Confronting mortality

Rabbi Benjamin Blech has penned a personal reflection on being diagnosed with a fatal disease.

How can you know when your time is up? (photo credit: JEFF DURHAM/MCT DIRECT)
How can you know when your time is up?
(photo credit: JEFF DURHAM/MCT DIRECT)
What do you do when told you are going to die?
Six years ago, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a best-selling author, columnist, lecturer and Talmud professor, was informed that he was suffering from cardiac amyloidosis, a fatal and incurable disease. Blech, who had been a communal rabbi for almost 40 years and had helped congregants with their predicaments, now had to deal with his own personal crisis. Hope, Not Fear is his eloquent and personal response, in which he discusses his views on the fear of dying, death, life after death, and evidence for the existence of an afterlife, drawn from biblical, medical and anecdotal sources, and Jewish mysticism. While Blech explains that this book is not intended to be a specifically Jewish response to the subject but, rather, his own personal reflections, Jewish readers will appreciate the numerous talmudic, midrashic and kabbalistic sources that are cited throughout the book.
At the outset, Blech explains that an awareness of death can spur people to spend their time wisely. Understanding that we will all die someday is not morbid, he writes, but liberating, as it frees us from being enslaved to the less important things in life. He cites various Jewish traditions that serve to remind us of this eventuality, such as the wearing on the High Holy Days of the kittel, the white robe which is similar to the white shrouds in which the deceased are buried. He also quotes the well-known Talmudic statement attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, “Repent one day before your death.” When his disciples asked him how they could possibly know when that day would come, he replied, “For that reason we must live each day as though it were our last.”
Blech points out that the belief in an afterlife has long been a part of Judaism’s oral tradition. Turning to the Bible, he notes the lack of acknowledgment of an afterlife in the text. Some explain that this was because it was patently obvious to those living in biblical times that there is an afterlife. Others explain that the omission was purposeful, to illustrate Judaism’s emphasis as a religion of life, rather than a death cult, which was common in ancient times.
To buttress the belief in life after death, Blech presents the phenomenon known as near-death experience, in which individuals close to death, whose heartbeat and brain activity had ceased, reported experiencing out-of-body experiences while they were clinically dead, including feelings of serenity and warmth, meeting deceased relatives and friends, and detachment from their body before being “called back” to life in this world. Blech cites these reported experiences as proof that there is indeed some form of existence after death. While he acknowledges that the evidence to date is anecdotal, he mentions various studies that support these claims, including reports from previously skeptical doctors who themselves had NDE experiences, which indicate that there is some type of spiritual existence beyond this world.
Blech describes his understanding of heaven and hell, explaining that since Judaism posits that there is no corporeal existence after death, God’s heavenly rewards will provide recipients with some form of indescribable happiness. While for Maimonides sharing the radiance of the Divine Presence meant the joy of study and contemplation, for those on a lesser spiritual level it may be some other type of spiritual bliss. Blech theorizes that the goal of hell is not to make us suffer, but to make us renounce the evils of our past, in order to purify our souls.
He writes that reincarnation has long been a part of Judaism’s oral tradition and cites prominent authorities such as Nachmanides who maintained this belief. While belief in reincarnation is not a prerequisite of faith, it can, he explains, be a powerful response to the problem of theodicy, the vindication of divine goodness in light of the existence of evil. A somewhat more controversial and problematic extension of this belief, mentioned by Blech, is that the numerous returnees to faith of this generation (ba’alei tshuva) may be the reincarnated souls of the six million who perished in the Holocaust.
While some Jewish authorities believe in reincarnation, it would have been useful to mention that there are numerous respected rabbinic authorities who did not consider it to be an expression of authentic Jewish belief, such as Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Joseph Albo and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Miraculously, Blech has lived for six years since receiving his diagnosis of terminal illness. As a result, he devotes the book’s final chapter to the five major life lessons that he has learned since then. He discusses the power of faith, which is the most powerful medicine we have; the power of purpose, which is the need to identify what we can contribute to society; the power of optimism, which he writes “is nothing short of a divine commandment”; the power of recognizing the miracles that we witness daily; and the power of prayer. “Prayer,” he writes, “doesn’t come to change God. It comes to change us.”
Hope, Not Fear is liberally sprinkled with quotations and tales from Jewish sources and includes many quotations and aphorisms from modern figures, ranging from Albert Einstein to Yo-Yo Ma.
Blech is a fine storyteller and utilizes his encounters with both the famous and less famous to make the subject relevant.
People who are favorably disposed toward Judaism’s eschatological beliefs will find support for their beliefs in this book.
Those who are not may find it somewhat less convincing. In the words of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the renowned European sage of the 19th and early 20th century, “For believers, there are no questions; for nonbelievers, there are no answers.”