Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

How do you have faith after Sutherland Springs, Texas?

Mona Rodriguez holds her 12-year-old son, J Anthony Hernandez, during a candlelight vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, on Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

We Jews use a certain phrase to speak of our hopes and of our destiny.

L’dor va-dor — “from generation to generation.”

I have been thinking about l’dor va-dor in connections with the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

One minute the Holcombes were a tight-knit family praying in the tiny church on Fourth Street.

The next, eight of them were gone.

Bryan and Karla Holcombe, a guest preacher and his wife, were dead.

Their son Marc Daniel Holcombe, gone. Their pregnant daughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, gone.

And four of their grandchildren — Noah, Emily, Megan and Greg — gone.

The gunman nearly wiped out the Holcombe family, leaving Joe Holcombe, 86, Bryan’s father, to mourn the loss of the generations he had raised. “We know where they are now,” he said in an interview, his voice strained by exhaustion. “All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”

For the last few days, I have been wondering aloud: what will next Sunday be like in that tiny church in that tiny Texas town? How can those parishioners have anything resembling faith?

The short answer: it’s about heaven.

And yes, Judaism believes in heaven — olam ha-ba, the world to come.

Why don’t more Jews know that?

True — that idea is not really in the Bible. The Bible says that when you die, you go to a dark, boring place called Sheol.

But, in post-biblical literature and theology, we get a full-blown sense that this life is not the final word. It’s called olam ha-ba, the world to come.

When I tell Jews about olam ha-ba, the world to come, they say to me: “That sounds awfully Christian to me.”

To which I respond: “Where do you think they got the idea?”

It was where Islam got the idea as well (and radical Islam has shown us how dangerous the over-emphasis on the next world can truly be).

It is a vision that exists in some form in Western religion: that the soul — that piece of us which is unquantifiable, the place where our values reside, the place of our personhood – endures forever in heaven, or the olam ha-ba, the world to come, or Gan Eden, the supernal Garden of Eden.

When I perform a funeral, I recite this prayer: “El Male Rachamim, God of Compassion, let the soul of our beloved rest beneath the wings of God’s Presence, along with all the other pure and righteous ones in the Garden of Eden.”

Many of you are now saying: “Wait a minute. This is not the Judaism I grew up with. The Judaism that I grew up with is a Judaism that is only about life, about doing good, about ethics, about using the mitzvot to repair the world.”

It is a Judaism that echoes the ancient sage: “Better is one hour of good deeds and repentance in this world than the entire life of the world to come.”

But, it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. It’s about this world — and also about the next world.

Even if it comes (forgive me) as an afterthought. And even, and especially, if we don’t “know” what happens after death.

Somewhere along the line, we modern Jews lost the idea of the World to Come. It was too mystical, too superstitious, insufficiently scientific.

But, then I go back to thinking about Joe Holcombe, age 86, mourning the loss of two generations — two generations! — of his family. I think about his certainty that he knows “where they are now.”

I am not advocating that we Jews abandon our commitment to this world, and to making it better.

Especially because the most pressing project that we have before us in this country, is to radically reduce the number of family members who will have to rhapsodize about “where they are now” as the result of miscreants who can get their hands on high-powered guns.

I am saying that we Jews could profit from examples of faith — faith that this world is not the end. For whether or not this idea is “true,” in a scientific sense (and I remain agnostic about whether the dead will be resurrected at the end of human history, as part of the messianic process), it is true in a deep, spiritual sense.

You might not believe this now, as you read this essay.

But, trust me: when your loved one dies, and you are sitting in a funeral home or standing by the graveside, you will want to believe that this world is not the end, that what we are and who we are does not simply crumble into the dust.

In whatever form your faith takes shape, may it strengthen you, and sustain you.

And, please God, may it strengthen and sustain the good people of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

18 Comments

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  • I can’t be alone in feeling a bit of revulsion toward Joe Holcombe’s comment. Really? Are you that sanguine about the death of your children and grandchildren because “It won’t be long until we’re with them.” Frankly, I don’t believe it.

    I think that this kind of belief in the afterlife serves as a mask for grief. I have been to more than one Christian funeral where the message seemed to be that feelings of grief are bad because they are a betrayal of the teaching that the next world is better than this one. I have talked to many Christians (and former Christians) who find this teaching hurtful.

