Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
What Next? Reflections on a Day of Study
Is the soul pre-existent or is it created? If it is created, how long does it last? Is it immortal? What is the relationship of the soul and the body? Is there resurrection of the dead? If there is, when will it take place; how will it take place, and who will be resurrected? Will the resurrected have physical experiences? Where do the dead go in the interim? Do they have consciousness? Has Judaism’s view of the afterlife evolved and if so, what are the influences? Is there an unified position about all of these questions?
These were some of the many questions that were posed and examined by Professor Zachary Alan Starr of Suffolk County Community College at the second annual day of study of the Suffolk Board of Rabbis. Professor Starr spent several hours guiding us through the evolution of Jewish thought regarding the soul, the resurrection and the afterlife, with detours through Greek literature and an examination of non-canonical volumes ranging from II Maccabees to the Syblline Oracles. The topics that he presented are ones that that we rarely discuss and rarely come to the fore, except when we personally confront death or our own mortality. Yes, some of these concepts are embedded in our prayer book and we trot some of them out at funerals. For example, in the Memorial Prayer, El Malay Rachamim, we speak of the person being Tachat Kanfay haShekhinah, beneath the sheltering wings of the Shekhinah. However, we don’t pause and evaluate what that means.
At my grandfather’s funeral, Dr. Louis Finkelstein, who was then Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, invoked the image that my grandfather was now privileged to be in the academy on high where he sat along with other great scholars in the presence of the Almighty. It seemed to be a fitting image for my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Meyer Waxman, he who had authored over a dozen volumes hundreds of articles in several different languages. Sitting in study non-stop is probably not an image of the afterlife that most of us would embrace. Nor would all of us look forward to the Muslim afterlife that seemingly guarantees 72 virgins for all males in Paradise. But most of us do hope the next world offers us an opportunity to re-unite with family and indeed many who have had near-death experiences have spoke of such encounters. That hope provides some comfort for all of us. It is a concept that reaches back across the centuries, though the details of the nature of the afterlife continue to elude us.
It is clear that many different views have evolved over the span of centuries as to the nature of our being and what is called the soul: Professor Starr highlighted 8 different approaches to be found in rabbinic literature! And though certain views about the next world have been “codified”—for example, the last line of Yigdal is a poetic rendering of the concept of resurrection--, there remains room for alternative views, as Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme set forth in their excellent volume, What Happens After I Die?.
I often conclude eulogies by citing a passage from the writings of Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, a seminal figure in 19th century Italian Jewry. He wrote: “HaZikaron Mekayem et HaAdam B’eretz HaChayim; memory sustains a person in the land of the living.” It is our memories of those who have left us that enable us to live our lives and at the same time provide a measure of ongoing existence to those who are in the next world.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
Alzheimer’s: A New Approach in the Making
It is claimed that exercising one’s brain through crossword puzzles and reading books creates links in the brain, stimulating neural synapses and possibly staving off the advance of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, there is a class of medications on the market, which slow or delay the further progress of this dreaded malady.
Now, an Israel scientist, Inna Slutzky has completed an experiment in which she sought to balance key proteins found in the brain. She discovered that there is an imbalance of amyloid-beta 40 compared to is counterpart amyloid-beta 42 to be found in those suffering the effects of the disease. More significantly, in experiments with mice she discovered that electrical spikes, pulses of electricity, were able to restore to ratio of the proteins. Her research showed how electric stimulation can manipulate the synthesis rate of beta amyloid by stimulating the neurons that make this substance.
Slutzky and her team of researchers theorize that environmental effects and human experiences may affect the spiking patters in the brain, which may lead to the development of the disease.
According to Professor AMOS Korcyn, a Tel Aviv University neurologist, Slutzky’s efforts represent a first step. Now the study must move from short-term experiments with animals to applying this protocol over the course of several months to humans. He added: “Theoretically we could develop drugs that would mimic the effects of the electrical stimulation. This is far in the future, though.”
P.S. I am sure that you read or heard about Google’s billion-dollar acquisition of the Israeli company Waze, which is a traffic navigation system.
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The portion of Chukkat (Numbers 21:11—22:1) is read this Saturday, June 15th.
21:27 Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built and well founded is Sihon’s city.”
21:27 Let us examine how much effort Sihon expended until he conquered Heshbon, the city of Moab, and how greatly he rejoiced with his troops when he returned from battle with the crown of victory. And so when Israel asked of him to travel through his country, he was prideful, and refused to allow Israel to cross his border and [instead] went to war with them. And we saw a similar example during the World War [WWI] as the reason which caused one noble king in his great pride and his desire to rule over the world, prepared himself for war over the course of 40 years*. And constantly he preached and stirred the people of his nation that the time had come to sow over the roofs**, for the nation was too small to hold all of its inhabitants, and their salvation lay in going to war vigorously and to conquer neighboring lands. The end result is known: that he emerged from the war in mourning and covered in shame, and he lost hundreds of thousands of the best of his army. And who gained from this war? Other nations that had been subservient to other kings and had almost abandoned hope of preserving their languages and their kingdoms. They were helped by him to return to life and to renew their kingdoms and their languages and to live freely. And had the noble king known the results of his war, for which he was toiling, he surely would have raised neither hand nor foot to go out to this war. Similarly, had Sihon known the hidden truth of his victory and for whom he was toiling, he would not have rejoiced in his victory and furthermore would not have gone to war against Moab at all, for it brought neither him nor his people good, for great evil would befall them [as a result]; only the Children of Israel profited from his actions…(Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber, Kerem HaTsvi. Rabbi Ferber was born in 1879 in Kovno, Lithuania, and studied at the famous Slabodka yeshiva. He moved to Manchester, England in 1911, where he founded a yeshiva. 2 years later he moved to Soho in London, where he served as rabbi of the West End Talmud Torah Synagogue. He was an active force in the immigrant community, establishing a burial society and serving as chair of the Association of London Rabbis. He retired from his congregation, where he preached in Yiddish, in 1955. In addition to his commentary on the Torah which was published over the course of over 2 decades—the first volume on Genesis appeared in 1926, the last one on Deuteronomy, though for the most part written earlier, appeared in 1948--, he also produced commentaries on the book of Esther, the Haggadah, on the Ethics of the Father, and on the prayer book, as well as a volume on the issue of civil marriage and divorce in Jewish law. He died in 1966. )
*Actually, Kaiser Wilhelm had been monarch only for 26 years when the war broke out.
** The meaning of this phrase is unclear. Does it mean that land was so short that they had to sow on rooftops or is it a euphemism for bombarding the rooftops? Further, the argument about expansion seems to fit Hitler and his quest for “Lebensraum” more than the Kaiser. However, this volume appeared in 1938 and so the references to post-war effects seem to fit post World War I.