Living on

Hillel Halkin explores death, grief and the great beyond in Jewish tradition.

Remembrance candle (photo credit: Courtesy)
Remembrance candle
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although Moses was said to have lived until the age of 120, Psalms set the expectation of our time on earth at threescore years and 10. And “if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away.”
Advances in medicine have changed the calculus a bit, but not all that much. And, as journalist, critic and translator Hillel Halkin reminds us, if death is “a foreign country,” age 70 is an appropriate time in which to make travel arrangements.
In After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, Halkin examines Jewish perspectives on death and grief in the Bible, the Talmud, the poetry of Shmuel Hanagid, Maimonides’s “Thirteen Articles of Faith,” the mystical writings of the Zohar (the central text of the Kabbala), and the concept of tikkun (in which the soul atones for misdeeds in a previous life through acts of awareness, reparation and completion).
Halkin then skips ahead about 500 years to reflect on his response to the death of his parents, his own mortality, and Jewish traditions of mourning. His book is informative, idiosyncratic, intimate and thought-provoking.
Although the Bible refers 66 times to She’ol, a place beneath the ground, Halkin indicates, it is relatively silent on how to reach it and what awaits the dead people who are sent there. Full of the fear of death, the Bible provides no other-worldly compensations or consolations. The notion of an immortal soul and an afterlife, in which each individual receives his or her just deserts, either in the company of angels or in a pit of dark flames, came later, Halkin emphasizes, perhaps after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
He attributes the emergence of this “polarizing view of humanity” by referring, rather vaguely, to sectarian divisions among Jews; resentments against the widening gaps between rich and poor; and intensifying despair about injustice in the world.
Halkin maintains that descriptions of heaven disappoint. They are either “je-junely flat” or “unsatisfyingly rarified.” And so, he writes, heaven must have its hell, not only to punish evildoers “but to encourage conduct insufficiently spurred” by a paradise without sex, children, food and drink. Maimonides, he suggests, didn’t really believe in personal immortality. And the “secular” Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages, influenced by Maimonides and Immanuel’s Notebooks, included “entertaining” portraits of the afterlife that “may have retained the old biblical sense of death’s finality.”
Halkin reveals as well that the kaddish originated as a paean of praise to mark the end of a session of Torah study, not a prayer of mourning. By the end of “talmudic times,” however, many Jews embraced the notion, previously regarded as “pagan,” that prayer could redeem the souls of the damned. The kaddish spread from Germany through Ashkenazi Europe and beyond as a daily rite of mourning. Indeed, a failure to recite the prayer was taken as indifference to the fate of the dead in the world-to-come.
Although he deems the words of the kaddish a magnificent proclamation “of the majesty of it all in the face of death, in defiance of death,” which does not say that God is just or that He has good reasons for doing what he has done, Halkin, a secular Jew, refused to recite the prayer after his father died. Afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the man he grieved for, who had taken him to baseball games and read a book while Hillel watched the play on the field, and with whom he had walked home from shul, “my small hand in his big one,” had disappeared much earlier.
Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, when refusing to pray for his mother, used the words non serviam which have been attributed to Lucifer, Halkin tells us, his abstention “was a matter of pure willfulness.” On his father’s yahrzeit, Halkin relented, went to synagogue, said the kaddish, “felt nothing,” and as he walked home thought “better never than late.”
The next morning, however, he arose early and observed how the light from the yahrzeit candle “spread from its source like droplets of scent borne on air, and thought how much light one little wick gives.”
Acknowledging that the candle would soon sputter and choke, much as his dad had in the hospital, Halkin found himself chanting the kaddish again, this time at his own pace.
That said, Halkin remains convinced that rituals do not change anything.
“We let ourselves be comforted that the dead will live on in us,” he writes, “while ignoring the discomforting truth that we, too, will not live very long.” And while we strive to stay alive in someone’s memory through the name of a grandchild, a donor’s plaque, a book we write, a deed we have done, or carving our initials on a rock or the trunk of a tree, “time smiles and goes about its work.”
Death is scary, Halkin adds, so we talk about something else. For this reason, perhaps, contemporary Judaism, in which talk of an afterlife is conspicuous by its absence, seems to “prefer to talk about something else, too.”
And so, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty ends, for better and worse, with “the birth of another day on earth” and Halkin’s recognition that “if heaven has anything to match it with, the news has yet to be brought back.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.