My Encounter with Hemingway

November 8, 2015

9 min read


Judaism is a religion of life.

The year was 1956. I had just been ordained and felt I needed a vacation after completing years of rigorous study. Together with two other newly minted rabbis, we decided on a trip that in those days was considered rather exotic. We chose pre-Castro Cuba as our destination - not too far away, not too costly, beautiful and totally different from our New York City environment.

One day as we drove through Havana and its outskirts, our combination taxi driver/guide pointed out a magnificent estate and told us that this was the residence of the writer, Ernest Hemingway. "Stop the car," we told him. "We want to go in." He shook his head and vehemently told us, "No, no, that is impossible. No one can just come in to visit. Only very important people who have an appointment."

With the chutzpah of the young, I insisted that we would be able to get in and approached the guard with these words: "Would you please call Mr. Hemingway and tell him that three rabbis from New York are here to see him."

How could Hemingway not be intrigued? Surely he would wonder what in the world three rabbis wanted to talk to him about. We held our breaths, and the guard himself could not believe it when the message came back from the house that Mr. Hemingway would see us.

We were ushered into Hemingway's presence as he sat with his wife Mary in their spacious den. What followed, we subsequently learnt, was a verbal volley meant to establish whether it was worthwhile for him to spend any time talking to us. He questioned us about our backgrounds, threw some literary allusions at us to see if we would understand their meaning, asked what we thought was the symbolic meaning of some passages in his A Farewell To Arms - and then after about 15 minutes totally changed his demeanor and spoke to us with a great deal of warmth and friendship.

All religions divide into one of two major categories: religions of death or religions of life.

"Rabbis," he said to us, "forgive me for having been brusque with you at first but before continuing I had to make certain it was worth my while to talk to you. To be honest, I've long wanted to engage a rabbi in conversation. I just never had the opportunity. And now suddenly out of the blue you've come to me."

Hemingway then opened up to us in most remarkable manner. He told us he had a great interest in religion for many years which he pursued privately and never discussed or wrote about. He said during one period of his life he set aside time to study many of the major religions in depth. On a few occasions he even attempted to personally follow the rituals of certain faiths for a short time to see if they would "speak to him."

"I'm basically not a spiritual person," he confessed. But he said that after he thought deeply about the different religions he studied, he came to an important conclusion. Fundamentally he realized all religions divide into one of two major categories. There are religions of death and there are religions of life. Religions of death are the ones whose primary emphasis is preparation for an afterlife. This world and its pleasures are renounced in favor of dedicating oneself totally to the world to come. "Obviously," he added, "that isn't for me." What he respects, he continued, are religions like Judaism which stress our obligations to what we are here for now on earth rather than the hereafter.

With his perceptive mind, he summed up the essence of Judaism perhaps better than most Jews themselves can. Judaism is a religion of life. "Choose life," says the Bible. Death of course is recorded but what happens afterwards purposely remains hidden from the reader.

I took the opportunity to compliment Hemingway on his analysis and had the temerity to ask if I might teach him something that would add to his insight. I told him of the biblical law that prohibits the Kohanim, all the members of the Jewish priesthood, from coming into any contact with the dead. If they did so, they would be considered impure. To this day Kohanim cannot enter a funeral chapel with a body inside.

The rabbinic commentators questioned the reason behind this law. The answer that resonates most with scholars is that the Torah wanted to ensure that the priestly class, those assigned to dedicate themselves to the spiritual needs of their people, did not misconstrue their primary function. In all too many religions, the holy men devote themselves almost exclusively to matters revolving around death. Even in our own times, the only connection many people have with a spiritual leader is at a funeral. That is why the Bible forbade the priests from having any contact with the dead - so that they spend their time, their efforts, their concerns and their energy with the living.

Hemingway smiled and thanked me for sharing with him this beautiful idea.

My encounter with Hemingway became all the more poignant when on July 2, 1961 I learned with the world that the man whose hand wrote the books we revere to this day chose to use it to put the barrel of his shotgun into his mouth and commit suicide. Somehow he was never able to find a spiritual source on which to lean in order to give him a reason for living. He had taught the world, in his words, "But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated." And yet, tragically, the biblical ideal to "choose life" that he praised in our meeting could not guide him in the end.

Related Article: Heaven Can Wait

Worshipping Death

But his insight into the diametrically opposed fundamental difference between religions is today more relevant than ever. Osama bin Ladin is dead but his words aptly describe the contemporary clash between two major spiritual orientations. Fanatical Islam stands opposed to Western civilization. Bin Laden starkly defined the difference between the two: "You Americans worship life; we worship death."

To worship death is to teach children from early youth that their greatest achievement is to die the death of a martyr.

To worship death is to teach children from early youth that their greatest achievement is to die the death of a martyr. To worship life is to teach children that the best way to make their lives meaningful is to live up to their potential so that through their achievements they leave a legacy to help future mankind.

Our biblical heritage directs us to reject the idolization of death. God has entrusted us with too many things to do while we are alive to opt to forsake it.

The Torah was given at a time when the religions of the Hebrews’ neighbors were preoccupied almost entirely with death. The Egypt from the ancient Hebrews fled was a nation which devoted its efforts and much of its wealth to preparations for the afterlife.

Death in Egypt of old was viewed not as an ending but the beginning of a journey to eternity. A process of embalming preserved the corpse by extracting the organs, filling the shell with salt and linen, and wrapping it in bandages and amulets. The next life, ancient Egyptians believed, would be an enhancement of this one. The dead would need to be sustained and amused, so their tombs were filled with food and drink, instructive texts, games, and jewelry. Model figures, called Shabti were also buried with the dead between the Middle Kingdom (3500 - 4000 years ago) and the Ptolemaic Period (2300 years ago). They provided friendship for the deceased, and acted as their laborers. Slaves were put to death and entombed together with their masters so that they might continue to serve them The Egyptians also believed that if the pharaoh's body could be mummified after death the pharaoh would live forever - and that's why they built the pyramids as tombs designed to protect the buried pharaoh's body and his belongings.

It was to the Hebrews of this time that a literally new way of life, rather than a way of death, was presented. The Bible didn't need to teach those who received it that the soul survives after death. Their world was populated by people who excessively devoted their lives to death, at the expense of properly living life. What they needed to hear was how to reverse these priorities.

The Bible spoke solely in terms of terrestrial obligations. Love not death, but your neighbor, as yourself. Free the slave; do not inter him with the wealthy so that he may continue to serve his master in the afterworld. Help the widow; do not just tell her to rejoice because her husband is now in a better place. Be kind to your worker; do not force him to labor with backbreaking effort in order to build pyramids for the greater glory of the deceased.

King Solomon put it well in his book of Proverbs." It [the Torah] is a tree of life unto those who grasp hold of it." (Proverbs 3:18)

Perhaps this can explain the Torah’s omission of details about death and its aftermath. It was a purposeful decision by God to help us focus on our human obligations on earth - so that we may be pleasantly surprised when our time comes to leave it.

This is an excerpt from Rabbi Blech's latest as yet unpublished work, Why We Shouldn't Fear Death.

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