This is the second in a series of interviews with religious scholars from several faiths — and one atheist — on the meaning of death. The idea for this series, and the content of this interview, originated shortly before the pandemic. Yet all of it has obviously taken on a deeper and more urgent relevance in the midst of this crisis. The essential ideas being discussed here are ones that people everywhere, religious or not, are grappling with.
This month’s conversation is with Moulie Vidas, an associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Princeton University. His books include “Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud” and a collection of essays, coedited with Catherine Chin, “Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History.” — George Yancy
George Yancy: I’m delighted to engage with some of the important beliefs within Judaism to get a deeper sense of this living and historical religious tradition. I’m aware of some of the similarities between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but in what ways would you say Judaism differs from the other two?
Moulie Vidas: Speaking very generally, I’d say there are two characteristics that set most forms of Judaism apart from Christianity and Islam. First, whereas Christianity and Islam imagine themselves as universal religions, Judaism is usually imagined as a religion for a specific people, for Jews. This of course does not mean that Judaism does not concern itself with humanity as a whole, but the orientation is different.
Second, in comparison to Christianity and Islam, Judaism places less of a stress on belief and more on practice. To be sure, one could formulate core Jewish “doctrines” (and many thinkers have), but it is not a coincidence that the most classical Jewish literature lacks such a formulation. Most Jewish movements are concerned not with what you believe about God, but with how the tradition informs your life: how you pray and celebrate the holidays; how you conduct your family or business affairs; what you eat and so on.
Yancy: An essential part of Judaism is that Jews have a covenant with God — an agreement or commitment between God and his people. Is there anything in this covenant regarding how Jewish people ought to approach death? And does that covenant speak to the promise of an afterlife?
Vidas: The covenant as we find it in the Hebrew Bible is about life, not about death. It promises, to those who keep it, a long and prosperous life (see, for example, Deuteronomy 6:2, in which one keeps the commandments so that “your days may be long”) rather than an afterlife. In fact, the Hebrew Bible mentions neither heaven nor hell: it speaks of “she’ol,” a dark underworld to which everyone goes after death, regardless of how they acted during their lifetime. There is also only one chapter in the entire Hebrew Bible that refers explicitly to a collective resurrection of the dead in the future (Daniel 12).
In contrast with the “this world” emphasis of these biblical manifestations of the covenant, we find already the earliest rabbinical texts looking increasingly toward another world. What the rabbis meant by this usually was not the immediate afterlife following a person’s death, but rather the afterlife following resurrection of the dead at the end of times. At the same time, we see from the Second Temple period onward the development of the idea that different souls have different destinies immediately after death. The righteous are rewarded in heaven and the wicked are punished in hell. The distinctions between these two kinds of afterlife, the immediate one and the eschatological one (end-of-times version), are often unclear, and the way these elements are imagined varies greatly among different Jewish texts and authors.
Yancy: This is fascinating, especially the point about the emphasis placed on life, not death. Might it be said that Judaism places more emphasis on life because the mission should be to live observant lives, good and decent lives in the here and now?
Vidas: I think that’s a fair characterization of a great deal of Jewish tradition: Its intellectual and spiritual energy aims at the shaping of a particular kind of life. But you certainly also find opposite tendencies. For example, the Mishnah, the earliest Rabbinic text (third century A.D.), records Rabbi Jacob’s teaching that our world is merely a vestibule for the afterlife in the world to come. There are periods in Jewish history in which the self-sacrifice or martyrdom was seen as the ultimate expression of the love God demands. And there is a strong pattern, especially in some of the mystical texts of kabbalah, that aspires to become closer to God by transcending this life; sometimes these texts invite practitioners to a meditation in which they simulate their own deaths, imagining their souls as having already departed from their bodies.
Different Jewish interpretations of the story of the binding of Isaac reflect this range between an emphasis on life, on the one hand, and the spiritual possibilities presented by death on the other hand. According to the Bible, Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but just before the sacrifice was executed, an angel of God intervened and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Many Jews see in this story precisely the Jewish celebration of life: sacrificing life is opposed to Jewish values. But there are other Jewish understandings of this story — we find, for example, interpretations that celebrate Isaac as a willing sacrifice, providing a role model for future martyrs prepared to die for God; or representations of Abraham as eager to kill his son; and even the interpretation that Abraham did actually kill Isaac, who was then resurrected by God.
Yancy: Say more about she’ol, especially as I understand it to have different interpretations. Is it a place? And are we all bound for such a place, Jews and gentiles?
