Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life

Here's my latest op-ed to appear in the Jewish Standard, published in the April 22nd edition of the weekly paper. Published just in time for Passover, it's a reflection on the significance of the holiday, entitled, The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life:

Passover is a celebration of freedom, a holiday marking the defining moment in Jewish history, our liberation from bondage.

Passover represents the birth of a nation. The clan of Jacob, just an extended family, becomes a multitude, the children of Israel.

And the story takes us through a revolution against an unjust monarch and an escape from tyranny, to the framing of a constitution at Sinai. No wonder that the holiday resonates so powerfully here in the United States. The Jewish story of slavery’s abolition even includes a civil war of sorts, with the confederacy that turns to worship the golden calf.

The powerful injunction to remember that we were slaves in Egypt stands in sharp contrast to the mythologies of other peoples of the ancient world, which cast them as the descendants of gods or otherwise of supernatural origin. Passover establishes the foundation of Jewish ethics—not simply to value freedom, but in the words of Micah, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” You can’t get much more humble than being a slave.

Birth is a common theme for holidays that incorporate the rites of spring, as does Passover, with the rebirth of nature symbolized by the green vegetable and the egg on the Seder plate. The other side of birth is death, a topic we don’t like to think much about. But death, unlike taxes, is unavoidable for each and every one of us, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. The very name of the holiday Passover, or Pesach, refers to the Angel of Death passing over the dwellings of the Israelites.

The escape from servitude only occurs after the escape from death. First there must be life. Only then can there be hope, and the potential for freedom. But what is left unsaid is that the escape from death is only a temporary reprieve. Does this imply that the same might be true of the escape from bondage? Certainly, there is no permanent liberation from the inevitability of death.

The Jewish-American anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the 1974 book The Denial of Death, argued that we human beings are the only forms of life on earth that are aware of our own mortality, and that awareness represents a crushing blow to our self-esteem. The function of human culture is to provide some form of compensation, through beliefs in various kinds of immortality, and by providing us with heroic roles to play in the lives that we lead. Of course, when it comes to the denial of death, religious beliefs have played a major role, especially in the very specific conception of an afterlife that many provide.


Passover stands out from all of the other traditional holidays on the Jewish calendar in its direct confrontation with death. By way of contrast, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pray that we may be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, with barely a mention of life’s opposite. On Passover, however, death is personified in the guise of an angel. Since an angel literally means a messenger, this implies that death is a message from God, the same God who exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Life and becoming immortal.

The message is one of choice. In Deuteronomy (30:19) God tells us, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live.” While we do not choose to be born or to die, there are choices still to be made. The Pharaoh chooses death time and time again, beginning with his order to kill every newborn Hebrew male, continuing with his refusal to let the Israelites go, resulting in the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Pharaoh’s choice of death culminates in the decision to pursue the escaping Israelites, resulting in the drowning of the Egyptians army.

Pharaoh’s choices come as no surprise, insofar as he represents an ancient cult of death. We may marvel at the pyramids and Sphinx as wonders of the ancient world, but we also should recall that they were built with the blood of forced laborers, and that they are enormous tombs carrying the embalmed remains of the Pharaoh along with those who served him in life and were sacrificed so that they might follow him in death.

While the Pharaoh chooses death, the Israelites must make an active decision to choose life. When it comes to the tenth plague, the Angel of Death will not discriminate automatically in favor of the Israelites, will not spare anyone by virtue of their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or because they are circumcised, or because they worship Adonai. It is not Jewish blood that saves the Israelites, but the blood of the sacrificial lamb. This requires, first of all, being a part of the community. If you were not, how would you learn about what had to be done? It also requires choosing to follow the instructions.

We may have replaced the sign made with lamb’s blood with mezuzahs long ago, but the lesson remains: choose life, that you may live.

The Angel of Death who executes the tenth plague is no Adversary. It is not the equivalent of the Christian Satan or Lucifer, nor is it a lord of the underworld along the lines of the Greek god Hades. The personification of death quite naturally is a frightening figure. Its depiction as a creeping darkness in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, usually broadcast on television at this time of year, has been the stuff of childhood nightmares for six decades now.

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I recall being disturbed, in my youth, by the image of this angel in a Haggadah that illustrated a Passover song, Chad Gadya. That the “Holy One, Blessed be He,” finally “smote the Angel of Death, who slew the slaughterer, who killed the ox…” clearly communicated the hierarchy, but this didn’t change the fact that both the slaughterer and the ox ended up dead.

Which brings me back to the point that Passover is a holiday that confronts death rather than denying it, and offers the alternative—to choose life. The Angel of Death is neither an object of worship nor the embodiment of evil. The personification of death is frightening, without a doubt, but as God’s messenger, it is at the same time an Angel of Justice, under certain circumstances an Angel of Mercy, and without a doubt an Angel of Humility.

Ernest Becker eventually came to the conclusion that in our contemporary culture, we have come to place too much emphasis on enhancing self-esteem. Humility serves as a counterweight to that tendency, the humility that comes from remembering that we were slaves, and the humility that comes from remembering that our lives are finite.

