Contemporary Orthodox Death

Doreen Rosman in her book The Evolution of the English Churches: 1500-2000 describes the early modern concern of religion as death centered. She asserts, “People’s passage from this life to the next and their entry to heaven were…matters of major concern.” Inherent in Rosman’s assertion is the idea that since people thought that most believers did not enter heaven, they had to work very hard to earn their eternal reward through belonging to con-fraternities, appealing to saints and to the beyond, engaging in magical rites, and practicing esoteric wisdom. Modernity changed that major preoccupation.

Michel Vovelle in his La mort et l’occident de 1300 à nos jours (1983) and Ideologies and Mentalities (1990) traces the slow process by which people in the 19th century stopped referring to the afterlife, how tombstones stopped having acute references to the next stage, and people no longer related to the next life as the longer part of one’s existence. Shadal in the beginning of the 19th century was already of a modern mind, yet the American Reform movement was still producing English guides to the afterlife based on Maavar Yabok at the end of the 19th century. Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning oriented modern Orthodoxy away from the traditional concern with the afterlife and claimed that there are no Jewish teaching on the afterlife.

Recently, I went to a funeral and the rabbi spoke about how the deceased will return to be at the wedding of the children and at the wedding we will invite the deceased back.

The formulation for this idea is the Zohar.

Even though the father and mother have left this world, the joy of the [wedding] is attended by all of its partners.. Because we have learned, when a person joins Hakadosh Baruch Hu to the joy of his [wedding], then Hakadosh Baruch Hu comes to Gan Eden and takes from there the other partners, the father and mother and brings them with Him to the joyous event. All are in attendance, and the people are unaware.

But modern circles do not generally follow the traditional Kabbalistic customs; they are not listed in Maurice Lamm’s Jewish Way in Love and Marriage. I emailed a number of my older, and more rationalist, pulpit rabbi friends to find out how customary this was. The general response that I received was that this started at modern weddings in the 1980’s and at that time it seemed surprising to them. It has grown more prevalent since then. Let me know if anyone has any more information about whether it would have been heard at a wedding in the 1970’s or how it came back in.

This comes back because of our current vision of the family staying together after death. There were several studies a decade ago that the American vision of the afterlife is where the family stays together. This was one of the attractions of Mormonism in 1980’s and 1990’s because that is a specific part of their teaching and firmly grounds the idea of family values.

It also comes from our acceptance of the long and complex process of mourning, beyond anything in the halakhah, where mourning becomes a process of temporary magical thinking. People continue to relate to their deceased long after the death. The most poignant reckoning with our current worldview is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

We claim to be rational and project magical thinking onto other religious groups, but we should first look at ourselves and the function the irrational has in our lives. (This may come up again when we return to Habermas’ critics who state that he does not give enough credit to the irrational.) The Zohar did not return because of the study of Kabbalah or haredi influence, rather from our own need to make sense of our losses.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

2 responses to “Contemporary Orthodox Death

  1. In part this may result from death increasingly becoming a deviation from normality that takes place outside of our everyday environs instead of a normal part of life.

  2. lawrence kaplan

    What about the growing popularity of “upsheren” in Modern Orthodox cirles? Same thing in my view.

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