Ben Rothke

Book review: Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought

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 halakha 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, and more.

If R’ Yehuda HaHasid, the 12th-century mystic and author of Sefer Hasidim, 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 HaHasid’s conception of God was quite different from how we experience it 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 HaHasid and how he came to his approach. Weissman, one of only two 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 Yehuda HaHasid’s thoughts and how he came to them. In a somewhat radical approach, the book shows the significant Christian influence in the area where he lived influenced him.

This influence came about, according to Weissman as he 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. This is because their Christian neighbors pawned objects with the local Jews, bought and sold with them, hired Christian wet nurses to live with them to nurse their babies, and more. The local Christians would have heard these tales, which circulated popularly in the vernacular, and shared them with local Jews.

While concepts and terms such as joy¸ using the physical, and more are recurring in today’s approach to God, R’ Yehuda HaHasid developed an approach that used an opposite approach, emphasizing the fires of hell, the dreaded final punishment that sinners would have to deal with and more.

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

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 HaHasid, which many of us would not recognize or relate to.

In the 800 years since his death, R’ Yehuda HaHasid’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.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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