Traveling in South America with my wife for the past week reminded me of how, above all else, Judaism is a religion of life. Indeed, its emphasis on life is probably its single greatest distinction from Christianity.
Everywhere we went, from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco to the Peruvian capital of Lima to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito we passed towering cathedrals adorned by imagery of the wounded Christ. We saw the burial sites of saints throughout the cloisters. In the famed San Francisco Monastery in Lima there are catacombs which defy description. I honestly felt unwell as we walked through enormous piles of bones and skulls that have been accumulating for centuries.
Now, these phenomena are common to Catholicism and are not distinctive of the church in Latin America. But what made all this memorable was the fact that the Church was attempting through all this emphasis on blood to appeal to the indigenous, Indian population and convert them to Christianity. I imagine there was this tacit acknowledgement: An emphasis on death is sure to move them more than an emphasis on life.
In the celebrated La Compania Church of Quito, there is a 400-year-old painting depicting the most gruesome punishments in hell that is in store for the natives should they fail to give up their pagan ways.
But as I looked upon so much of this gruesome iconography, I wondered what price had been extracted through what amounts to a desensitization to death? While I felt uncomfortable as I walked through collections of bones, my Catholic counterparts were posing for photographs.
JUDAISM IS a religion of life. Moses could not have made the essence of our faith clearer than when he said: "I place before you today life and death. And you must choose life."
Jews are conditioned to detest the sight of blood and are warned never to consume it. We bury our dead far away from our cities and holy places. Death is supposed to awaken within us the strongest sense of revulsion. In short, we are never meant to make peace with it or accept it. It's supposed to make us shudder.
What seems to me to be Catholicism's emphasis on death reflects the religion's tacit acceptance of the futility of life. The church was showing the indigenous people that, yes, life sucks. It is filled with misery, poverty and sickness. And after all that, as if it couldn't get any worse, you just up and die. But that's ok, because death ultimately gives meaning to life. Through faith in Jesus as the messiah you will avoid hell and go to heaven, an act so blessed that it will redeem your wretched, desolate, earthly existence.
The modern Protestant evangelical message is not radically different. Yes, there isn't the iconography of a bloody Jesus adorning the church. But the gist of the songs that are sung, accompanied by an impressive-sounding rock band, is that Jesus' blood - the blood of the lamb - atones for your sins so you can get to heaven. It is the death, rather than the life of Jesus that is all-important.
By contrast, it is the mandate of Judaism to wage an unending war against death. Our ancient biblical prophecies are not about avoiding the firepits of hell and living forever in disembodied heavenly bliss, but about war being forever abolished so man can create heaven on earth. Our religion is not about the soul being rewarded in heaven but about bodies finding purpose on earth.
There is an important upshot here, and it is this. Israel has lived with death for 60 years. Every year it buries hundreds of innocent people murdered by terror attacks and war. Yet Israelis mourn each and every one of them. The Jews are simply not reconciled to death.
YEARS AGO, when I was the rabbi at Oxford, I hosted a debate on German reunification. The German government sent in an expert to defend its side. I hosted the participants at my home for dinner just prior to the debate. The gist of what the German expert said was that we Jews ought to finally get over the Holocaust and stop hanging it as an albatross over the German neck.
We were shocked by his words. But he was a refined gentleman and didn't mean to cause offense. He meant to say that we Europeans have also lost a lot of people. Heck, the Black Death killed one-third of the European population. So just move on, already. We all suffer. Stop harping about it.
What this misguided man did not understand is that we Jews are
healthy because death still shocks us. We talk not only about the Holocaust, but about the Jewish babies killed by Pharaoh in Egypt, about the million or more killed by the Romans, about the untold numbers slaughtered by the Crusaders and the Inquisition, and the hundreds of thousands dismembered by Chemielnitzki's Cossacks.
No passage of time can dissipate the horror or provide comfort because our religion fosters within us a permanent hostility to death. Which also explains why, even when Jews are surrounded by death, they choose only life. In contrast to our enemies, we teach our children to reach out to those enemies rather than hate them, because even when all around us there is only death, we choose life.