- - Monday, August 25, 2014

Analysis/Opinion

 

I was born and grew up in Paradise. Workers’ Paradise. It was called the Soviet Union.

It was a fiercely atheistic society, and my college diploma transcript lists an “A” in Scientific Atheism.

I was extremely fortunate to have been able to leave that “utopia,” and I am now a rabbi in Palm Beach, Fla.

There must be some irony in the fact that I was asked to write this article. I guess I know something about living in hell.

One of the most important heroes and role models for Soviet children was a boy named Pavlik Morozov. We read books and watched movies about him, there were songs and even a full-length opera about Pavlik. Every town and city in the USSR had a statue to him, and many schools and youth groups were named after him.

What did Pavlik do to deserve such honors?

He denounced his father, a poor peasant whose crime was hoarding grain, to the Communist authorities who executed him.

Pavlik, in turn, was killed by his grandfather, who then was shot by a firing squad.

Only after leaving the Soviet Union did I understand why my parents never told jokes ridiculing our government in the presence of my sister and me.

For several generations, millions of Soviet parents were frightened of their own children.

All ancient religions and many religions today focus on what happens after we die. Judaism, in contrast, is obsessed with life.

This life — on this Earth.

Every time Jews raise a glass of wine, we say, “L’chaim!” (To life!)

On the holiest day of the year, on Yom Kippur, Jewish people repeat again and again the following prayer:

“Remember us for life, o King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life!”

The most famous Jewish prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, does not even mention death.

To this day, the descendants of the ancient Jewish priests, the Kohanim, are not allowed to visit a cemetery or be in the proximity of a corpse.

In Judaism, life is sacred.

God loves life, and death is the enemy.

We are supposed to do everything we can to improve life here, to make this world better — for everybody.

As God says in Ch. 30 of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Judaism does believe in afterlife, but the Hebrew Bible barely mentions what happens after we die. The other Jewish sacred texts do not dwell too much on the details, either.

The reason for this, I believe, is a profound one.

Too much focus on the world to come has often led to justifying every kind of evil on Earth.

There was a time when Jews were burned at the stake in order to save their immortal souls. My people have frequently been victims of individuals and nations who practiced hatred in the name of the God of love and cruelty in the name of God of compassion.

Even today, in the 21st century, there is a widespread culture of death which has infested enormous parts of the globe. Whole societies are being torn to shreds by people practicing violence in the name of God.

This is unmistakably the battle of our time — between the culture of life and the culture of death. The future of humanity depends on which will be the winner in this battle.

But what about reward and punishment?

What about repentance?

What about paradise and hell?

First of all, according to Judaism, God judges us for our actions, for our behavior, and not for our beliefs or thoughts.

This is what is called “ethical monotheism” — the idea that there is only one God and that he demands from us ethical behavior. This revolutionary concept is the foundation of morality.

To have moral societies and people, we need two things:

1) One source of morality who decides what is right and what is wrong. Without God, morality becomes subjective. The Communist Party will have one morality, the Gestapo will have another one, Hamas terrorists will have their own moral code, and so on.

2) The belief that the most important thing to God is how we treat other human beings, not how much we believe him or pray to him.

In my opinion, there would be much less hell on Earth if more people would accept the idea of ethical monotheism which was introduced by God in the book of Genesis.

There is another crucial concept in Judaism regarding atonement and afterlife. God cannot forgive us for the sins we committed against other people. Only the people we have wronged have the power to forgive us. Before we fast and pray on our Day of Atonement, we must truly repent and make amends with people against whom we transgressed.

If we do serious spiritual work on improving our behavior and asking for forgiveness, we are then “inscribed” in the good book, the Book of Life, for another year.

That, at least, is the hope.

Most of us deserve another chance.

Most, but not all!

Judaism recognizes that there is pure evil in the world.

Some people will not and should not be inscribed in the Book of Life.

I do not know exactly what happens to the truly malicious people after they die. They unquestionably deserve some kind of divine punishment.

My mother lost 47 relatives in two days during the Holocaust. I never met my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins …

Rabbi Leonid Feldman is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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