General Topics

The Good and the Dead


The news from Moscow is that they are considering removing Lenin’s body from the mausoleum and burying it. The mummified icon of Russian Marxism is, figuratively and literally, a rotting corpse!

I am reminded of the joke that after Khrushchev distanced himself from Stalin he was worried about a coup by supporters of the Old Regime (which actually happened, led by Brezhnev in 1964). So he called up Willy Brandt the German Chancellor and begged him as a favor to take Stalin’s body and bury it somewhere deep in the Black Forest. Brandt tactfully declined. He said he couldn’t guarantee that the Neo-Fascists might not discover where it was and desecrate it.

The pressure was mounting, so K called up Charles de Gaul and asked him to bury Stalin’s body in France. But de Gaul also declined because the Communist party was so strong in France at the time that it might have used Stalin’s body as a rallying point. Getting more and more agitated, Khrushchev tried Prime Minister Macmillan. Macmillan replied that Britain already had Karl Marx’s body, and one was enough.

The crowds were gathering around Stalin’s mausoleum in Red Square, demanding a return to the old Stalinist regime. In desperation, Khrushchev calls Golda Meir. She replies, “Of course, dear Khrushchev, for you it will be a pleasure. But I think I should warn you that here in the Holy Land we have a record of resurrection!”

Which leads me to my next example of revisionism. According to The Times, the Catholic Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland have published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true. I welcome their statement that the line in the New Testament that declares the Jews said, “His blood be on us and our children,” is not true. But if you can say that is not true, why not fess up about Virgin Birth, Resurrection and the Fish and the Loaves? Of course the conservatives will have none of this, any more than Jewish conservatives will tolerate any reinterpretation that does not accept that the world is 5765 years old precisely (as of last Tuesday).

Now where an ideology is based almost exclusively on events and myths, any undermining of that myth inevitably leads to a weakening of the tradition. If scientific evidence shows that, say, the world is older than 5000 years, or that virgin birth is not feasible, or that resurrection is not a physical possibility, then of course you can either reject the tradition or stubbornly close your mind and refuse to think outside of your box. Or, more reasonably, you can try to reinterpret the tradition, to understand it in a way that makes current sense—-which is what the Midrash always tended to do and Maimonides approved of (see his introduction to Chapter Chelek of Sanhedrin in the Talmud).

In Judaism it is the behavioral constitution that counts. Of course around the constitution is built a whole narrative about the Sinai Revelation and the role of Moses. But in the end it is loyalty to the constitution, rather than events, that matters above all else. This is why prophets functioned only to reinforce loyalty to Torah and why the miracles were regarded by Maimonides as the lowest level of religiosity, meant primarily for those of limited intellect.

Human beings come and go and, great as they may be, it is a body of ideas and ideology that either stands the test of time or falls by the wayside. It is abundantly clear that Stalin’s ideology has not stood the test of time. It is true that “evil” has survived as well as “good”. But I would describe evil as a human deviation rather than an ideology. You might argue that religion itself has been responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Except I think it is human politics, greed and frailty that is to blame rather than the constitution itself. The great monotheistic religions share much of the same beautiful, humanitarian and loving caring values. Sadly individual egos and the lust for power always seem to get in the way.

I believe it was precisely to undermine the cult of personality that Moses’ burial place was not known, to make our religion a matter of following a code rather than a person. Yes, it’s true we have a long tradition of respecting burying places going back to Abraham’s Cave of Machpela. But one of the reasons Jewish graveyards are so bleak is to emphasize life rather than death and the needs of the living above those of the dead. Egyptians put up huge monuments to their dead, and the Christian worship of saints and relics was taken to such extremes that it was one of the reasons for the Reformation. This was not the Jewish way.

Yet nowadays it is increasingly so. I am amazed at the amount of energy and time placed on visiting graves and graveyards and praying to the dead to intercede. Why I have even heard letters of blessing written by dead rebbes naming the celebrants at a simcha. I regard this as another example of the distortion of Torah values that can probably be attributed to the traumas of Eastern Europe culminating in the Holocaust.

Any tradition dealing with humans needs to take cognizance of human nature and various different ways people have of relating to the past or to dead relatives. So I do not want to denigrate this process of revering ancestors, just point out its limitations and that it is not necessary for everyone to respond in the same way. We are here to live and to do the best we can for the living. One can argue that asking great but dead people to intercede is not idolatry but a good and ancient tradition that recognizes greatness in human beings. However it can be taken too far. It now borders on the very worship of saints that other religions have made a fetish of.

At this time of the year we are called to reckon and to analyze our relationship with God. If the past helps then it is good. But when it is a replacement then it is sterile.

Have a good year and a meaningful fast.

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