It is one of the many paradoxes of Jewish history that where as the Jewish people has known premature and unnatural death as a constant companion probably more than any other nation, culturally and spiritually the Jews are remarkably unpreoccupied by death and the hereafter.
In the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews left a vast civilization that was obsessed with death and devoted much spiritual energy and material resources to preparations for the hereafter. This cult of death was one of the evils from which Moses led the Children of Israel, guiding them toward a more wholesome outlook that put the stress on life.
The Jews never equated death with holiness. Cadavers, far from being treated as objects of sanctity and adoration, are regarded as impurities from which one must keep a distance. Of all the many forms of ritual defilement listed in Jewish law, the gravest is that caused by a corpse. And when a Jew, like a Cohen in the synagogue or a priest in the Temple, is called upon to serve in holy function, he has to take special precautions to avoid contact with death in any and every form. The same is true of the nazir, who voluntarily undertakes to follow an especially holy way of life. In Judaism, holiness is first and foremost the sanctity of life. Where life abounds, holiness is at hand. "Life" is a synonym for all that is most exalted in Creation. One of the names of God is "the God of life." The Torah is described as "the Torah of life." The Torah itself speaks of "life and goodness" as of one and the same thing. "Living waters" are seen as a source of purity. It is thus not surprising that the Jews rejected all forms of the myth of the Dead God. Death is the negation of the divine reality in all its manifestations.
The Jewish belief that "this world is the antechamber to the next" may well have inspired massive Gentile speculation on heaven and hell and purgatory, but, by contrast, Jewish literature and tradition engage in scant exploration of paradise. Judaism makes no attempt either to forget death or to smother it in false jubilation. "The dead praise not the Lord, nor do they who go down into the silence of the grave. But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and fore ever more, Hallelujah!" proclaims the Psalmist; characteristically, he disdains death, but he does not, he cannot ignore it. The natural reluctance to accept death is expressed in the conviction that the truly righteous do not actually due but "depart" or "ascend" to a different realm. Thus Maimonides writes of Moses: "There occurred in him what in other people is called death." It is said that "the righteous live on even in death, while the wicked are already dead when alive." Here again we have the parallelism – goodness is life and life is goodness, whereas evil is death and death is evil.
The Jewish approach to death is that it is a problem to be solved by and for the living. Death, preparation for death, and mourning all all worked into the fabric of day-to-day life. The essence of mourning is not sorrow for the deceased, but rather compassion for the surviving relatives in their loneliness. "Weep not for the dead man who has found rest," said an ancient eulogist, 'but weep for us who have found tears." Jewish law prescribes that all eulogies made at funerals are to life and to the surviving embers of the family. Grief is defined within, as it were, concentric ripples of diminishing intensity. The ripple on the first day of death is the strongest and most critical. Also powerful, but somewhat less so, is the first week of mourning. The succeeding periods are the first 30 days and the first 12 months, getting less and less grievous. At all times, precautions are taken against unseemly outbursts of violent keening. There is an express injunction against self-mutilation as a token of sympathy for the dead, let alone suicide in order to accompany the dead.
The personal confrontation with death, perhaps the harshest test of a personality and of a culture, is of course frequently encountered in Jewish lore. All the many variations of this theme have one feature in common – the encounter with death is looked upon as a major moment of life, which must be met worthily. Unlike many other cultures, Judaism does not accept that any particular kind of death is glorious per se – with one exception, to which we shall return.
Even in Biblical times, a hero's death was not regarded as a glorious achievement: the ideal was for a man to "sleep with his fathers" and to pass on the wealth of his life and strength to those who come after him. A special tome called "The Book of Departure," which describes the deaths of the fathers of the nation, harps constantly on the need to maintain a calm, confident stance in the face of the enemy death, to stand up to the Angel of Death and to be prepared in all tranquility to return "the bond of life to the Lord your God."
Nevertheless, there is one exceptional kind of death which the Jews do consider glorious, and which we term "sanctification of God's Name." martyrdom endured for the sake of sanctifying God's Name is a public act performed in the midst of the holy community, whereby the sacrifice imparts an added sense of sanctity to the living. When he is martyred in this way, the Jew embraces death for the sake of the survivors, so that their dedication to the Jewish way of life may be strengthened.
In this context, we can understand the extraordinary character of the Kaddish. Initially this ancient prayer has no connection with death or the dead, and was an ordinary part of the liturgy. Only at a relatively late period – in the early Middle Ages, when mounting persecution brought frequent martyrdom – did the Kaddish become a death prayer. However, it is devoid of even the slightest insinuation of reproach to God, who is throughout praised and glorified and sanctified.
The basic attitude of Judaism to death, which, it is said, was ushered in with Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is that it is not a natural, inevitable phenomenon. Death is life diseased, distorted, perverted, diverted from the flow of holiness, which is identified with life. So side by side with a stoic submission to death, there is a stubborn battle against it on the physical and cosmic level. The world's worst defect is seen to be death, whose representative is Satan. The remedy is faith in the resurrection. Ultimately, "death and evil" – and the one is tantamount to the other – are dismissed, as ephemeral. They are not part of the true essence of the world, and as the late Rabbi Kook emphasized in his writings, man should not accept the premise that death will always emerge the victor.
In the combat of life against death, of being against non-being, Judaism manifests disbelief in the persistence of death, and maintains that it is a temporary obstacle which can and will be overcome. Our sages, prophesying a world in which there will be no more death, wrote: "We are getting closer and closer to a world in which we shall be able to vanquish death, in which we shall be above and beyond death."