Friday, October 07, 2022

After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, by Hillel Halkin

(Princeton University Press, 2016), 226 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14974-5 $29.95

Hillel Halkin is an accomplished American-born Israeli translator, biographer, literary critic and novelist who has lived in Israel since 1970. This book is his rumination on death, mourning and the afterlife in Jewish tradition. He asks many questions about the Jewish views (there are many) relating to death, mourning and the afterlife and when they entered Jewish consciousness.

Reading this volume is like taking a journey. It is akin to an IMAX movie or the Tower of David sound and light show. We start with Adam, and the Patriarchs, and all the cultures and belief systems they encountered along the way. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, various Christian sects, the Essenes, the Apocalyptics and even the pagans all leached something into Jewish thinking about death, mourning and the afterlife. The divergence among the Talmudic rabbis is noted as are the various differences among medieval luminaries.

Is there special expiatory power being buried in Israel? What happens after death? What is Heaven like? Who goes to Hell? What influence did the Kabbalah have on these beliefs? Where did Kaddish come from? What is its power? What about resurrection? Do we believe in reincarnation? How much is superstition? These questions and many more are asked and answered in a clear and precise manner.

This is not a scholarly work, but Halkin’s fluid writing style belies his erudition. He has read broadly and deeply in the Jewish corpus of texts as well as in cognate sources and displays a comfortable mastery of rabbinic literature. He demonstrates the variety of Jewish beliefs relating to the afterlife and methodically surveys the sources. Halkin tries to show the demarcation between Jewish law and Jewish folklore.

The first half of the book is well documented and covers the period up to the pre-modern age. Beliefs, practices and customs are described and delineated. The second half has two parts: Halkin’s personal attitude and practice, and how the modern Jewish world has incorporated mourning practices to commemorate the Holocaust and Israel’s losses.

Despite deep familiarity with Jewish law and practice, Halkin eschewed traditional mourning practices for his parents. There would be the occasional kaddish on the yahrzeit but as a secular Jew he does not feel bound by these observances. On the other hand he observes with approval the secular adoption of certain Jewish memorial prayers to mourn great kibbutz leaders, those who fell in defense of Israel and of course those who died in the Holocaust.

After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition is a tidy volume that provides history and insight into how Jews mourn and what Jews believe about the afterlife. It is both informative and perceptive.

By Wallace Greene

Wallace Greene taught Jewish History and Rabbinics at Yeshiva University, Queens College and Upsala College. He writes and lectures on the nexus between contemporary Jewish topics and Jewish law.

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