This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
Which life matters?
The promise of an afterlife is a powerful thing. People can do just about anything for a chance at eternity. No sex? Done. No material comfort? Done. Disengage from the world into a self-imposed ghetto of language and religious practice? Done. Avoid certain foods? Done. Persecute heretics? Done. Kill unbelievers? Done. Submit to centuries of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom? Done, done and done. Think of the appalling cruelty of the caste system – convincing those at the bottom of the social ladder they deserve to be there because of sins in a past life, and the only way to improve their prospects in the next life is to humbly accept their lot and to not rock the boat. If it can save your place in the world to come, earn you a spot in heaven, guarantee cosmic reward and permanent bliss, people will do strange and terrible things to themselves and each other. They can ruin this life in pursuit of the next.
Now some who believe in an afterlife ARE deeply engaged in this one, and for good works here and now. Christopher Hitchens’ line “religion poisons everything” demonstrates a very thin knowledge of the range of religious lives – we need a sophisticated approach to religion that accounts for Inquisition and Jihad, AND for Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the large majority of religious believers who love their neighbors and do not persecute them. We saw on Rosh Hashana that rabbinic emphasis on a world to come did not preclude attention to this one. Even if the daily Amidah prayer thanks god (in advance) for someday resurrecting the dead, that same rabbinic literature also proclaimed, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9] These are lives destroyed and saved in this world, not in the next.
Based on what we can show about the world and ourselves, this is very likely the only life that we get. The end of oxygen and blood flow means the end of the electrical signals in our brains, and as far as we know that internal stillness means the end of our consciousness. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised, or unpleasantly surprised, and maybe we don’t know what we think we know, but I prefer to be ready for what is most likely. Besides, I have never gotten a definitive answer as to how old you are in an afterlife; if I have to go through middle school again, forget it. Even if there may be a sequel, we believe in the importance of life BEFORE death. We believe that This life matters.
At the same time, we need to understand why is it so tempting to seek other lives beyond this one, be they reincarnation, resurrection, or a new ethereal plane. If Humanistic Judaism is to meet human needs in secular ways, we must discover what those needs are. Obviously, human beings are afraid to die – we have never experienced a world without us in it, and on some level we never lose the feeling we had as babies that if we close our eyes the world disappears. We are afraid to lose the people we love, we are afraid that goodbye at a funeral is really goodbye and not “see you soon.” We need to make sense of suffering and tragedy. Our brains are hardwired to want justice – that helps our cooperation with each other, but it also means we have trouble accepting the death of a child or undeserved suffering or tragic death without trying to make sense out of it. There are so many WRONG things people say after someone dies tragically: if a child dies, there was an “angel shortage” for child death. Or “you’ll see them again” – but not for the rest of my life, and I need to figure out how I’m going to get through that! To make sense of it all, we might even blame the person who died of something far less than a capital offense if only to make them a little guilty and thus somehow deserving of their tragedy. And then there are the consequences of facing this life without the promise of another one.
Actress Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic, and her monologue “Letting Go of God” describes a gradual drift away from that religious perspective until one day something just clicked. One striking passage speaks very eloquently to the challenge of believing in this life alone:
One day I was sipping my coffee, walking along a busy shopping area near my house. And I was lost in thought, thinking, so I don’t think anything happens to us after we die. Our brain just stops like every other organ. So people just die.
And then I thought, wait a minute. So Hitler, Hitler just died? No one sat him down and said, you screwed up, buddy, and now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell. Huh. So Hitler just died.
And my brother Mike, who suffered unspeakably from cancer. He just died. I always had this idea that Mike’s death, while premature, was his divine destiny somehow. And that his spirit didn’t really die, but it lived on. Not just in the memory of those that knew him, but in this real, tangible sense. And I realized that I now thought he died. He really died, and he was gone forever.
And then I realized I had to go back and basically kill off everyone I ever knew who died who I didn’t think really died. And then I thought, oh, so I’m going to die.