Vidas: In the Hebrew Bible, she’ol is the underworld, located below the earth, where all dead are destined to go, regardless of their deeds or ethnicity. But beginning with sources dating from the third century B.C.E., we find this idea that after death the souls of the righteous and the souls of the wicked have different destinies. The usual name for the place where the wicked souls go is “gehenom”; but at some point, Jews began understanding the word “she’ol” in the Bible as referring to gehenom. This is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian hell. But the dominant view in Judaism has been that the punishments of hell are temporary, lasting up to 12 months. Once transgressors have paid for their transgressions in hell, they can move up to heaven.
There is a range of other views, including that at least for some offenses the punishment in hell is eternal; but the utmost punishment in traditional Judaism is not such eternal torments but the complete annihilation of body and soul — the lack of any type of afterlife.
Regarding the second part of your question, in the earliest rabbinical literature, we find the idea that gentiles, just like Jews, are judged according to their deeds: They can be punished but they also can be saved. Many later texts indeed assume the punishment of non-Jews by definition. That idea appears alongside the dominant idea, originating in the biblical prophets, that in the world to come gentiles will worship the same God as the Jews in a harmonious existence.
Yancy: Despite its this-worldly emphasis, is there a conception of the soul within Judaism, that which separates from the body at death?
Vidas: Yes, that idea is pervasive and important to most strands of Judaism. Its earliest manifestation is in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “the dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Most Jewish texts from the medieval period on speak in terms of “body-soul” dualism that we know from Greek philosophy and from Christianity, in which the human being is composed of two separable entities, the body and the soul. There are also Jewish texts that present these two elements in conflict, with the soul being the pure, moral component, and the body the seat of mundane and even sinful desires. But most texts in the Hebrew Bible do not even make the distinction between body and soul.
Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher and one of the greatest thinkers of the Jewish tradition, presented a particular view. Bodily resurrection played such a small part in his writings that he was faced with accusations from other Jews that he did not believe in it. In response, Maimonides wrote the “Treatise on Resurrection” in which he affirmed his belief in resurrection. But for an intellectualist philosopher like Maimonides, bodily resurrection could never be the culmination of existence, so he posited — perhaps absurdly, from a traditional perspective — that it was only a passing stage. In this view, the resurrected people will die, and then reach the ultimate goal of salvation: an incorporeal existence of human intellectual perfection.
Yancy: Christians are comforted by the faith that their loved ones who have died will be seen again after death. Are there ways that Judaism brings comfort, through a narrative of reunion, to those who have lost loved ones to death?
Vidas: The Hebrew Bible often describes death as being united with one’s kin or people. When Abraham dies, we are told he “died in a good old age … and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8); when God tells Moses about his death, he says Moses is about to “lie with his ancestors” (Deuteronomy 31:16). Most scholars agree that these expressions reflect an ancient practice of burying family members together in a family tomb. It may also indicate, already in the biblical period, an idea that one joins one’s family in the afterlife. Certainly, this is how many Jews read these expressions today: To die is to join one’s loved ones.
Yancy: I realize that there are very important mourning practices within Judaism. How do such practices relate to the fact of our death? Mourning suggests profound grieving. In what way do such practices have importance for both the living and the dead?
Vidas: The period of seven days, the shiva, after the death, is the most well known. For the mourners, it is a period characterized by some restrictions: They sit at home, they do not work, they may not engage in acts of personal grooming such as washing or shaving. But if these restrictions involve a withdrawal from society, the shiva is also a period of community, since it is a commandment for others to visit the mourners’ home and comfort them.
One of the most popular and yet mysterious of Jewish mourning customs is the recitation of the kaddish. This is a prayer for the sanctification of God’s name and for the hastening of redemption. It does not mention death or mourning at all and, for most of its early history, appeared in different contexts of liturgy that have nothing to do with death. And still, for most Jews, it is the text most associated with mourning, especially on the personal level. Observant Jews who mourn the death of close relatives recite it every day for 11 months.
Yancy: Most of us are terrified by the fact that we will die. In what ways might Judaism help us to embrace our death with greater courage?
Vidas: There is an enormous diversity in the Jewish responses to this fear, but I think there is something you can say about the Jewish tradition and this question in general. This tradition offers those who take part in it — even if they do not believe in the afterlife or God or the resurrection — a strong and immediate sense that their individual, particular lives are part of a long, collective story, a meaningful narrative. But let me also mention, in conclusion, a more specific and distinctive grappling with this fear of death, from one of the greatest works of modern Jewish thought, Franz Rosenzweig’s “Star of Redemption” (first published in German in 1921). This book opens with a discussion of the fear of death and a condemnation of philosophy (modern German philosophy in particular). Rosenzweig argues that philosophy tries “to remove from death its poisonous sting.” Philosophers evade confronting death by claiming to transcend the finite human, by replacing the perspective of particular, individual humans with an absolute, objective perspective. What Rosenzweig offers instead is a thinking wholly grounded in the realization that we are mortal, which he says will allow us to embrace life: particular, individual and finite.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.