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

Hil­lel Halkin

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

This new edi­tion to the Library of Jew­ish Ideas series is at once a schol­ar­ly jour­ney, a med­i­ta­tion, and a remem­brance. Most like­ly there is noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble in print. In fact, toward the end of the book, Halkin lets us known that the con­cerns he has pur­sued are bare­ly men­tioned in the works of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish writ­ers, includ­ing those who belong to one or anoth­er seg­ment of Orthodoxy.

And yet Halkin has cre­at­ed some­thing at once intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing, pro­found­ly fright­en­ing, and ulti­mate­ly reas­sur­ing. It is like plung­ing into the abyss and find­ing the buoy­an­cy and heal­ing pow­er of salt water. Some sug­ar as well.

Halkin makes it clear that his per­spec­tive is that of a non-obser­vant Jew, yet he is a knowl­edge­able one and, per­haps more impor­tant­ly, he is a curi­ous one. He asks, how can a life that has exist­ed cease to exist with­out a trace? How can the uni­verse have no mem­o­ry of it?” From here he enters the world of Jew­ish texts that con­sid­er Jew­ish notions of the afterlife.

After a pleas­ant­ly teas­ing intro­duc­tion, Halkin builds five stur­dy chap­ters in which he nav­i­gates through the his­to­ry of ideas as Jew­ish cul­ture under­goes large and small shifts and larg­er and small­er degrees of influ­ence from neigh­bor­ing cul­tures. He sets Jew­ish con­sid­er­a­tions of death and some­thing beyond it in the con­text of Greek, Egypt­ian, and Baby­lon­ian con­struc­tions, find­ing the com­mon denom­i­na­tors and the essen­tial­ly Jew­ish distinction.

Halkin was already at home with many of his sources before re-enter­ing them to extract this focused body of received wis­dom and spec­u­la­tion. He opens up the Tal­mud, the most rel­e­vant parts of the Torah, and rel­e­vant bib­li­cal-peri­od writ­ings that were not sanc­tioned by the Torah redac­tors. He employs the folk­loric sto­ries (Midrash) that bear upon his sub­ject. He imag­ines what Jew­ish life was like in order to fath­om what death meant and how to val­ue notions of after­life and under­stand them as nat­ur­al human respons­es. He dwells on Job and Kohelet, the book of Enoch I, and ear­ly Chris­t­ian writ­ings. Halkin explores the cus­toms and pre­scrip­tions regard­ing mourn­ing, includ­ing the Shiv­ah enter­prise and the need for mourn­ers to be bol­stered by a minyan. He con­sid­ers Jew­ish life and thought in the Mid­dle Ages, espe­cial­ly such authors and writ­ings as the Sa’adia Ga’on, Mai­monides, the Zohar, and Yosef Caro’s Shul­han Arukh. Every­where, Halkin sets works against one anoth­er so that they can illu­mi­nate one another.

And along the way Halkin intro­duces mem­oir: his own per­son­al sto­ries of griev­ing or not griev­ing, per­form­ing or not per­form­ing pre­scribed rit­u­als of mourn­ing, of test­ing his imag­i­na­tion against his rea­son — and vice ver­sa. He shares his dreams and even his expe­ri­ence inquir­ing about buy­ing bur­ial plots for his wife and him­self. Why were they need­ed? How would the plots and the future head­stones insure remem­brance, as a form of immor­tal­i­ty? Why was this important?

It is the inter­ac­tive involve­ment of Halkin’s many fac­ul­ties of mind and imag­i­na­tion that makes this book sing. Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and amaz­ing­ly com­pact for its breadth of vision and gen­er­ous sup­ply of live­ly source analy­ses, this is anoth­er mas­ter­work from a man who has writ­ten many. Just this one would have been enough.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions