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Jewish and Christian liturgy in the face of death
Carmine Di Sante
The best way to understand how a religious group faces up to death is to analyse the ritual language in which it embodies and expresses its understanding of the event. For a community of believers, liturgy is in fact the privileged place for the production, translation and interpretation of existential attitudes and basic values.
This means that, M order to understand how Jews and Christians face up to death, one has to analyse not only biblical, theological and literary texts, but above all liturgical ones. A comparison between Jewish and Christian funeral rites will reveal similarities and dissimilarities without much difficulty. It is impossible to undertake such a comparison here, given the complexity of the two rites and the limited space available; only two texts will be considered, the Jewish Kaddish and the Christian Memento for the Dead.1 These texts have been chosen for their substantial theological content but also because they are central to the issue, other texts being more peripheral and derivative. They are given here side by side for easy comparison:
The Jewish Kaddish
Mourner: Magnified and sanctified be his great Name in the world which he hath created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom during your life and duping your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time, and say ye, Amen.
Cong. and Mourner: Let his great Name be blessed for ever and to all eternity.
Mourner: Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be he; though he be high above all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world; and say ye, Amen.
Mourner: May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen. Congregation: Amen.
Mourner: He who maketh peace in his high places, may he make peace for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen.
The Christian Memento
in baptism he/she died in Christ: may he/she also share his
when Christ will raise our mortal bodies
and make them like his own. in glory. Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters,
and all who have left this world in your friendship.
There we hope to share in your glory, when every tear will be wiped away. In that day we shall see you, our God, as you are.
We shall become like you and praise you for ever
through Christ our Lord,
from whom all good things come.
Both the texts express and inspire sentiments of faith, hope and abandonment to God. Faced with the death of a brother, there is no room for either sadness or despair, but rather an attitude of serenity is revealed, almost ready to break into song.
It is faithlemunah in God which makes this attitude possible: a God seen and experienced as he who "created the world according to his will" (Kaddish), 'calls from this life to another", "unites in the death of Christ", "wipes away all tears" (Memento). Thus in the face of death, both the Jewish and Christian believer feel themselves once more awakened to a personal conviction that they are rooted in the God of creation and redemption, the God of covenant and salvation. Thanks to this conviction, the prayer of both becomes an appeal, the Kaddish expressing it in the language of desire (the word may is used more than once) and the Christian text in that of petition (remember... may he share... welcome-. we hope...).
Nevertheless, in spite of this basic theological structure, there are notable dissimilarities in the two texts, not only because of the obvious Christ°logical dimension which characterizes the Christian prayer but also because of the different dynamic which sustains and supports them. There are two fundamental differences. The first concerns the predominance of doxology/praise in the Jewish text, an element completely lacking in the Christian one (not only here but in almost all the other liturgical texts used for funerals), in which the petition/invocation element predominates.
In the Kaddish the mourner breaks out, as it were, into a hymn of praise which cannot be restrained:
"Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he; though he be high above all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world; and say ye, Amen."
There are thirteen expressions of praise (without counting those which precede or follow this text) and, notwithstanding this, they are considered insufficient to praise God who is "high above all praise". It is certainly a surprising text, considering that it is spoken in presence of a loved one who has died. Nevertheless the text is undoubtedly one of the purest expressions of Jewish faith:
"When the dark grave swallows what was dearest to us on earth, it is then that Judaism bids us say: It was God who gave this joy unto us; it is God who has taken it from us to himself. We will not wail, nor murmur, nor complain. We will exclaim: Blessed be the name of the Lord." 2
The second difference is to be found in the content of the petitions formulated in the two texts. Both the Kaddish and the Memento ask God for something, but whereas in the former the object of the request is glorification of the name of God ("Magnified be his great name... may he establish his kingdom") and peace for the house of Israel ("may there be peace... for us and for all Israel"), in the latter it is salvation for the soul of the deceased ("may he share in the Resurrection of Christ"), for all the faithful departed ("receive into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters") and for all the living who will one day die ("we hope to share in your glory"). In the face of death the Christian seems to be preoccupied above all with his own fate in the hereafter, while the Jew is concerned only with the glory of God and the peace of those who are left behind (there is no reference in the Kaddish to death and the hereafter).
This difference is even more marked in Christian theology dealing with the "Four Last Things", which in recent centuries has been characterised by an overweaning preoccupation with what will happen after death; so much so that it has sometimes been transformed into a kind of fortune-telling! Today we are realizing more and more clearly that the problem of the "Last Things" is concerned with the here-and-now before it is concerned with the hereafter. Death, like any other moment or action in life, demands an attitude of faith. The problem is not what awaits us after death (we can leave that to the love and creative imagination of God!), but in whom we ground our life and also our death. The Kaddish is the purest act of faith in the will of God; as he has been recognized and proclaimed toy (good) during life, so he will also be proclaimed good at the moment of death; it has thus a very valuable contribution to make to any reshaping of a theology of death and to the development of a more trustful and constructive attitude to death.
Both Jews and Christians acknowledge the God of covenant and mercy. To him we commit ourselves at all times, in life as in death. Thus the latter should give rise to neither rebellion nor anguish, as is shown by this beautiful midrash with which Christians cannot fail to identify:
"Rabbi Meir, the Talmud records, lost both his sons on one day. It was on Sabbath afternoon, when he was in the House of Learning. His wife, the brilliant Beruria, did not on his return break the news to him, in order not to sadden 'his Sabbath-joy. She waited till the evening, and then timidly approaching her husband she said: I have a question Ito ask of thee. Some time ago, a friend gave me some jewels to keep for him. Today he demands them back. What shall I do? I cannot understand thee asking such a question. Unhesitatingly thou shalt return the jewels. Thereupon she led him to the room where their children lay dead: These are the jewels I must return. Rabbi Meir coukl but sob forth the words of Job: The Lord hath given, and the Lord hath taken; blessed be the name of the Lord."3
1. Roman Missal, Canon 3 (Mass for the Dead).
2. Hertz J., ed., The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, Bloch Publishing Co., New York 1965, p. 270.