A Religion that Gives Meaning to Life and Death

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As much as water, food, and air are physical necessities, questions of meaning and existence are embedded in our brains. “Why am I here?” What happens when I die?” We humans are compelled to ruminate on these issues and to search for a solution that creates significance for our lives. Using symbols, rituals and myths, we structure and externalize our responses to these existential questions, and term these “a religion.” 

The Problem of Death and Meaning

Our responses, our religions, then become the social constructs that grant raison d’etre to our lives and manage our pains, physical and mental. We avoid the hypothetical —and horrifying — concept that human life has no meaning whatsoever.

Unfortunately, Reform Judaism has too often failed to deal convincingly with these most essential innate products of being human and not simply Jews. In an era in which people choose their beliefs, solutions to existential issues establish Judaism’s ability to resolve the resultant secondary but important Jewish issues, like Israel and education. Reform Judaism, devoid of a clear and repeatedly, publicly articulated solution to human illness and mortality, has made itself tangential to its adherents’ deepest religious needs and only one of a variety of cultural options.

Rather than employing cerebral and theological propositions, we need to enable our adherents to trust and share their valid encounters with the Ineffable, and to be there for one another in the name of the religious community rather than allow them to languish on their own. The experience of the presence of God may not be a philosophical conclusion, but neither is it irrational. When shared in community it sustains us through crisis and gives higher meaning to our joy. Both are necessary. Doubt need not mean negation.

This mutual support, even acknowledging our lack of certainty but our affirmation of the bedrock reality of our experience, facilitates creating a religion that bolsters faith through shared higher truths about critical, foundational issues.

A serious religion proposes the answers to a community’s felt existential dilemmas.

The Religious Task

The task of religion, then, is to posit believable answers, appropriate to the era, in order to make the world comprehensible for its believers. In the year 70 c.e., for example, the destruction of the Second Temple presented the Jewish people with an existential crisis, the undermining of the core beliefs of the Jewish people: the eternality of the covenant with God and the necessity of the sacrificial system to sustain that covenant. Pharisaism, Rabbinic Judaism, ultimately replaced biblical faith. To do so it appropriated social constructs that had been developing over centuries: an interpretable Biblical holy text, midrash, halacha, mitzvah and synagogue-centered communal prayer. The Rabbis employed these as a system to solve the existential issues of the Jewish people, particularly its continuity and ultimacy.

Modernity undermined this same Rabbinic system for those who:

1. sought to enter Western society and

2. were convinced by the destruction of proofs for God’s existence.

The new system’s task was to enable the integration of the Jewish people into modern society while sustaining its faith, and most critically, provide answers to its philosophical issues. These central concerns, among them the destruction of Biblical authority in a world where God’s existence could no longer be proven, undermined the inherited Rabbinic system. The Reformers partially replaced the old system with Kantian ethics and modifications of ritual to enable “modern” Jews to fit into European life. Thus, Judaism became a religion rather than an all-encompassing civilization.

Religions, when they adapt to new realities, must credibly and convincingly answer the underlying existential issues to maintain their relevance to their community of believers. It is my contention that Reform Judaism has largely failed in this most central task, and that is a major cause of its malaise.

Plausible theories exist in our society enabling coping with the problem of mortality. But Reform Judaism has failed to own them as central to Jewish communal life.

Among them are: 

1. Many people have had personal experiences which lead them to believe in an afterlife, even though they are reluctant to discuss these experiences for fear of being mocked.

2. Programs like the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are training communities of people to prepare for the issues of aging, and thus creating groups of Jews who may support one another when they face mortality issues, aging and illness.

3. Some would say that death does not matter, because we know no more after death than we remember pre-birth, and that since consciousness does not exist after death there’s nothing to fear.

4. Near Death Experiences and pre-life memories are convincing some people that they have existed before and will exist again.

Social Justice issues, along with Israel as an existential necessity after the Holocaust, have provided motivations for Jewish community involvement for the past 75 years. But the Holocaust no longer motivates a majority of today’s believers, and Israel has faded significantly in existential importance for the younger generation.

The Theological Problem of Doubt

Professor Gerald Bubis (z”l) used to say that “a Jewish dropout is someone who never finished his Master’s Degree.” It’s safe to presume that our congregants possess at least four years of college. Through indoctrination in the scientific method and philosophical materialism they were imbued with doubt, in particular about conclusions regarding non-replicable events or emotions. Religious doubt became a cultural virtue and often a point of pride. Even when many of them at some point in their lives had experienced highly spiritual moments, encountering a Higher Spiritual Reality, they did not report themselves to be religious people. Why?

