Many people fixate on the years on a tombstone, indicating birth and death. But the dash in between those two numbers, said Rabbi Samuel Stahl, is perhaps more significant.
Stahl, a longtime Chautauquan who served as Chautauqua’s theologian-in-residence in 2003, will give a lecture titled “Dying, Death, and Beyond: A Jewish Perspective” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “From Here to Hereafter: Facing Death with Hope and Courage.”
“That [dash] marks what impact you’ve made while on earth,” Stahl said. “The relationships you’ve had, the people that you’ve impacted, the areas of accomplishment personally and professionally — those things that will make some dent in the world, leave something so that the world is better because you are here.”
Stahl will discuss how the most important phase of life is that between physical birth and death, as well as how Jewish people prepare for death, mourning practices for Jews, four different views of the afterlife in Jewish tradition, and heaven and hell.
The Jewish Orthodox view of the afterlife is one of resurrection, Stahl said. Orthodox Jews believe that, when they die, they are awaiting the time when the Messiah arrives and the body and soul of each corpse will be reunited, and the first to be resurrected will be those buried in a Jewish cemetery.
“Because of that view, traditional Jews forbid cremation, because cremation represents to them a denial of the resurrection,” he said. “For the soul to leave the body gently and naturally, the body has to disintegrate slowly into the earth.”
Other Jews believe in immortality of the soul — that bodies die and return to dust, but souls are a godly component within one that never die. Additionally, some Jews believe in reincarnation, although it is not a popular belief, Stahl said.
The different views of death within Judaism are not mutually exclusive, and some Jews embrace more than one. Generally, Jews do not focus much on the afterlife, Stahl said.
Stahl will also explain Jewish mourning practices, which emphasize the reality of death. Stahl said he doesn’t use the term “celebration of life” to characterize funerals, because they are a time of grief, not joy.
“It’s a time of great sorrow. We are supposed to mark it very much as an event of sorrow. It’s a blow to our emotional and physical state, in some ways,” he said. “We don’t camouflage the reality of death.”
The fourth view of the afterlife in Judaism — and the most popular — Stahl said, is that the deceased lives on through memory and influence. They remain alive in the hearts and minds of their survivors, Stahl said, which is reflected in many Jewish funerals.
“The Jewish funeral rituals focus more on the life that the deceased has lived, and that’s why you have family members and friends [and] co-workers coming forth and speaking at funerals,” he said.
Fixating on the notion of going to a “better place” is not useful, Stahl said, because it can leave things unaddressed in the time between physical birth and death.
“I think when you start doing that, you neglect a lot of issues that need to be confronted in this life, like a lot of injustice,” he said.