The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism

Article excerpt

by David Kraemer. New York: Routledge, 2000. 170pp. $29.99.

David Kraemer has written an original, intelligent, and thought-provoking study of the meanings of death in Rabbinic Judaism. Methodologically sophisticated, Kraemer is sensitive to the oral world context of his sources, asking how preserved literary traditions relate to the sociological realities in which they developed. He asks perceptively how the views of Rabbinic élites concerning death may or may not reflect the attitudes of common people, and brings to bear on his study evidence from material culture, in particular the catacombs of Beth Shearim, exploring how such archaeological data relate to written sources. Kraemer works beautifully with the classical texts of Judaism, moving deftly from one source to another, chronologically tracing a path from the Mishnah to Tosephta, from Talmud Jerushalmi to Bavli, concluding with examples from medieval material. He introduces each source simply and elegantly, placing it in historical and cultural context and thus making his study accessible to non-experts. An astute exegete, Kraemer presents the fine details of Rabbinic argument with clarity, but this attention to detail is balanced by a probing engagement with the big questions surrounding significance, meaning, and message.

Kraemer observes that the processes of dying and mourning are parallel rites of passage, and is attuned to the polysemous meanings of ritual symbols. He explores, for example, how the mourner symbolically identifies with the dead and shares his/her experience of separation from society. Perhaps his most interesting suggestion is that the Rabbis regarded the dead as sentient. …