Then I started thinking about all the happenstances, all the random little moves which resulted in me being alive, me, in particular, at this moment. Not just of my parents meeting, but even of the billions of sperm against the hundreds of possible eggs. I thought about this randomness multiplying. My parents, their parents, and all the ways it could have gone one way, but it went the way it went. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. But in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here.”
We ARE here. We are alive today, living and breathing reality. We believe in this life, and part of believing this life is accepting the reality of death. But there is so much to do in the meantime! So what does believing in “this life” mean for how we live it?
If we believe that this is the only life, we might be less willing to risk it. There are and there have always been atheists in foxholes (and on motorcycles), today there is even a Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and there are certainly causes we might be willing to fight for and to die for. But if death is the end, the real end, then risking our lives means rising our individual conscious existence. And taking another’s life obliterates their entire individuality, all their potential tomorrows and remembered yesterdays wiped out in an instant. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world.” It can be scary to contemplate that our end might well be THE end, and the same for everyone else. Now each of us can take this belief and run with it in different directions. One may use a belief in the uniqueness of this life in favor of or in opposition to the death penalty (aside from legitimate concerns about fair application). Is not murder that much more calamitous because of its permanent and irreparable consequences for the victim? Or is legal execution that much more terrible because of its permanence? And, as Sweeney said, even Hitler just died – there is no guarantee that the universe will provide any more justice than we are able to.
If we believe in this life, we need to make the most of it, and we should help others make the most of theirs. We deeply value our limited experiences, we value our time with the people we love, we cherish our opportunities that much more dearly – to quote the Book of Hamilton, we are not throwin’ away our…shot. Carpe diem – seize the day, or at least seize the fish if you want any lox at the Rosh Hashana oneg. Human self-fulfillment, self-actualization, independence, dignity, self-awareness – all the more crucial in the century or less we have allotted to us. Saving lives and reducing deaths is vitally important – “whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” And improving lives, deepening the quality and not just the quantity of life, becomes even more important as we focus our energies on this life. People will disagree over when life begins or what is ethical to do or not do as we near the end. Whether we believe that every person is in the divine image or simply in our own image, each person deserves dignity and respect and freedom and life in THIS life.
What if lives are in conflict, or it seems that all lives are not treated equally? Rather than ask which life matters, I am now asking “which LIVES matter”? In a direct conflict, self-preservation is entirely reasonable and appropriate. In rabbinic law, and thus in historic Jewish culture, if someone is trying to kill you or to kill someone else, you are justified in killing the rodef, the pursuer. What if you are in a city under siege, and the attacking army demands a specific person to spare the city? What do you do? The rabbinic answer is that if they demand someone specific, you are allowed to surrender that person to save everyone else; if they simply demand any Jew, then you should refuse rather than play god. What if someone threatens your life unless you kill a third person? There the rabbis said that you should submit to death rather than kill an innocent; in a marvelous turn of phrase, they ask, “whose blood is redder?” How can you decide that your life is worth more than the other person’s?
One of the most famous of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not kill.” However, the King James Bible was a translation of Hebrew to Latin to English, so something was lost in translation. The Bible is not shy about killing people. We saw on Rosh Hashana how Korah and his followers are wiped out to crush their rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The Hebrews are commanded to destroy entire Canaanite cities, and there are many sins punishable by death, from cross-dressing to adultery. A stubborn and rebellious child is to be stoned to death – well, that one might come in handy. What the commandment “thou shalt not kill” REALLY says is lo tirtzakh, do not MURDER. Jewish laws accepted justified killing, from war to judicial execution. What was forbidden was illegal killing. There was even a provision for accidental manslaughter (Deuteronomy 19:5):
A man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the ax head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of the sanctuary cities and save his life.
