Seeking the path to life : Theological meditations on God and the nature of people, love, life, and death. By Ira F. Stone
Every religion tries to provide a road map for coping with the major events of life and eventual death. Ira F. Stone is the rabbi emeritus of the Conservative congregation Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, and he presents his thoughts on the meaning of life and death, and how our relationship with God provides a framework for us as Jews. Stone worked as a grief counselor, and also suffered the loss of twin infant boys, so he focuses quite a bit on death, and how that milestone can provide additional meaning to us throughout life. He is the founding director of the Center for Contemporary Mussar, and the Orthodox roots of their beliefs about ethics and appropriate conduct are evident in the author’s emphasis on the importance of traditional Jewish practices.
Stone recommends using these meditations, which are short essays, before or after more formal prayers. One of his themes is that because we were created in God’s image, God must have some of the same attributes that we have, but not bound by a time frame of mortality. He believes that the poets and prophets of various eras are those people who sense the presence of God more strongly than others and therefore can articulate it to us. The contrast between the temporal and the infinite is a recurring idea, and the author believes that redemption is the absorption of human life into divine life.
Anger can seem like a reasonable reaction when we compare how we wish things were with how they actually are. The impossibility of perfection in life on earth can either lead to a destructive use of anger, in cruelty and unfaithfulness, or to a constructive desire spread the loving kindness of an eternal God to more of our mortal companions through righteous and generous acts. Likewise, sadness and grief can cause a person to withdraw from others, and a feeling of not being able to connect with God, or it can lead to reaching out to others who may be having similar feelings, and realizing that grief and sadness are normal reactions to the imperfection of human existence. In his years doing counseling, Stone noticed that it was the instinct of many people to withdraw from interactions during bereavement, and a major part of how he tried to help was to encourage people to share their feelings and support others who had also suffered loss, leading to a feeling of community rather than isolation.
The problems of evil and violence seem to plague human societies at almost every time in history. The author believes that it is never right to address evil with war or attack, but rather to fight evil with repentance. This extends to having a covenant with nature, making efforts to preserve nature rather than destroy it. Practicing Jewish rituals related to cleanliness and kashrut can enhance the awareness of rejecting evil influences. In the modern, secular world, it is easy to let the feeling of a spiritual neglect or insensitivity become habitual. Celebrating the Sabbath and other holy days is a way to draw the mortal and immortal worlds closer together.
Stone sees daily prayer as crucial for developing an awareness of God nurturing us through all of life’s events. There is a daily prayer that is traditionally said three times per day, mentioning “He who heals the sick.” The healing may be physical in some situations, but more often is a healing of a sick spirit, leading to joy, with a foretaste of the presence of God that will be constant in the life to come.
The author describes the life to come as a very definite and real place, in a way that I have not associated with the more liberal sects of Judaism. He describes both life and the afterlife as being filled with God’s presence, and that the tiny moment of death is the only moment where God is absent. We can become less disappointed with our mortality when we realize that it is temporary, and this is a major difficulty that religion tries to address: the balance between living in the mortal world, and focusing on the eternal world beyond. Stone believes that prayer and ritual strengthen that bridge, and that for Jews, halachah, the way we conduct our lives in the world, diminishes the moments of sin and increases the blessings of God.
This is interesting reading, but the heavy emphasis on the Mussar philosophy of specific actions related to one’s character may limit the practical use of these meditations. For Jews with a more liberal background, who may not believe in a literal eternal life in a physical form, some of this seems rigid and antiquated. However, in the spirit of wanting to understand the varying forms of Jewish belief, there are enlightening ideas to be had, even if one does not relate to all of the specific practices or the philosophy behind them.