    I am much more comfortable with Judaism’s relative indifference to the question of life after death. Yes, we have a traditional teaching that the lives of the righteous will continue beyond death in “olam ha-ba.” However, the tradition is pointedly vague about what this means. Some believe that it is not actually a future time, but a possibility that exists within every moment — we can be in God’s presence whenever we allow ourselves to be. I also note that the phrase is in the present tense “The world that is coming,” not the future tense, which would be “olam she-yavo,” “the world that will come.” Ours is an abstract idea of the afterlife that makes no promises of emotional reunions with our loved ones.

    Judaism does not believe in an afterlife of harp-strumming angels in the sky where you get to play checkers with your great-grandaddy in the sky. That is the stuff of Christian popular mythology. I much prefer the way that Judaism is vague and uncertain about the afterlife. It keeps our focus here, on this world. As for the afterlife, we’ll all find out soon enough. What’s your rush?

  • Again, fine sentiments…but it is time to start putting aside any ideas of the afterlife. Clinging to life after death only allows us to avoid taking action that may stop evil in our temporal world…like having no more future Sutherland Springs kind of horrors.

    As for faith — that’s an easy one…Drop it like a bad habit. Faith is the reason to believe something when there is no other good reason to believe.

  • I will not mix words here; knowing enough of the world’s horrors be they this massacre or any other death caused by evil and hatred I do my best to remove myself. This is not because I do not care, but because there is too much coupled with the fact that I can do nothing about it. It leads to anger and hatred and I will not be sucked into that state of mind.

    However, I do not close myself off in defeat, but spend much time praying, conversing, reflecting, begging God to either push the darkness back or release us all forever with the Second Coming. These tragedies send me to God for comfort knowing full well that the evil in this world is not of God. I think about the love of God and the perfect love He is. Is there a Heaven? We are told there is and I have already put by faith and hope and joy and want into the magnificence of God.

  • “I am saying that we Jews could profit from examples of faith — faith that this world is not the end.” amen

  • Actually, Christians believe we will be with God, glorifying him. We’ll leave the checkers to you

  • I agree with what the article asserts, but I see it as talking more about a belief than about a faith. I can’t explain my view of the difference in a comment, but I would say prosperity or the pursuit of it is a greater test of faith than tragedy.

  • Thank you, Sandi…I’ve noticed that you receive a fair amount of grief on this post, but you nailed this one. With all due respect to you, Mr.Goldwasser, you would do well to remember Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”…Your insinuation that Christians…”believe in an aftelife of harp-strumming angels where you get to play checkers with your great-granddaddy in the sky”…is a gross, profoundly ignorant caricature that is simply asinine, sir. Mull and reflect, and try to refrain from spouting such ill-informed, nonsensical drivel in the future. PEACE. ?

  • I sincerely hope that this isn’t your idea of an actual comment, suzyspellcheck; you’ll have to do WAAY better than that, dear…the Lincoln quote is easily expandable. ?

  • From an evidentiary point of view his concept of heaven is just as valid/invalid as yours or those of the many different religions that have existed. When you make things up the possibilities are endless.

  • Jeff said that it’s popular Christian mythology, not that it is an accurate reflection of actual Christian theology.

  • Did Jews get to experience Christian love for the last 2,000 years in Europe? It is the broken Jews after WWII that went back to the land of their cultural heritage, built a tiny nation, built a first class army, and put themselves at the forefront of scientific and technology that they gained respect from the world.

    Personally, if I were a young man, I would gravitate toward Islam where I have the mythological possibility of having sex with virgins in the afterlife. Now I am old, and I would settle for a hot bowl of soup and cable television.

  • Some people believe that they will be with their relatives in heaven. I find it hard to spend the whole weekend with some of my family, let alone an eternity. But it sounds better than going to the other place and baking cookies without a stove, or maybe not.

  • True, but you might as well talk to God and put “faith and hope and joy and want” in Him just like Yoikes does, for you’ll never find a better exit ramp if today is your last day.

  • Do you, yourself, believe that Heaven certainly exists and is inhabited by the righteous? Or is your article a case of “Believe that, not because you think it’s true, but for any other reason: because it feels happy, because it’s an old tradition, or because you feel sad”? If you are not certain, yourself, that Heaven exists and that the righteous go there — but you are telling your congregants and other audiences to believe that — then there is a serious question of integrity.

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