Squeak & Gibber: Explanations we use to grapple with our own mortality

John Crowley in Lapham’s Quarterly:

The Hasidim more than other Jewish sects are committed to a life after death—some believe that dead souls can appear to the living. In the oldest Jewish traditions, though, there is little emphasis on a next life; there are almost no revenants or ghosts in the Hebrew Bible, and no afterlife that impresses us as being more than a name for death itself—Sheol is as featureless and blind and inactive as the grave it stands for. The tradition of the soul’s escape from the earth and the body through the spheres derives from Neoplatonic philosophers of late antiquity; I don’t know how it might have become implicated in the funerary rites of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, and no other rabbi I’ve talked to has ever heard of this explanation for the practice, but I was there on that day, giving aid to a soul on its journey. And yet I also know that on the anniversaries of his death, the man I helped to bury is visited by his relations, who place small rocks on his headstone, and pray that he may rest there in peace.

I sometimes think that humanity’s greatest feats of rationality lie not in the useful discriminations and distinctions made by physics or philosophy within the continuum of life and time but rather in the inventions and explanations we have devised to grapple with the unresolvable ambiguities of our mortality.

More here.