Saturday, October 23, 2010

Adult Forum class at St. Pat's: A Jewish View of Death and Dying

Birth is a beginning
And death is a destination.
And life is a journey from childhood to maturity.
And youth to age;
From innocence to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness - and often back again;
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding -
From fear to faith;
And from defeat to defeat to defeat -
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning.
And death a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

That poem expresses in about 140 words the Jewish view of life and death. One of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is that life does not begin with birth nor end with death. (Ecc. 12:7). In fact, Jewish thought anticipated the first law of thermodynamics – that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply assumes different forms – and so death is determined by the soul no longer animating the body, not the body expressing the soul, though this is mitigated by considerations such as whether the individual is suffering pain, and Judaism holds that we have an obligation to alleviate pain, even if it contradicts keeping the person alive as long as possible.

For Jews the soul is immortal and eternal – it exists both before and after death and passes from one phase to another. First there is the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body, then physical life, then post-physical life in heaven or paradise, and finally life in the world to come that will follow the resurrection of the dead.
The second phase, the time spent on the earth in a body, is considered crucial, but we have to at least consider the possibility that, since this whole cosmology was made up by people in this phase, they may be giving it undue importance. Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of the soul is considered to be fulfilled during the time it spends in this phase, presencing God in this world by finding and expressing Godliness in everyday life.

The Rabbis teach that there is a paradox in this in that for our actions in this world to make a difference, they must be the product of our free will. If we were to directly experience the power and beauty of God’s presence as we manifest it in this world, we would always choose what is right and lose our autonomy – so they teach that the soul is fully aware and cognizant up until birth, when it enters a condition of total spiritual blackout. We enter a world where the Divine reality is hidden, in which our purpose in life is not clear, and in which there is the appearance of evil and wickedness. In this condition of spiritual darkness, our positive and Godly actions are truly our own choice and achievement.

What we have to guide us in these choices is that the soul is fully saturated with Divine wisdom, knowledge, and vision – herein lies the paradox – we can’t see the truth, and we can’t know it with any certainty, but at the same time we do know it deep down – deep enough that we can choose to ignore it, but also deep enough that we can always access it – this is the choice; to pursue the Godly knowledge within us or to suppress it.

So the very physicality of our everyday life – its opaqueness, its self-centeredness, obsures all knowledge and memory of our Divine Source. This is what Einstein was referring to when he said:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living things and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Because of this veil of illusion, we never experience the full satisfaction of our achievements in manifesting the divine will – achievement and satisfaction exist in different realms – achievement in the physical, and satisfaction in the spiritual – so Judaism teaches that the full reward for good works in this life will come in the next.

The third phase is what we call “heaven and hell,” but the Jewish conception of these is very different from the usual conception. After death, the soul returns to the Divine Source, together with all the Godliness it brought to the physical world by its manifestation of God. It also brings all its negative achievements – the result of the times it suppressed the “yetzer tov” – the Godly impulse – and gave in to the “yetzer hara” – the evil impulse. The soul now relives its experiences and experiences the good it accomplished during its incarnation as incredible happiness and pleasure and the negative as incredibly painful.

This is not punishment or reward, but simply what is called a “cheshbon ha-nefesh” – an accounting of the soul. The accounting is done by the heavenly court; the “judgment” comes by the soul itself confronting a reality of its own life from which it was sheltered in this world. The soul’s experience of the Godliness it brought into the world by its positive actions is the pleasure of heaven (Gan Eden), and its experience of the destructiveness it created through its lapses and transgressions is the pain of “Gehenna” or Purgatory.

The truth hurts, and it also cleanses and heals. The spiritual pain cleanses the soul of the blemishes it accumulated on earth and heals it; thus freed from its accumulated negativity, the soul is now able to experience the good it did and to “bask in the Divine Presence” created by the Godliness it brought into the world. Because the soul is, at its core, unadulteratedly good, the good we accomplish is infinite and the evil we do is superficial and shallow. So even the most wicked of souls experiences, at most, 12 months of Gehenna followed by an eternity of heaven. Also, the experience of Gehenna can be mitigated by the actions of those who are still alive – through prayers and good deeds performed in their memory. Similarly the soul of one who has passed remains involved in the lives of those it leaves behind, deriving pain or pride from their deeds and is able to intercede on their behalf before the Heavenly Throne.

