Dealing with Death (and Life): A Reform Jewish Perspective – Aerin Leigh Lammers 

The four questions that religions aim to answer are “How did we get here? Why are we here? What do we do while we are here? And where do we go when we are no longer here?” Each religion answers the questions to varying degrees, with religions typically choosing to focus mostly on one or two. As a Reform Jew, the question that I have been taught to focus on is “What do we do while we are here?” This is why, when faced with the overwhelming amount of death due to COVID-19 this year, I was left confused and unable to make sense of it all. I personally have yet to experience the death of a loved one, so death and what Judaism thinks about it have never been at the forefront of my mind. I know that Judaism has beliefs about the afterlife, I just don’t know what they are. I have been taught that to live a good Jewish life I should spend my time focusing on how I impact others rather than where I am going to eventually end up—focusing more on the “what do we do?” rather than the “where do we go?”. 

Reform Judaism teaches the idea of “Tikkun Olam”, which translates to “repairing the world”. There are various ways that these repairs manifest themselves but the most common are volunteering in your community and donating money. Right now—in a time where money for many is scarce, and being a physical part of your community, let alone volunteering in it, is difficult—it has been hard for me to find ways to repair the world. COVID has led me back to the other questions that Judaism supposedly answers, and with deaths in the US rising to over 200,000 it has brought me back to the question, “where do we go when we are no longer here?” 

I frankly didn’t know the answer. In writing this blog post I actually reached out to my Rabbi back home in St. Louis to hopefully find the answer to what Reform Judaism says about death. He explained two things to me about Reform Judaism’s beliefs on death. 1) It is a religion that is extremely accepting of science and nature and therefore has no concept of any living thing physically living past its death. 2) Your soul or “Neshamah” is eternal and, just as your body decomposes and returns to the Earth, your soul was breathed into you by G-d and therefore will return to G-d when you die. He also reminded me, on multiple occasions, that what happens to you after death is uncertain and therefore unnecessary to dwell on. My Rabbi did not know anything about my predicament of choosing between the questions “what do we do” vs “where do we go”; still he pointed out that I should focus more on living a good life rather than dwelling on what happens after my good life.

So with all of that said, I still don’t have a firm answer to the question “Where do we go when we die?” and I have come to the realization that I am okay with that. Shifting my focus back to things I can control has been somewhat cathartic. So, I turn to my fellow fellows to ask the question, what should we do while we are here? Specifically during COVID-19 times, which makes repairing the world slightly more difficult, what can we do while we’re here?     

8 thoughts on “Dealing with Death (and Life): A Reform Jewish Perspective – Aerin Leigh Lammers ”

  1. Hi Aerin,

    Death is such a difficult topic, especially in a society like ours where death is largely marginalized and pushed to the fringes (hospitals, nursing homes, etc). Weirdly, my parents’ jobs both involve the end-of-life: they work in hospice care and life insurance. In a weird way, their careers and even my family’s livelihood depend on death. I think my exposure to death through talking about my parents’ work helps keep me grounded and remember that we all are, in the end, mortal creatures. From my perspective, death is a normal and unavoidable fact of life, and I don’t believe in an immortal soul, reincarnation, or any kind of afterlife. While I’m here, I hope to lead a fulfilling life and enrich the lives of the people around me, too.

    Although I don’t believe in it per se, I think about Genesis 3:19 (NRSV) a lot:

    “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

  2. Hi Aerin Leigh —

    Thank you for sharing your perspective in this post. Your statement, “I should focus more on living a good life rather than dwelling on what happens after my good life,” spoke to me.

    During my freshman year of college, I sat through a lecture of various religious (and non-religious) leaders giving their perspective about what they believed the afterlife entailed. I left that night still just as confused on what happens after death, and wished that I would have spent that hour and a half working on my looming stack of homework. I feel content not knowing and am okay with that, but recognize that that isn’t reality for everyone.

  3. Hey Aerin! Thank you for your post.
    I love how your Rabbi put it, we should focus more on living a good life rather than dwelling on what happens after our good life. This particular sentence hit a chord and I completely agree. Helping those in need of help, taking care of those who need care, and giving platforms to those who are voiceless. We have a phrase we say when people pass away in Islam. May God have mercy on them and “Verily we belong to God, and verily to Him do we return.” Thank you again for your post!

