Dray Matones

In Peretz’s story Dray Matones, a particularly Jewish moment, it seems to me, comes at the end of the Heavenly Tribunal, after a soul’s good deeds have been weighed against his sins. For the first time since the creation of the world, the scale balances exactly. The defending attorney says there is no basis for sending the soul to Gehenna. The prosecuting attorney argues that the soul has not earned admission to heaven. So, he is sentenced to float in between, until such time as God notices him, has mercy, and admits him to heaven.

The soul does not take it well. “Better the worst torture than nothing at all,” he complains. “Nothing is more horrible than nothing.”

It strikes me that, for a Jew, being out of the fray is an unnatural condition. We don’t have a tradition of monasticism. I don’t think we normally have anything in our mainstream metaphysics similar to the Dante’s Purgatory, and certainly nothing like the permanent state of Limbo. And, for all our history of wandering and our feeling of in-betweenness, there is always a sense that life counts, that it is for keeps.

In Di Goyrl fun Undzere Yiddishistishe Shuln (in the 1950s), my grandfather wrote about Zionist Jews in the United States. He felt that anyone who believed that the eventual goal was for all Jews to be gathered to Israel should go there. Otherwise, their lives in the diaspora would have the feel of “temporary housing”. The alternative was a commitment to the idea of Doyikayt. When Jews in the United States believed that Judaism could flourish anywhere, when they felt that the condition of being a people simultaneously distinct from and contributing to the surrounding gentile culture was our legitimate, authentic condition, with an important role to play in the world, then this feeling of “temporary housing” would disappear. What he and the Zionists of his day would certainly have had in common was that your choices should point to something, that life should not just be a matter of floating around and waiting.

Similarly, on an emotional plane, I don’t know a lot of Jews whose goal is the Buddhist goal of non-attachment. Nor even serenity. We want joy, and are willing to take crushing disappointment along with it if that is part of the package. Better keen sadness or pain than depression. To feel something is to be alive.


Jesus in Limbo, by Domenico Beccafumi. In Catholic theology, because they died in God’s favor but did not know Jesus, the Jewish Patriarchs are consigned to Limbo to wait until Jesus returns to redeem them. Neutral? It looks like the waiting room at Penn Station.



4 thoughts on “Dray Matones

  1.     David, if that painting looks to you like the waiting room in Penn Station,then I think you’ve never been in Penn Station. I have been. It’s nothing like that. Kindest regards.                             A


  2. David,
    In re: ‘I don’t know a lot of Jews whose goal is the Buddhist goal of non-attachment’ — it’s been estimated that 30% of Westerners practicing Buddhism are of Jewish heritage; the phenomenon has even been given a name, Jubu. (See The Huffington Post, 3/26/13, by Ellen Frankel: 5 Reasons Jews Gravitate Toward Buddhism, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-frankel/5-reasons-jews-gravitate-toward-buddhism_b_2520948.html.)
    The Buddhist concept of ‘non-attachment’ is often misunderstood (as in this post). I don’t have a concise link for you at the moment, but don’t doubt you can find your own, if you’re interested enough to correct this misconception.
    I always enjoy your posts!
    m w


    • Thank you (and it’s good to hear from you).

      It seems I’m wrong or, at the very least, oversimplifying in my interpretation of non-attachment. That happens sometimes.

      As for the draw of Buddhism for Jews, the list is interesting. Three of them (they don’t require God, they are open to outsiders, they don’t have a history of killing us) are purely negative, in the sense that there is an absence of a barrier. The first one says, they have something that traditional Judaism is missing– easy access to a certain kind of spiritual experience. True.

      It’s really the last one where the rubber meets the road. How is suffering conceptualized, and what to do about it? The crudest caricature would say that while both do both, the Jews spend more emphasis on redeeming the world through right action and the Buddhists start with right view, right thinking, and meditation.

      Call it the Bernie Sanders dharma vs. the Richard Alpert dharma.


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