The final phase is “the world to come.” Once humanity as a whole has completed its mission of making the physical world “a dwelling place for God,” comes the era of universal reward – the “next world.” Paradise or Gan Eden is a spiritual world inhabited by souls without bodies. The world to come is a physical world, inhabited by souls with (perfected) physical bodies.

But until then, we in this world experience death as loss, and Jewish tradition has combined this cosmology of death with the process of mourning. Studies of how people accept and move on from loss have shown that the first week, the first month, and the first year are critical. Jewish tradition calls for a week of intense mourning – the mourner does not leave their house, mirrors are covered, and the mourner sits on the floor or on a low bench. Others come to visit, entering without knocking, and bring food so that the mourner does not have to cook. Prayers (minyan) are held in the house of mourning. After the first week the mourner re-enters life, attending Synagogue daily to say the Mourner’s prayer in community and does this for a month. After that first month, the mourner is to resume their normal life and activities and prolonged grieving is forbidden. They say the memorial prayer weekly for a year, and after the first year annually and on specific holy days.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sermon at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church 3 October 2010

The boy was only ten years old – a child of a happy family, living comfortably in the English countryside. Then one day his father was suddenly incapacitated by a stroke. The loving, attentive man the boy had known for all of his life disappeared and what was left was a bed-ridden, paralyzed, unresponsive shell.

Trying to maintain as much normalcy as she could, the boy’s mother insisted that the boy, his older brother and his younger sister go to school the next day, and so they did, but without much hope of having their attention on schoolwork. One of the boy’s teachers, an Anglican Priest took him aside after class and suggested they pray for the boy’s father. “But sir,” the boy said, “I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God.” “That’s alright” said the teacher “God believes in him, and that’s all he needs.”

The boy was Tony Blair who went on to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and who, after his political career, founded The Tony Blair Interfaith Foundation with the goal of countering extremism in all six leading religions as well as doing charitable work. He never forgot the lesson in faith he learned on that day at school.

The philosopher Alan Watts drew an interesting distinction between belief and faith. Referring to the root of belief in Middle English (lief = wish), he said that belief is a heartfelt wish that things be or turn out a certain way – in other words, there is a way things should be and a way they shouldn’t be, and belief is a wish that they be the way they “should.” Faith, on the other hand is trust. Specifically, trust in the truth – things are the way they are, and that is what there is to work with. In other words, the only power I have is to play the particular hand that I’m dealt and trust that I can influence how it turns out. In a specifically religious context there is a popular phrase “The will of God will never take you where the Grace of God will not protect you.” While of unknown origin, this phrase is consistent with numerous Biblical passages from both the Hebrew and Christian Canons and points to the essence of faith as trust in God and the world God has created.

This week’s readings, particularly the Psalm and the Gospel passage, are among the most famous in the Bible and are all about faith. In the Gospel, Jesus calls the Apostles to account for having insufficient faith – he says “ If you had even as much faith as a tiny seed, you could command a tree to relocate to the sea and it would obey you,” yet, he says, not only do they lack even that much faith, but they seem to think that they should be rewarded of doing the minimum that they should do – following Jesus and asking him to teach them.

All of the readings point to the importance of faith – Paul’s message to Timothy is basically “have faith: Hold fast the words, you’ve heard from me, in faith and love.” And along with the poetry of the psalm, the readings from the Hebrew Canon express the Hebrew people’s steadfast faith in God even in the face of exile and torment.