Passover is a celebration of redemption and renewal, but above all it is a celebration of life, whose meaning and value can only be understood through its contrast with death. So as we drink our four cups of wine at the Seder, let us also remember to say L’chaim! To life!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Space Travel and Religion

The March 18th issue of the Jewish Standard carried a feature article that I played a part in, in suggesting the topic and providing a quote and some background information. The piece, written by reporter Larry Yudelson, is entitled Bound for Glory (and yes, click on the title to read it online). It continued with the following subtitle: "Leonia rabbi, shul president contribute to anthology on space travel," shul being the Yiddish word for synagogue, the shul in question being Congregation Adas Emuno, in the town of Leonia, in Bergen County, northeastern New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, and the shul president is none other than your humble host here at Blog Time Passing. Oh, and the anthology you may remember from my previous post, Interfacing With the Cosmos.

Here's how the article looked in print, by the way:

Of course, it's a bit hard to read, that way, so let me help you out out by providing the text:

When Barry Schwartz was 11 years old, he begged his parents to let him stay up way past his bed time so he could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Outer space seemed close at hand in the summer of 1969. President Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon within the decade had been fulfilled. Hollywood imagined routine Pan Am space shuttles to orbiting space stations by the year 2001.

That promise was not fulfilled. Pan Am went under, and the Challenger exploded, and though tickets have been sold to the optimistic and rich, tourist flights to space have yet to launch. The astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon in the winter of 1972, and nobody has returned.

Barry Schwartz dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, but when he grew up he landed not on Luna but in Leonia, where he is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno. This month, with the publication of Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion, a new anthology from Fordham University Press, Rabbi Schwartz finally finds himself bound up with astronauts both real and fictional, if only in the pages of a book.

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The volume begins with an interview with astronaut John Glenn, conducted by one of the editors, Dr. Paul Levinson. Dr. Levinson is a professor at Fordham University’s Department of Communications and Media Studies. He has published several science fiction novels and was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but it was a nonfiction work, 2003’s Real Space: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet, which was the springboard for this new anthology.

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One of the topics he explored in that book, Dr. Levinson said, was “how come we made such little progress in getting off the planet since the ’60s? Even now no human beings have been back to the moon. We haven’t been to Mars.”

This got him thinking about people’s expressed motivations for exploring space. There was the military motive that fueled the Cold War space race of the ’60s, the pull of scientific curiosity, and more recently, the view that there is money to be made in orbit.

What was missing in these discussions, he realized, was “something that underlies all these motivations, the almost spiritual exploration of knowing more about who we are in the cosmos. Getting out to space satisfied the yearning every sentient being has, to learn a little more about what this is all about, what are we doing here, what part of the larger picture are we part of.”

And thus was born “an anthology where people from different religious backgrounds and people who are not religious at all write about this intersection of space travel and spirituality,” he said.

Dr. Levinson’s interest in space travel, like Rabbi Schwartz’s, goes back to childhood. “I was absolutely riveted when the Soviets launched the first sputnik,” he said. “I thought it was amazing.”

The book includes an essay from the Vatican’s astronomer, an anthropologist considering the symbolic meaning of objects taken to space by astronauts (including the Torah scroll taken by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman), and scientist and science fiction writer David Brin giving an original midrashic reading of Genesis to justify scientific discovery and creativity. The book’s fiction includes a seder-in-space scene excerpted from one of Dr. Levinson’s novels and a story by Jack Dann, the editor of Wandering Stars, a 1974 anthology of Jewish science fiction, about a far-future rabbi on an alien planet.

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As for the actual rabbi in the book—Rabbi Schwartz entered the anthology via Dr. Lance Strate, Dr. Levinson’s colleague at Fordham who is president of Rabbi Schwartz’s shul. Dr. Strate—who is a Jewish Standard columnist—has an essay of his own in the volume, which mentions Maimonides but takes a somewhat more skeptical stance toward space exploration than the other contributors do.

In his essay, Dr. Strate suggests that the desire for space travel reflects a “longstanding desire to look upward, perhaps a returning to the trees,” he said. He quotes Lewis Mumford, who condemned the space program during the Apollo era as a rerun of ancient pyramid building, in which “a select few individuals were the subject of an extreme amount of labor and resources to send this select few to that culture’s conception of the heavens.” Mr. Mumford argued that “our time and effort and resources would be better spent dealing with our needs here on earth. The overall thrust of the essay is that space travel is about the search for transcendence but we’re not going to find it.”

Rabbi Schwartz, however, argues in his essay that astronauts found transcendence in space—and that they were able to bring it home with them and share it with the world.

“Our journey into space is really about our journey back home,” he writes in an essay that began as a High Holiday sermon in 1989, 20 years after the first moon landing. The essay looks at how the views from space changed our view of earth.

He quotes Saudi astronaut Bin Salman: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”

When Rabbi Schwartz first delivered the sermon, he ended by holding up a photograph taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts that showed the blue globe of the earth.

“From outer space we have gained an inner understanding; a fresh perspective,” Rabbi Schwartz writes. “We are one community on one Earth; a dazzling bundle of interdependent life, hurtling through the void. We are one human race; and must we not join hand in hand across the globe, to care for this our home?”

That's how the article ends, but let's also note the little box that comes right after the piece's conclusion:

Yes, on Saturday, April 9th at 10 AM Congregation Adas Emuno will be hosting a special edition of our weekly Sabbath morning Torah study session, with Paul Levinson joining us for a discussion that's sure to be out of this world! I'm looking forward to it!