Stahl: Judaism focuses on life

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Samuel M. Stahl, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, delivers the Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Jewish people are not homogenous, Rabbi Samuel Stahl said. They are diverse in the way they practice their faith and at the extent to which they follow Jewish laws.

One element that is common in all Jews, though, is that they “are passionately in love with life,” he said.

Stahl shared the Jewish perception of death and life after death — dispelling the common myth that Jews don’t believe in an afterlife — during his 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, titled “Dying, Death, and Beyond: A Jewish Perspective.” The Chautauquan wrapped up Week Nine’s theme,  “From Here to Hereafter: Facing Death with Hope and Courage.”

The Jewish love of life is apparent in its handling of death. Stahl said it’s against Jewish custom to end a life early, even in terminally ill patients.

“We cannot deliberately cut that person’s life short,” Stahl said. “Jewish religious authorities forbid injecting a lethal drug to accelerate the onset of death. However, we’re not obligated to delay death when death seems inevitable.”

Bedside prayers for people in end-of-life situations differ from those in other traditions, Stahl said. The prayers do not serve the same purpose as Last Rites in the Roman Catholic tradition, for example.

“The prayers we offer at the bedside of a dying patient are to give spiritual sustenance and healing for that individual,” he said. “There are no negative consequences in Judaism to dying without those prayers. These are not sacraments.”

The Jewish tradition believes in confronting the reality of death directly, Stahl said. The body is buried within 24 hours whenever possible, after being washed and prepared by a Jewish burial service. The person is dressed in a shroud and placed in a plain, pine casket with no nails or metal.

Stahl also said Jews do not believe in embalming or cremating the dead. Nothing can be done to slow down or alter the natural decomposition of the body.

At the funeral service, Stahl said it is custom to throw three shovels of dirt on the grave.

“This dramatic act of burial, though very hard and jarring and unsettling, emphasizes the finality of death,” he said.

After the funeral, Stahl said, mourners follow a timetable designed to help them deal with their grief. For a week, family members observe shiva — literally meaning seven days — in which they do not leave their house. Community members visit frequently and bring food to the house, creating a space for the family to begin to cope with their grief. For 30 days after a person’s death, mourners follow shloshim, a time in which no celebrations or any form of entertainment can be observed. This is so “the grieving can proceed without distractions or interruptions,” he said.

For the next year, Stahl said mourners recite a mourning prayer called the Kaddish. After this period, the grieving period is said to be complete — although Stahl said life never truly goes back to normal after the loss of a loved one. The timeframe is beneficial for the griever, because “those who are grief-stricken desperately need structure and discipline.”

Stahl addressed the common notion that Jewish people do not believe in an afterlife. But this assumption is not accurate.

“Often a dying Jewish patient and their loved ones, even if they are non-observant, want to know what is going to happen to them after they die,” he said.

There are four traditions that make life after death a possibility in the Jewish faith: resurrection, immortality of the soul, reincarnation and the belief that people can live on through memory and influence.

Souls are imperishable in the Jewish tradition, Stahl said.

“Our soul — that deathless part of God residing within us — never goes out of existence. Because it is divine in nature, it goes on forever,” he said. “When a person dies, his or her soul returns to God, who is the soul of all souls.”

Some Jews also believe in reincarnation, stemming from the Kabbalah, Stahl said. Souls return in another body or bodies, according to the person’s position in a 10-tiered sphere, of which the center is God and all other righteous souls. The soul needs to pass through each sphere by evolving and living different lives until it reaches the center.

Stahl said Jews also believe people can live on in the hearts and minds of loved ones, and through legacies that last longer than life itself.

While Jews do not technically believe in a heaven or a hell — there is no mention of hell or suffering in an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible — Stahl said Jewish sages created figurative depictions of both.

Stahl said the sages portrayed hell in a place called Gehenom, a fiery prison that — despite eternally burning flames — is shrouded in darkness. Heaven was said to be a land of milk, honey and happiness.

These visions are not taken seriously, though, Stahl said.

“We don’t take them literally — only figuratively. We realize that they were part of the fanciful creativity and imagination of the sages,” he said. “They developed them primarily to encourage righteous people to follow the Torah, and to warn the wrongdoer to stay faithful to its regulations and its teachings.”

Stahl also said that Jews tend to find earthly equivalents to heaven and hell — places where they feel joy and pain in the course of their daily lives. Likewise, he said, heaven and hell could also be considered states of mind.

Ultimately, Stahl said, Judaism is a worldly religion, rather than an otherworldly religion. Jews are not preoccupied with death and an afterlife. Stahl said they prefer to focus on life and the present moment.

Correction, Aug. 25, 2014: This article has been updated to delete a paragraph that misinterpreted the lecture.