The Book of Psalms’ Universal Message about Death and Mortality

Nov. 30 2020

Reflecting on the death of his own father, Atar Hadari considers three of the texts traditionally recited at Jewish funerals: the liturgical poem known as the “Justification of the Sentence over the Dead,” and Psalms 49 and 16. He includes as well his original translations of these prayers. On the first of these, he writes:

[This prayer] is quite simply a recitation of praises for the Lord and repeated declaration of how He could not possibly have gotten things wrong by taking your loved one away at just this juncture. The Talmud relates this prayer to Ḥaninah ben Tradion, a rabbi martyred by the Romans for teaching Jewish law in public in the 2nd century CE. All the stories [about Ḥaninah] revolve around the essential commandment of acknowledging that what is done to you is just, and the text includes the requisite statement you make upon hearing of a death: “Blessed be the true judge.”

This vision of the afterlife struggles with God’s implacable wrath and the arbitrariness of death, but affirms over and over that he is just, and closes with a comforting suggestion of the departed being seen to their own little bed in a hospital ward of sorts, finally home.

The Psalms express some greater difficulty with this whole state of affairs.

Representative of this attitude is Psalm 49, a meditation on death itself that includes such troubling verses as “Like sheep to the underworld they amble—death will herd them/ And honest angels will beat them each morning, their form in the wastes of hell will fester.”

This is one of the hardest psalms in the entire book to understand, including some lines that no Jewish commentators gloss with any confidence, such as the beating from honest angels. It is of interest here as a prayer Jews recite that is not addressed to Jews but to all who live on the earth, its metaphysical struggles applying to anyone who worships or even does not worship—as much as anything it is a prayer addressed to those who worship mammon and wonder at the injustice of the wicked rich around them. Or as Rabbi David Kimḥi, the medieval Hebrew grammarian and author of the first complete commentary on Psalms, wrote, “This song is about the business of this world and the world to come, therefore it [begins by apostrophizing] ‘all the nations and all who dwell in the world,’ all who want the good way, from whatever nation they may be.”

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More about: Death, Judaism, Mourning, Prayer, Psalms

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy