I had the pleasure this last week of listening to a lecture by Professor Carlos Eire, of Yale University. (Full dislosure: I was a colleague of Carlos’s at University of Virginia, and in addition to finding him a supportive senior colleague, have followed his work with admiration since, particularly his award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana.) Eire, summarizing part of his argument in A Very Brief History of Eternity, argued that prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church made an enormous amount of money off of death. Believing that their dead ancestors needed their support in the form of donations to the Church to save their souls from purgatory, Christians gave an extraordinary amount of money to it. Eire provocatively suggested that the amount of capital was in fact so enormous that had it gone into other endeavors the history of Europe might as well been very different.
So this, in addition to some wonderful presentations that I heard from Professor Elisheva Baumgarten (Bar Ilan University) this week about Jewish fasting and other rites of penance in the Middle Ages, got me thinking about synagouges and economics today.
To what extent do synagogues today depend upon death for their vitality? Many synagogues today use the institution of Yahrzeit (saying the mourners kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a close relative) to justify their daily minyan, and then to use this fact to exhort others to support the minyan. Four times a year the prayer for the dead, Yizkor, attracts Jews to the pews. Synagogues are adorned with memorial plaques for which congregants pay significant sums of money. Synagogue bulletins regularly list the names of those who gave money in memory of their loved ones.
Let me put this question bluntly: Although no synagogue today uses the idea of purgatory to persuade Jews to give money, to what extent do they depend on the dead for their continued existence? Could synagogues survive if the many Jews who give money to them in remembrance of their dead or who came to minyan a few times a year to remember them, stopped?
Judaism, it is sometimes said, is a religion of the living, focusing on the here and now. As is well-known, many of the popular customs of Jews concerning the dead, such as recitation of the mourners kaddish, are not found in classical rabbinic literature, entering into Jewish practice in the medieval period. I do not intend this as a value judgment, but it does make me wonder whether there is a connection between the continuation of these customs and contemporary Jewish institutions.