NEW YORK — It was a March afternoon in 2010 when Rabbi Benjamin Blech realized he was going to die.
Blech, then 78, sat in an examination room with his wife Elaine by his side. The rabbi tried listening as his doctor explained the diagnosis: cardiac amyloidosis, a fatal disease that causes the heart muscle to harden so much that blood can no longer be pumped through the body.
Once home, Blech ignored his doctor’s advice and surfed the internet. According to the search results he was too old for a heart transplant and had months, not years, to live. That was eight years ago. The disease has hardened the walls of Blech’s heart, but it has progressed no further.
Nevertheless, the diagnosis forced Blech to confront his mortality for the first time. Rather than shun death, he chose to live with, and embrace, its presence. As Montaigne, the French philosopher and essayist once said, “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for it, and even less for my imperfect gardens.” And so Blech returned to his cabbages: Jewish philosophy, Torah and writing. The result is his new book, “Hope, Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death,” a sort of Baedeker for the beyond.
“We know so little in general about what Judaism thinks about death. I discovered Judaism, which focuses on the living, has a lot to say about death and dying,” the now 85-year-old Yeshiva University professor of Talmud said.
Conversational in tone, the slim volume includes views about death from several religious traditions and anecdotes about near-death experiences. In it Blech ponders philosophical questions such as what happens when the instinct to preserve life abuts the desire to prevent insufferable torment. Beyond that, Blech explores death and dying in a culture that largely hopes it will slink away.
“We talk about the journey of life. Death is the last stop and nobody knows a lot about what happens after that,” Blech said.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
When something traumatic happens in my life, I look to what Judaism teaches for the answer. I believe God sent me a wake up call and I wanted to share what I learned.
I decided to write the book so I could analyze my reaction to my diagnosis and also help people who are dealing with questions about their own mortality. Most of us have the intellectual knowledge that we’re going to die. I wanted to transmit that into something that could have a positive impact on the way in which we live.
In our society, death is often talked about as if it’s not an option, or as if it’s a condition that can be overcome.
Statistics remain constant: there is a 100 percent mortality rate. As if that’s a huge piece of news. But it’s frightening to most people.
A sociologist once wrote that in American culture, death is the ultimate pornography. There is no longer such a thing as sexual pornography because nothing is off limits these days. But with death there are things that are off limits. You can’t say “he died.” You have to say, “he passed away.” We don’t talk about death.
In my generation when someone died there would be a body in the house. It would be put in the parlor and people would come. Today we immediately remove the body and it’s cleaned up. It’s made hygienic, or embalmed, so that you’re not even aware the person died. People say “Look! He looks so wonderful!”
What is it about death that seems to frighten people the most?
Many people I speak with are not afraid of death, but rather of dying, because the process of dying has become so horrible.
Other people are afraid of the unknown. That’s rooted in our inability to imagine our nonexistence. There is a fear of nothingness.
Maybe we should think of death like travel. When you ask people why they like to travel they will say because they like to go to unknown places, to try new experiences. So maybe it’s like that: traveling to a new place, having a new experience.
Montaigne said: “One should always have one’s boots on and be ready to leave.” Would we be better off living that way?
There are some people who can’t cope with the knowledge that you could die at any minute. That knowledge would make some people too pessimistic and their lives would suffer.
However, it’s remarkable to me that Judaism has fostered the notion that you should live with the knowledge that you’re going to die. You choose to make every day more valuable.
I am a totally different person than I was eight years ago. My diagnosis was a wake up call. It was something that truly got me to reevaluate my life, to realize I still have a mission in life.
Talk about your bucket list, and why yours doesn’t include skydiving or traveling to an exotic locale?
The bucket list really defines who you are and what your mission is. If my bucket list becomes lying on the sand on a beach somewhere, then it means all I thought I was sent here to do on Earth is to have a good time.
If my bucket list becomes lying on the sand on a beach somewhere, then it means all I thought I was sent here to do on Earth is to have a good time.
Obviously, it requires some sensitivity to do a bucket list that is meaningful but also that gives meaning to your life. It makes you treasure your presence on Earth because you still think you have a mission to accomplish something. How do you know what your mission in life is? The answer is we all have unique talents. What I can do is I can write and I can teach. So I continue to teach full-time. I told Yeshiva [University] “I will not leave ’til you carry me out of here.”
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross spoke of the five states of death and dying. You don’t come across as angry in your book when you talk about the diagnosis. Did you get angry?
No, I never reached that stage. I felt so good, so healthy at the time I was diagnosed. I do have a fatal disease; the wall of my heart hardened and I can have difficulty with getting out of breath. But so far the disease hasn’t progressed.
As end of life care is the biggest component driving health care costs, what did you conclude about end of life suffering versus the preservation of life? How does this discussion fit into Judaism?
Judaism is concerned with the preservation of life. One may not take one’s own life. One may not hasten the end. All that is true.
However, pain can be considered when we talk about life. So although we may not end life, we also do not need to exert extreme measures to preserve it, and that’s a heck of a difference. A do not resuscitate order, DNR, is [permitted according to Jewish law]. I signed a DNR.
Here’s the problem. If you put in a feeding tube, you can’t take it out because now you’re directly responsible for the person. But do you have to put in a feeding tube? Not necessarily.
What, if anything, changed during your research in the way you perceive and consider other religions, and are there beliefs in other religions that you take comfort in, or appreciate more?
I was very pleased to discover afterwards that priests and imams have contacted me that we share these views. Although there are differences, some of them profound, that at least with the soul there cannot be any differences.