From Death to Life
Becker’s Jewish Lessons
By David Wolpe
The Bible begins with a story that could have come right out of Becker’s work. Consider: what happens to Adam and Eve? God tells them that if they eat from the tree of knowledge they will die. And only after they eat from it does God kick them out of Eden for fear they will eat from the tree of life.
The Becker reading of this story is powerful and poignant. The tree of knowledge of good and evil (morality) is really the tree of knowledge of death, for only knowledge of mortality give value to this world and makes what we do in life really matter. Immediately upon knowing they will die, Adam and Eve clothe themselves, for knowing we are mortal, and therefore bodied, is the beginning of sexual shame and confusion. And finally, they are forbidden the tree of life, for it is only when we know we will die that we seek somehow to live forever. Unsurprisingly, the first thing Adam and Eve do upon leaving the garden is procreate.
And so, becoming creatures of death, we have lost Eden.
The Jewish tradition does have an idea of the afterlife. But the focus is on how we negotiate this world to live meaningfully. Reconciled to ephemerality, the Israelites wander in the wilderness to attain a this-worldly Eden, the land of Israel. It is their causa sui project, their hope for heroism, unable to conquer death, to inhabit a land that will enable them to live worthwhile lives.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil (morality) is really the tree of knowledge of death, for only knowledge of mortality give value to this world and makes what we do in life really matter.
The three pillars of Jewish life are all reflected in Becker’s writings:
Judaism takes the fear of individual mortality and dissolves it in the collective. While no person of Israel is forever, the people Israel is forever. Therefore the more deeply one is identified with the community, the more lasting one can be.
Judaism is a tradition of law. Law is not only a means by which society is ordered and made possible. It is also, on a philosophical level, the mechanism that renders the maelstrom of life manageable. Not everything is possible. When an observant Jew sits down to a meal, not everything that is edible can be eaten. In the self-imposed restrictions of following the law is an order and an anchor that keeps chaos at bay.
Study and knowledge, that is, Torah, provides a sort of Platonic form for Jewish tradition. The tree of life that Adam and Eve were unable to taste is recreated: the Torah is called “A tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” The immortality of learning is an accumulation of wisdom through the centuries. It is a project in which one is both an individual, fashioning new insights, and simultaneously part of the collective, by contributing to the grand pageant of Torah wisdom.
Judaism takes the fear of individual mortality and dissolves it in the collective.
My father once observed to me that unlike Christianity, whose major holidays are events in the life of God, Judaism’s God has no biography. As God is immutable, only the people can be changed. The major holidays are events in the life of the children of Israel, or marks their relationship to God. In Judaism continuity is corporeal; it is the actual people, in all their flesh and bloodness, who are the celebrants and the saved.
I believe that Becker’s Jewish background may have given him some of this intuition, that the everydayness of life is the surest ground for staving off despair. In this way the antidote to too much knowledge is action. And the palliative to death is gratitude for life.
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California. He previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and UCLA. Rabbi Wolpe’s work has been profiled in the New York Times, he is a columnist for Time.com, he regularly writes for many publications, including The LA Times, the Washington Post’s On Faith website, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has been on television numerous times, including the Today Show, Face the Nation, ABC this Morning, and CBS This Morning. In addition Rabbi Wolpe has been featured in series on PBS, A&E, the History channel, and the Discovery channel. Rabbi Wolpe is the author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe’s new book is titled David, the Divided Heart. It was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, and has been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros.