Death: The Deepest Challenge

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September 1, 2003
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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering  and the Human Condition, Ed. David Schatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Rueven Ziegler (New Jersey: KTAV 2003): 243 pp., $24.50

Rachel S. Hallote, Ivan R. Dee, Death, Burial and Afterlife in the Biblical World, Ed. David Hazony (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001): 237 pp., $26.50

These are both Jewish books about death and mourning. Other than that, they have little in common. Out of the Whirlwind is the latest in the Meotzar Harav project of bringing to light Rabbi Soloveitchik’s unpublished or neglected writings on selected themes. The essays included here treat the subjects of death and mourning through an impressive range of expository styles. There are halakhic analyses of the stages of mourning addressed to yeshiva students, profound readings of the stories of Abraham and Job, which were originally drashot delivered in Boston to Jewish lay people, and a meditation on the halakhic approach to suffering, originally given to mental health professionals of all religions in 1961. Soloveitchik was a master of each of these media. The address to a predominantly non-Jewish audience includes a lucid introduction to the presuppositons of halakha, as well as a liberal sprinkling of Latin terms in the opening paragraphs.

The unifying theme of these pieces is the wisdom of halakha in helping us to face death and bereavement in a way that is honest, dignified, and ultimately enobling. Soloveitchik uses the method of talmudic analysis pioneered by his grandfather R. Chaim Brisker, making fine conceptual distinctions yield profound existential insights. For example, through elaborating the halakhic mourning stages of aninut, the period between death and burial, and aveilut, from burial until the first anniversary of the death, he draws a raw emotional picture of the pain and the gradual healing that mark the process.

In aninut, the shock and anguish of bereavement are allowed untrammeled expression. Feelings of life’s absurdity, horror, or meaninglessness are okay. The mourner is exempted from the positive mitzvot, which exemplify the purposefulness of human life. Aveilut begins the gradual, difficult return to life. The mourner is slowly reintegrated into full mitzvah observance and communal celebration. This return from death to life is painful, sometimes counterintuitive, but always necessary, and to Soloveitchik it’s profoundly heroic.

One of the strengths of this collection is that it demonstrates the centrality of death and mourning to the major themes of Soloveitchik’s thought. For the observant person endeavoring to instill all of life with Divine awareness and purpose, the absurdity and negation of death pose the deepest challenge. These essays elaborate, more fully than in Halakhic Man, how the eponymous hero can squarely face up to the absurdity and yet reaffirm life’s purpose and dignity. In a couple of instances we see how reflections on the topics of death and suffering prefigured their fuller adumbration in Soloveitchik’s seminal works. For example, in the address to the mental health professionals, Soloveitchik sketches his challenging idea that emotional defeat is necessary to spiritual victory, an idea he elaborated upon in his 1978 essay “Catharsis.” The thesis is that all sincere spiritual striving must end in movement of surrender before the unfathomability of that which we are trying to approach. In the early version, he asserts that this ability to accept limitation and defeat is utterly necessary to the psychological health of hubris-ridden modern men and women.

This is a valuable contribution to Soloveitchik’s published writings. The editors have reshaped the original manuscript – notes for the Rav’s oral lectures – and discarded the hagiography and revisionism (e.g., the airbrushing out of Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophical side) that marred some of the posthumous publications of his work.

Rachel Hallote’s book is an ambitious attempt to encompass Jewish approaches to death from the Bible to the present. The book contains much fascinating archaeological detail on burial practices in ancient Israel. However, the evidence brought does not always warrant the conclusions that Hallote seeks to draw about the pervasiveness of a Canaanite “Cult of the Dead” in ancient Israel. She puts undue weight on a handful of instances in the Bible, such as Saul’s divination with the witch of Endor. The book is flawed by errors in fact (the composition of the Talmud extended beyond the 5th century) and an idiosyncratic structure. (A history of mortuary theory is sandwiched between chapters on Jewish death in the modern world and archaeology in modern Israel.) Hallote’s engagingly conversational style sometimes falls into irreverence. (The Hebrew prophets are described as “whining” about the Israelites copying Canaanite death practices.) These editorial lapses are a pity, because Hallote has a strong grasp of biblical archaeology and a passionate belief in its relevance.

In one of her strongest chapters, she castigates the denial and sanitization of the modern American way of death, and its widespread adoption by the Jewish community. Bringing the compassion and wisdom of Soloveitchik’s ideal halakha into dialogue with the suburban anomie that Hallote describes is surely the biggest challenge rabbis who deal with death and mourning must face.

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Rabbi Julian Sinclair is a Visiting Research Fellow in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Previously he was Jewish Chaplain, and taught Jewish Studies in the Divinity School at Cambridge University.

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