Thoughts for the Week
It’s surprising how often this happens to me: I pick up a book to read that I think will be completely non-Jewish, and it turns out to have some Jewish connection (can it be because I’m a rabbi?).
This happened to me yet again when I began to read Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt. You might say, well, rabbi, what did you expect from a Professor Greenblatt? But I didn’t expect it. Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar, has written widely outside the bounds of Shakespearean scholarship, and one of my favourite books ever was his book The Swerve, about the discovery by Poggio Bracciolini of a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”). I can imagine that this doesn’t meet everyone’s description of a page-turner, but it was a real adventure in popular scholarship, well-written and exciting. So I expected the same of Hamlet in Purgatory.
But if I thought this book would take me away from my Jewish interests, I was proven wrong almost immediately. The preface speaks of the universal need somehow to come to terms with death, and Greenblatt talks about the Jewish experience of death, and his own family’s experience as well.
He recalls that his father, rather surprisingly, left a sum of money to an organisation that would say kaddish for him, clearly not expecting his sons to do it. This had the ironic eﬀect of impelling Greenblatt to do so, which he might otherwise not have.
He says, “I … did not know why Jews prayed for the dead at all. After all, biblical Judaism has only what seems like a vague and imaginatively impoverished account of the afterlife.
The Hebrew Bible speaks of a place called sheol, often translated by Christians as “Hell,” but it is not a place of torture and has very few of the features of the Christian or classical underworld.” In addition, it appears that the kaddish as we know it is relatively recent, and apparently arose in its modern use as a prayer of mourners in the wake of the horrors of the crusades in the Rhineland in the 12th century. At the time, Jews began to keep memorial books in which the martyrs of that period, along with benefactors of the community, were commemorated, with inscriptions linked to the kaddish, and the recitation of that text began to include all the dead. As Christianity began to formalise the practice of praying for the dead in order to alleviate their suﬀerings in Purgatory, Jews began reciting the kaddish, perhaps for similar reasons, if not in such in organised way. It is for this reason that sons are given the responsibility of saying kaddish for their parents; indeed, a son is traditionally referred to as a man’s “kaddish,” the one who will take on this responsibility after the father is dead, caring for him in some undeﬁned afterlife.
Greenblatt quotes John Donne, during whose lifetime very few Jews were dwelling in early modern England, the Jews in England having been oﬃcially expelled in 1290. Speaking as though he had personally witnessed it, Donne says, “This is true which I have seen, that the Jews at this day continue … in practice … when one dies, for some certain time after … his son or some other near in blood or alliance, comes to the Altar and there saith and doth something in the behalf of his dead father …” Greenblatt adds that he himself, “who scarcely knows how to pray,” undertook this responsibility for his own father.
When it comes to death, it seems to me that none of us really knows how to pray. Like Greenblatt, we cling to certain traditions as to a rock in a storm, hoping that they will provide us with some sense of certainty when faced with loss. Death, and our response to it, is universal in human society, but our tradition oﬀers us a rock to cling to, without forcing us to accept a theology of death. In its very ambiguity, Judaism provides a supple support in times of trouble and loss that is, in my view, more powerful than a more speciﬁc system of belief, such as something like purgatory, would provide.
by Rabbi Gershon Silins