In Western religion, a Higher Spiritual Reality is historically the primary culturally embedded solution for the issues of our mortality. I frequently asked congregants if they’d encountered a Higher Reality during their lives. Most responded affirmatively. They’d experienced a palpable sense of an ineffable presence in the miracle of birth, and in the mystery of the transition from “alive and animated” to “dead and inanimate.”

Often at the time of their joy they were speechless about their transformed lives, and the meaningfulness contained in that transformation continued until their own demise. If a death occurred to that child while the parent was still living, it often disoriented their entire understanding of life’s purpose. However, the same scientific method destroyed a personal conclusion of Ultimacy beyond the moment. Even accompanied by testimonies from people who were not embarrassed to acknowledge that they had experienced God’s presence, doubt reigns supreme.

After a death, often the family needed to ask the existential question of where did s/he go? Where are they now? This was clearly not a physical question, nor even a psychological question, but a spiritual question of how life comes into being and then seemingly disappears, at least from physical space. People are very aware that their loved one persists in their lives, and the loss and absence cause not only pain but wonder and mystery.

The essence of life itself is a mystery beyond comprehension to people. So why do they not consider themselves to be religious, as their gut response to life is fundamentally spiritual?

Our congregants were taught to evaluate their experiences logically, and to doubt the conclusion “this proves a Higher Reality exists.” Yet, they did not dismiss that

Reality altogether. But the cognitive dissonance between their experience and their comprehension often leads to confusion. Rarely would they permit themselves to discuss the religious meaning of their highest moments, even to their most intimate friends and partners. In discussing an event, they might term it meaningful, or important, but rarely if ever, “I felt God in that moment.”

The lack of public acknowledgement and thanks to God robbed these folks of communal support for their intuition and emotional response that indicated the “presence of a Higher Power.” Without communal support and refining the conclusion through discussion, that intuition of God’s presence remains undeveloped. It feels naïve and silly because it contradicts their pride in religious doubt and therefore must be kept private.

What, then, are we to do? They need to believe their experience, even though it’s human to doubt.

Drawing conclusions from experience may feel risky, but they possess their own higher validity. We cannot logically prove the meaning of our experiences of the sacred, but we can share those experiences and in so doing create a community of believers with a shared Higher Reality.

Years ago I visited a havurah of young couples my own age. The subject was death and dying. A woman recounted this story: A 5-year-old boy on her street had died. My congregant, a young mother, was sympathetically horrified, and intuiting the mother’s remorse, conquered her reticence and visited the bereaved mother just days after the funeral. She walked down the street and found the grieving woman in her garage with an open door. My congregant said, “I came to tell you how sorry I am about the loss of your son. I just want you to know.”  The mother responded, with a smile, “Oh, that’s okay, he’s in a better place, and I know I’ll see him someday.” My congregant, staring intently at me so focused that I felt accused, said, “I want that.”

At that time I didn’t know what to say. We both were convinced that that woman had theological certainty of the immortality of her son and their ultimate reunion. She had conquered her doubt we thought. Now I know better. What she had was a community of people supporting her in her grief.

That community shared their theological assumption, universally acknowledged according to their testimony to the bereaved mother, that death is not the end. It was that support that enabled a plausible theology and provided the necessary presence to sustain the mother through the horrifying experience, regardless of the theological logic of her conclusions.

The community provided a theology of transformation rather than tragic loss. Her theological certainty was the result of a supportive community with an agreed upon explanation of the meaning of death — her child was in a better place and their separation was not permanent — not the proof of immortality my congregant desired. Our people require a believable theology and social support.

Too often we lack both the community and the mythos to sustain us.

Even if experience of divine presence is not immediately replicable and comprehensible, it possesses its own validity. If we can’t prove God’s presence, in community we can affirm to one another that under similar circumstances many of us have been swept up in the embrace of the Ineffable. Like cool water at a desert well, sharing the experience of God’s presence can heal our broken spirits and restore our faith in life’s goodness.

In sum, while progress has been made, the world has shifted and new solutions to existential problems, particularly of death and meaning, must be found and furthered by the liberal Jewish community. Rather than focusing primarily on children’s education and on worship, Reform Judaism must now answer these existential issues and give the solutions support in mutually supportive communities. Both plausible solutions and committed communities are essential.

Believable solutions are available in our culture. But where are the symbols and rituals which inculcate these propositions? Where are the Jewish stories, told and retold in our communities, which make our members safe to believe that death is not an unresolvable issue and there is a community of support to see them through life’s terrors?

Liberal Judaism requires an accepted theology of the meaning of death, and the community to support it and us. Without them, we will never succeed. But with them, American Jewry will attract not only Jews but converts and searchers for ultimate meaning beyond our imagination.

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