TCS Daily

Choosing Life

By Michael Rosen - September 24, 2004 12:00 AM

"Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, O Living God."

So reads the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays -- Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that began last Wednesday Night, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement beginning tonight.

This year, the rabbi of the synagogue my family attends chose "life" as the theme for the holidays, and indeed the notion of choosing life permeates every aspect of the prayer, penitence, and introspection undertaken by Jews during these weeks.

Yet the importance of life remains more than merely a Jewish theme. Instead, it appeals to our basic human sense of fundamental decency -- a decency that is all too shockingly and poignantly absent in the worldview of our enemies.

This discussion of life, perhaps surprisingly for those who regularly read these pages, concerns neither embryonic stem-cell research nor abortion. Instead, it is a reflection on the sense of mortality, self-improvement, and affirmation of the living that the High Holidays inevitably inspire.

In many ways, Judaism in general displays a healthy aversion to death. For instance, traditionally, the dead body is thought to emit the most severe form of impurity; to this day, all burials take place outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem; priests may attend the funerals of only their closest relatives; and Jews are permitted to transgress all but three of the 613 commandments when faced with a choice of death or transgression.

Yet when the High Holidays arrive, the Jewish enthusiasm for life is compelled to acknowledge, if not exactly accommodate, death.

In a landmark work entitled The Jewish Way (Touchstone, 464 pp.), Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent Jewish thinker, describes three points of intersection between life and death during this period.

First, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bracket a period that places every individual on trial for his life. In this way, every individual confronts his own mortality face to face and must choose to better himself in order to gain entry into the Book of Life for the coming year.

Second, each person observes the utter fragility of life itself and the daily miracles involved in sustaining the universe as a whole. When, especially in our time, the entire world appears but a few small steps away from potential devastation, we gain renewed appreciation for the uniqueness of all life.

Third, and most importantly, through the deadening self-abnegation of Yom Kippur -- when traditional Jews are enjoined from eating, drinking, bathing, or copulating -- the individual emerges from the Day of Judgment refreshed and grateful for even the simplest of life's pleasures.

In this way, argues Rabbi Greenberg, our experience of near-death enriches our lives; in a sense, we use death for the purpose of enhancing life. This concept inspires and nourishes the soul, at least until Yom Kippur the following year when another dose of almost-death is administered.

Yet it is precisely the employment of death in the service of life for which our enemies in militant Islam despise us -- both Jews and Westerners in general. This year, Rosh Hashanah arrived three days after the third anniversary of September 11, and the contrast could not be clearer.

The terrorists who sent three thousand innocents to their deaths, their acolytes in Iraq and elsewhere around the world, and the murderous ideologues that gave them sustenance -- all view the relationship between life and death in a manner diametrically opposed to Rabbi Greenberg's conception. Rather than using death to enrich life, our enemies enlist life in the strategic service of death.

Their victims -- be they wheelchair-bound tourists cast overboard, Russian children shot in the back, or American adults beheaded in front of television cameras -- are vibrant human beings leading lives, whether extraordinary or merely ordinary, deserving of protection. Yet their tormentors exploit these lives for their own end -- death itself.

Perhaps just as grotesquely, our enemies deploy the young and vulnerable onto the battlefields of death, manufacturing suicide bombers out of boys and girls in their teens and younger. Photographs of toddlers brandishing assault weapons or donning dynamite belts, once startling, have become depressingly par-for-the-course. Violent jihad has transformed its own young, restless, and promising into human missiles, juvenile agents of death.

That sacrificing life on the altar of death represents the trademark of radical Islamists is proudly acknowledged by our enemies themselves. In the wake of 9/11, as well as the Madrid attacks earlier this year and seemingly every major terror attack, the jihadists have taunted the West with a simple, all-too-true analysis: "You love life, but we love death."

Yet while this taunt is intended to mock our "soft," indulgent Western predilection for life, it actually points to our deep reservoir of strength -- and to the ultimate failure of our enemies' enterprise.

For death as an end in itself, fed by the sacrifice of the living, may terrorize the many but it can only inspire the few. As was the case with communism and fascism, the version of Islam that the jihadists seek to impose on the world will never take root. Like its predecessors in the last century, many of militant Islam's tenets are deeply inconsistent with human nature.

But unlike those movements, the Islamists' cause grossly underestimates the importance and resilience of human life itself -- and the repugnance that the death-cult stirs among so many. Having been in close contact with numerous Israeli victims of terror, I can personally attest that the strategy of death can bend, but can never break, the human spirit.

Instead, what remains for us to do is to stay resolute in the face of terror, to continue to love life, and, perhaps most importantly, to be proud to do so.

In Deuteronomy, God instructs the Israelites that He has "placed before thee life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life so that thou and thy seed may live." This year on Yom Kippur, we all must choose life, just as we must use death to enhance it, and not the reverse.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.


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