Photo Credit: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Title: Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought
By: Dr. Susan Weissman
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

 

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The Talmud in Menachos 29b states that Moshe went and sat in the study hall of Rabbi Akiva and did not understand what they were saying. His strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said, “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” Rabbi Akiva told them, “It is a halacha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moshe heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this, too, was part of the Torah that he was to receive.

A few months ago, Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen of Aish HaTorah gave one of his standing-room-only talks in Passaic. He spoke about mindfulness, serenity, conscious appreciation, helping people tap into their potential in an empowered, conscious, and joyous way.

If R’ Yehuda HaChasid, the 12th-century mystic and author of Sefer Chasidim, had been transported to one of Rabbi Cohen’s talks, I doubt his mind would have been put at ease like Moshe’s was. R’ Yehuda HaChasid’s conception of G-d was quite different from ours today.

In Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), Dr. Susan Weissman, department chair of the Judaic Studies department at Touro University, has written a fascinating analysis of the worldview of R’ Yehuda HaChasid and how he came to his approach. Weissman is one of only two people who received their Ph.D. under Dr. Haym Soloveitchik (the other is Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig). As a student of Professor Soloveitchik, she brings his rigorous analytical approach to every chapter.

Weissman’s book analyzes the dead and the afterlife as manifested in R’ Yehuda HaChasid’s thoughts and how he came to them. In a somewhat radical approach, the book shows the significant Christian influence on R’ Yehuda HaChasid.

This influence came about, according to Weissman, as R’ Yehuda HaChasid would have heard the Christian tales of the dead told in public squares in the vernacular (which he did know) by Mendicant friars, preachers, and other religious figures.

He and his contemporaries would know of them from daily conversations with their non-Jewish neighbors with whom they were deeply involved financially and socially. Their Christian neighbors pawned objects with the local Jews, bought and sold with them, and the Jews hired Christian wet nurses to live with them to nurse their babies, and more.

While concepts and terms such as joy and using the physical are recurrent in today’s approach to G-d, R’ Yehuda HaChasid developed a worldview that used an opposite approach, such as emphasizing the fires of hell, the dreaded final punishment that sinners would have to deal with.

Followers of R’ Yehuda HaChasid used self-flagellation and ice baths as methods of repentance, an approach that most people today would recoil from, both physically and spiritually.

The world of R’ Yehuda HaChasid was quite different from the world we live in. His world had demons, ghost tales, disembodied spirits, and zombies.

Star Wars opens with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” In Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought, Weissman takes the reader to a different place long, long ago that most of us would not recognize. It was a dark time when the dead were part of people’s daily lives. The book depicts the Jewish world of R’ Yehuda HaChasid, which many of us would not recognize or relate to.

In the 800 years since his death, R’ Yehuda HaChasid’s influence has only increased. Understanding where he came from and how his approach was shaped is critical, and Weissman has written a remarkable book that does that.

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