As with any laws this old, there are blind spots – Exodus 21, right after the 10 commandments, says that if a man beats his slave and the slave dies, the owner will be punished, but unlike, say, gathering sticks on Shabbat, it does not say that the owner will be killed. An eye for an eye and a life for a life, but not if the person killed was not a full person – evidently, their life mattered, but it mattered less. The awesome, permanent, irreparable action of ending a life was not applied evenly in the ancient world.
What if our connections to family, ethnicity, nation are elevated at the expense of others? Hurricane Matthew killed two dozen people in the United States – it killed 1000 in Haiti. We have our concentric circles of loyalty – family, community, ethnicity and culture, political nation, and ultimately humanity. There are inevitably times when the circles closer to us take precedence over those further away – no one condemns feeding your own children. But where is the line? In Philip Roth’s short story “The Conversion of the Jews”, a Hebrew school student keeps getting in trouble.
What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.
Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia, and in studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.
Why does Ozzie wish all 58 dead were Jews? Because he wanted more Jews to die? No. He wanted their deaths to be mourned the same! “Whose blood is redder?”
We are not only universalists. We also have group loyalties and attachments – to our families, to the Jewish people, to our country. It is not evil to note the names like ours on a casualty list, or to want the best for our nation. It is not wrong to draw attention to anti-Semitic harassment and hatred of our people for who they are, be it from right-wing nationalists or from left-wing internationalists. We have no trouble saying “Jewish lives matter,” drawing attention to Jewish genetic diseases, supporting Jewish communities and causes, mourning the loss of our relatives near and far, defending our people against irrational prejudice on the rise. It is harder to hear, harder to really hear and understand, the painful experiences of others. And it might be easier to risk the lives of others than it is to change a situation that worked out OK for us and ours. If we believe that “this life matters,” and we can say “Jewish lives matter,” then we should be able to say “Black Lives Matter.” In truth, EACH life matters, in all of their diverse experiences and challenges.
Like everything else, we will not agree on everything. In addition to its problematic passage accusing Israel of genocide, I am not an anti-capitalist, as the Movement for Black Lives platform would have me be. But this summer I saw articles on conservative websites like RedState, the Daily Caller, and the National Review ALL looking for common ground. The concrete recommendations of Campaign Zero, like independent investigations, better de-escalation training, addressing police union contracts, and body cameras are not left or right, black or white, north side or south side issues. A recent study on new body cameras in England found that complaints against police were reduced by up to 90% – both the police and the public behaved better knowing they were on camera and might be accountable. Shades of our Torah reading (Numbers 14) where fear of shame improved even divine behavior. Just as feminism improved the world for men too, so can addressing the concerns of other groups lift all boats. If the consequence could be the end of a life, destroying an entire world, then we have to do better.
Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness; ending a life is often described as an unforgivable crime – you are allowed and even encouraged to forgive a wrong done to you, but you cannot forgive a wrong done to someone else on their behalf. This makes atonement and forgiveness that much harder – I have to confront the very person I wronged and do my best to make it right with them, in person, to their face. And they have to see me again, and push themselves to accept my apology, and find a way to move forward. If you have killed someone, ended this life for them, they cannot forgive you, and you cannot present yourself to them for forgiveness. You can reach out to their family, to their community, but there is nothing you can do to bring them back. They are gone. If we believe that this life matters, how much more important, then, to reconcile the differences we can and then be able to move forward with the rest of the time we have left.
We are not the first to grapple with the challenges of believing in this life alone. The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that when we die, the atoms disperse and we are no more. He famously wrote that because the end of life is really the end,
death is nothing to us, which makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for those who thoroughly understand that there are no terrors in ceasing to live. ..when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.
An easier version comes from a modern source, the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Believing in this life is not a death sentence, or even a life sentence – it is an invitation to live your life, and to make it possible for others to live their lives. And we all should live as deeply and as meaningfully as possible. Which life matters? This one. Whose lives matter? Yours and mine, theirs and ours, each of us an entire world to destroy or to save. L’chayim, to life!