of the body, so the question becomes why is the current crop of “academia” pushing this rhetoric?

    I am currently writing a paper for the Kafka Society on the topic of reincarnation and gilgul transmigration of souls. I hope by doing so I can help lift the stigma attached to believing in immortality. I do know I am

  • Dean M.

    I would beg to differ with Professor Berger’s characterization of Judaism. The Bible is not the place to go for an understanding of the mystical side of Judaism–the side that deals with the soul and the afterlife. That is to be found in Kabbalistic texts which precede 200 BCE by more than a millenium with a tradition that goes back to the remote reaches of antiquity. Without bringing Kabbalah into view the essence of Judaism is totally missed. Many modern and “educated” Jews are completely ignorant of the faith of their fathers. It is a crying shame and a tragedy, but I do mean ignorant.

  • Hanoi Paris Hilton

    As a former student of pedology (i.e., soil science), I really like the idea of “tikkun loam”. Everywhere we see that our precious loams are getting too clayey and/or too sandy and balance absolutely needs to be restored to our vital earthly skin.

  • R.C.

    I’m with Dean M. on this topic.

    The Tanakh has the highest authority in Judaism, so of course one *wants* to go to the Bible first to find information about Judaism.

    But the Bible is very incomplete as a source of information. One can’t learn how to be a good Jew merely by reading the Bible alone, apart from the verbal traditions handed down over thousands of years. The whole context would be missing.

    So we need the Mishnah we need the Midrashim. Take for example the Midrash with Joseph praying at the tomb of Rachel after being sold into slavery by his brothers. To borrow from Dovid Rossoff’s article about it in Jewish Magazine, October 1997:

    “This Midrash is one of the earliest sources we have about praying at the grave of a righteous person. Joseph’s behavior, however, appears questionable since it is forbidden to speak directly to the dead. However there are two permitted ways to pray by the grave of a tzaddik (a righteous person). The first way is to ask that G-d should answer our prayers in the merit of the tzaddik buried here; and the second way is that the soul of the tzaddik should intercede on our behalf before the Heavenly court. Joseph, in the midst of a great dilemma, was beseeching his mother to intercede for him in Heaven and alter the harsh decree upon him. Thus his act was permitted by Jewish Law.”

    The upshot of this is that, in Judaism practiced well before 2 BCE,

    1. Righteous merit of the dead worked to their credit: Sheol need not be a dank, shadowy, forgetful afterlife for all souls like the Greek Hades;

    2. The righteous dead were popularly believed not only to be alive in G_d but at least somewhat aware of happenings on earth;

    3. The righteous dead were popularly believed to be able to intercede to beg G_d’s mercy on us schmucks down here.

    Also, the Book of Enoch, while certainly not on the same level as the Tanakh, shows us that some Jews started thinking of the afterlife as having different “compartments” for the evil and the righteous no later than 300 BCE, and probably earlier than that.

    Anyway, studying the Bible without having the surrounding writings and traditions for context is like reading the American Constitution without knowing any history, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, or any of that stuff.

    It’s not that you can’t get anything out of it. You can. But you may miss a lot, and you may get some wild misunderstandings, and a lot of the flavor is gone.

  • Hanoi Paris Hilton

    Sorry for being a wise-ass (although I did study pedology)… It’s “tikkun olam” in Hebrew, not “tikkun loam”.

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