Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a posthumous but vivid presence at this publication through his friendship with Fr. Richard Neuhaus, once was importuned by a congregant who complained that the service did not seem relevant to her. The point, he thundered back, is rather for you to be relevant to the service. I wonder what he would have thought of a new book by his former student Byron L. Sherwin, entitled, The Life Worth Living. I found it maddening.
Sherwin’s little volume is the sort of spiritual self-help guide that has made Rabbi Harold Kushner so well known. It begins well, citing Franz Rosenzweig:
At the beginning of his now classic work, The Star of Redemption, the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who died an early death from ALS, characterizes the history of Western philosophy as an ongoing attempt to transform the confrontation with death into the denial of death. Rosenzweig reads philosophy as an elegant mind-game aimed at escaping the inevitability of human mortality, a kind of intellectual version of Gilmesh’s quest. “All cognition of the All originates in death, in the fear of death. Philosophy takes upon itself to throw off the fear of things earthly, to rob death of its poisonous sting, and Hades of its pestilential breath....” However, concludes Rosenzweig, “A person’s terror, trembling before the inevitable sting of death, condemns the compassionate lie of philosophy as cruel lying.”
These words of Rosenzweig’s and Heschel’s little book on the Sabbath were my signposts on the way back to Judaism. Sadly, Sherwin listens neither to Heschel nor Rosenzweig. His book is yet another mawkish meander through the fever swamps of transactional therapy, ethical Judaism, out-of-context Hassidic anecdotes, and random quotations from such spiritual authorities as William James and Erik Erikson. The former says, “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” Erikson says, “I am what survives of me.”
I don’t know how to say it more politely, but I don’t want to hear anything more about the meaning of life. I don’t care about the meaning of life; I want life, not “meaning.” The religion I learned from Rosenzweig and Heschel does not understand the problem of what will outlast my life or survive me, for it tells me that I am not going to die — not forever in any case.
Become relevant to the Jewish service, said Heschel. If you want to understand Jewish theology, listen to Jewish prayer, wrote Rosenzweig. As Sir Jonathan Sacks, England’s Chief Rabbi, says in his introduction to a new Hebrew-English edition of the Koren Siddur, go to the prayer book if you want to understand Jewish theology.
And that is just what Rosenzweig says about Judaism, with the keen eye of a baal t’shuvah. The blessing that concludes each section, or “ascent” of the Torah reading, blesses the Lord who has given us his Torah and planted eternal life among us. We say this again and again, presumably because it is the most important thing of which we require a reminder. God is faithful, we pray thrice daily in the Eighteen Benedictions, to those who sleep in the dust. He gives life to the dead. This life never will end, not even when God wears out the universe like an old coat and must replace it, as the Psalmist (102: 25-28) tells us:
25Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
26They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
27But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.
28The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.
Judaism does not come to terms with death, find meaning in life that transcends death, seek the meaning of life, attempt to do things that outlast one’s life, or any other such kind of tail-chasing existential idiocy. Judaism hates death. For a vivid discussion of the Jewish horror of death, I recommend Rav Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. The Schrecken und Entsetzen (terror and horror) that Luther felt in the face of death that caused him to make his monastic vows—this terror and horror in the face of death never should be blunted. Rosenzweig reproached the philosophers for sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “I can’t hear you!” in the face of death—and now we are supposed to listen to the same sort of childish petulance from existential therapists? The philosophers whom Rosenzweig rejected in the first pages of the Star were moral and mental giants next to the likes of William James and Erik Erikson.
To understand how the Bible teaches us to confront death, I recommend the marvelous 2008 book Resurrection by the Harvard scholars Jon Levenson and Kevin Madigan. As they wrote,
The sources in the Hebrew Bible have a broader definition of death and of life than we do. That is why they can see exile, for example, as death, and repatriation as life, in a sense that seems contrived (to put it negatively) or artful (to put it positively) to us, but probably did not so seem to the original authors and audiences. In part, this is because the ancient Israelites, altogether lacking the materialist habit of thought so powerful in modernity, did not conceive of life and death as purely and exclusively biological phenomena. These things were, rather, social in character and could not, therefore, be disengaged from the historical fate of the people of whom they were predicated.
God has planted eternal life among us — among the people of Israel — because we partake of the eternal life of Israel. It is we who must become relevant to the service that God requires of Israel and thereby gain eternal life. As Levenson observes, Reform as well as Conservative prayer books temporize on the subject of the resurrection of the body. To the modern sensibilities of veterans of Frankfurt School seminars and Frankl’s logotherapy, it seems so, well, Biblical.
The sort of faith that Sherwin recommends to us, though, seems absurd upon momentary consideration. He writes:
Religious faith offers meaning because it provides a context for meaning that transcends the individual self. Religious faith is living within the framework of a committed covenantal relationship with God ... For the person of religious faith, the journey leads to a life beyond this life, to a dimension of existence in which—after surrendering the embrace of life— e enter the eternal embrace of God. In this view, lie is not a final destination.
But it is not each of us who are saved as individuals; it is the People of Israel who are saved, and we are saved by virtue of our citizenship in Israel. Christians believe the same thing, namely that they are saved because they are adopted into Israel through the miracle of Christ’s blood-sacrifice.
If we believe that there actually is a God who revealed himself to us, then we also must believe that the dialogue of that God with his faith community tells us what it is that God expects of us — and how we can become relevant to him. In all of Sherwin’s self-help advice there is not a word about what it is that God asked of the Jews, which is to obey his commandments—the gift that God has given the Jewish people so that they may approach the unapproachable.
One doesn’t overcome the terror and horror of death by making an “ethical will,” as Sherwin recommends at the conclusion of his book. One is left with one’s fingers stuffed into one’s ears, screaming, “I can’t hear you!” But there is something even worse than this in the sort of vague spirituality that Sherwin seems to like.
After reading Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay “And From There Shall You Seek,” which recently became available in English translation for the first time, I suspect that there is something even more terrifying than the terror and horror in the face of death of which Luther wrote. And that even greater terror is the Divine presence itself. If by some unlucky accident any of us were to find a purely individualistic path to the sacred, we would go mad. To make possible the existence of the universe God must with draw his presence and make room for it, what the Kabbalists call zimzum, or concentration; to allow us to approach the Creator of the Universe without burning up our own personality like a dust-speck in a blast furnace, God gives us specific means to approach him: the performance of sacrificial service (in post-Temple times, the prayer service) and the other mitzvot.
The sacred is awesome, and potentially terrifying. The Torah tells us to approach the sacred via the Mitzvot, which are not in heaven but given to us on earth. Byron Sherwin does no-one a service by approaching it through the self-help section of the bookstores.