But, faith in what? In Voltaire’s Candide, Dr. Pangloss blithely asserts, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and we could choose to go blithely along trusting that everything is OK no matter how awful it seems – we could be passive and stoical and call it trust, but that seems like a tall order when things are going very wrong. When the Babylonians conquered Judea and the Hebrew people were exiled “to the rivers of Babylon,” they might well have abandoned their faith in God, and their religious practices along with it. They might have felt that the world is a random place and nothing matters, or they might have decided that the way to get along is to go along and adapted their faith to that of their captors, but instead they held fast – “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” is not so much a statement of allegiance to a city or state as to what Jerusalem represented, even with the Temple in ruins and the people in exile – the Jerusalem they would “set above their chiefest joy” and the city that sits alone and weeps is a metaphor for their faith in God. Martyrs, through the centuries, both Jewish and Christian have held to their faith in God, saying with Job “though He kill me, yet I have faith in Him.”

In today’s world, we might opt for the inflated ego of faith in ourselves as the answer to it all – that this life is all there is, and we can manipulate it for the good of ourselves and our own. Or we might choose blind unquestioning faith in we know not what, like someone I knew who said that faith is “believing what you know cannot possibly be true.”
My personal choice is faith in God – not some anthropomorphic God – the proverbial old man with a long beard - but faith in a supreme power that is at the same time immanent – present and active, interacting in the world through us and our actions - and transcendent – more than the sum of human activity and human experience can comprehend - and that God is the unity of all life expressed in an infinite variety of ways, moving toward its own realization in that unity being re-established. In the words of the old hymn, “We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord, and we pray that our unity will one day be restored.”

Belief is a one-time event – you decide what you believe, that decision divides the world into two camps – those who believe what you believe, and those who don’t. Call them good and bad, God and Satan, the way it should be and the way it shouldn’t be, it doesn’t matter. Even situational ethics or moral relativism does this – black and white ethics or morals are bad, situational or relativistic ethics or morals are good. In this sense belief is easy – it reduces to a bumper sticker, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

With faith it’s not so easy. First of all, faith has no proof – even if you say you have faith in “the word of God,” the question arises, which word? The Scriptures of every religion, including the Hebrew and Christian Canons, the apocrypha, the discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls, all of it, is rife with contradictions. If I have been uprooted from the land that my family has lived on for generations and transplanted to “the Rivers of Babylon,” what evidence do I have that life will return to what it was? The Temple has been destroyed, we have been settled in a strange land where we are expected to live as a subject people – what is the faith so strong that I can say “If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill,” when “gone is from the daughter of Zion all her splendor; her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.” If I am a follower of Paul’s, seventy years after his death, and someone writes to me in his name telling me to “have faith,” what evidence do I have that there is anything real to trust in?

Belief-based religion is notorious for picking and choosing among the “word of God” to support particular views of what is right and wrong. Faith is above all trust – trust that there is a truth that is in Paul’s words, seen “through a glass, darkly;” and that will reveal itself when one is open to its unfolding.

And that trust is not a one-time event, it’s a discipline. By nature and by learning, we are predisposed to the question “is this good for me or bad” about everything in the world, and the “me” in that question quickly becomes “us” – our family, tribe, nation, etc. In other words, we default to belief and a binary world, and it takes work to recover our faith from our immediate reaction and return to a created position of trust and openness to how things will unfold. Also, in my own faith in God, I have to continually remind myself that while God’s will operates immanently – here and now - God’s perspective is transcendent and outside of time, so what appears to be an utter disaster now may in the long view be an important contribution toward the realization of that unity that is God.
So for me the question becomes how quickly can I recover from the latest threat or trauma and resume the discipline of faith, accepting what God/life offers me and discovering its significance (or lack of significance) in the fullness of time, while at the same time trusting that the commitments I have taken on – to my family, to the world – are also worthy of trust and that events that appear to be setbacks to those commitments will, ultimately forward them.

It is that practice of recovery that is the discipline of faith and the speed of recovery that is the metric for how much we are growing in faith. We will suffer setbacks and challenges to our faith on a daily, maybe an hourly basis. We will be tempted by to take the easier path and just believe, falling into the trap of excluding those who don’t believe as we do, and we may even, from time to time, lose faith altogether. Nietzsche said “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Faith cannot be killed, but every time it takes a blow, the quicker we recover, the stronger we become in faith.