  4. Hello Aerin,
    Your post is so relevant in these times. Thinking about what to do and how to repair the world in these times comes back to my faith for me. There are more people in need now than before. They may be suffering emotionally, psychologically, physically, or financially. My faith of Islam teaches about intention and doing good. I see in this time reaching out to our loved ones and friends and just seeing how they are doing might be such a meaningful thing for many, in these disconnected times. We can do small things like helping those around us or sending a text or making a call as a way to remind people that there are others who care there for them in the midst of these difficult times.

  5. Great comments! My thoughts are very similar to what Mukadas wrote, but I think there is a lot of good we can do in small and simple ways. For me, I consider anything I can do to help others as a good use of my time here on earth.

  6. Hi Aerin Leigh!

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and I felt like so much of what you wrote rang true to me. I have also always had a super fuzzy idea of what I’m supposed to believe happens after we die as a Jew, and growing up people would always ask me what I think as a Jew, and I never really knew what to tell them. I think what you said about Judaism being a religion focused on this current life, and “doing” rather than “believing” is really true. My mom grew up Lutheran, and she always talks about how that was one of the biggest changes for her in converting to Judaism. Because in the religion she grew up in, there is the idea of faith in Jesus/G-d alone being the thing that matters because it will save you and get you into heaven. And then she joined Judaism where we have like seven different traditions about what happens when you die (die stay dead, wait for the Moshiach, reincarnation through kabbalah, to name a few). And it was weird for her that such a central part of the religion she grew up in basically wasn’t talked about in her new religion, but instead we obsess over things like rules around mixing meat and milk and what constitues work on Shabbat. So yeah, I guess it’s just kind of cool to think about how different religions aren’t just like direct translations of each other, like we all focus on such different questions and aspects of life.

  7. Aerin Leigh,

    I enjoyed reading your post. In Sikhi, we also emphasize the importance of making the most of this life too! The afterlife is not the goal, rather, your life should be lived now, and doing good matters now. In terms of your question, what do we do now, I also don’t know. What is the right thing to do? For some, it is to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. And staying at home doesn’t seem like a huge task to ask of people, but yet doing “nothing” seems to perplex people. For other folks, they can’t afford to stay at home simply because their access to food and keeping the roof over their heads will not persist if they are not working. So what do we do? I find that the first step to figuring out what to do in order to do good is to be aware of your own self. What are you doing? How are you living, what does your life look like right now? Where are you living? How has the pandemic changed your life? If you are able to answer these questions, my next step is to ask what does the world look like for people you know? How are they living? And after you’ve been able to compare yourself to people you know, and put yourself in their shoes, then finally, I would ask you, how are people you don’t know doing? How are they living? How are they feeling? If you can find yourself able to empathize with these different spheres of people to the point that you can show compassion to a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, and you’ve taken this time indoors to practice that, then I believe you’ve done something pretty commendable.

    These times have shaken up the world in many ways, putting people through very difficult times that have forced them to think of themselves and forget about others. More specifically, these times have taken us farther away from Waheguru, from seeing other humans with compassion and remembering that this world is good. So, what we can do in these times is to take our days one by one and focusing on the details that we failed to notice when “life was normal.” Hopefully, my thoughts make some sense! Thanks for the post!

  8. I’m similarly torn about what we do now, but actually as I’m typing this, I feel like I just changed my mind. There are countless issues to focus on right now, to put them in a hierarchy is far too complicated for me to answer. However, as a Jewish microbio major, I think one of the most important things to do right now is to listen to the healthcare professionals who tell us to social distance, wear masks, and accept these other small personal sacrifices to stop the spread of covid. While there are countless issues at the moment, covid is interlaced through many of them. It’s revealed wealth disparities, brought more light to racial disparities in healthcare, and showed how vital mental health care is important. Taking this disease seriously is one way to repair the world, although it is ironic that this form of repairing the world is mostly through inaction as opposed to the usual organizing, lobbying, and protests we all associate with bringing about positive change.

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