What do you say when someone dies?
Jewish tradition provides three answers. When you first hear of someone’s death, you say “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, usually translated as “Blessed is the true judge”.
When you speak to a mourner (someone close to the person who died), you say “Hamakom yenacham etkhem betokh avalai Tziyon viYrushalayim”, usually translated as “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”; or “Zikhrono/zikhronah livrakhah”, usually translated as “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” (I rephrase this as “May your memory of him/her be a blessing.”)
My father, William R. Backer, died on Friday, March 11, at age 88. I was fortunate to spend the last four days of his life with him, and I hope that someday, many years from now, I can die with similar grace and acceptance, noticing interesting things in the room and smiling when someone holds my hand.
I am glad to receive condolences like “May you be comforted” and “May his memory be a blessing”. But the initial statement at the news of a death, “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, has always irritated me. I am still wrestling with it.
“Barukh dayan ha-emet” (or sometimes Barukh dayan emet) is an excerpt from a longer blessing recited by mourners at a Jewish funeral, a blessing prescribed by Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Berachot 46b. The long version includes other names for God according to the customary formula, but does not explain why we conclude by calling God dayan ha-emet.
Barukh (בָּרוּךְ) = blessed. In Jewish prayer, Barukh is the first word of a blessing recited to thank or praise God. After that first word of appreciation, we give one or more names of God, then state the act of God that we are appreciating. For example, before I eat a handful of blueberries, I say “Blessed are You, God…Creator of fruit of the tree.”
dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge; one who passes sentence. (From the root verb din (דִּין) = judged, made legal rulings.)
ha-emet (הָאֱמֶת) = the truth; honesty; what is confirmed; the quality of dependability, reliability, or consistency. (From the same root as amen (אָמֵן) = Yes indeed!)
The sentence Barukh dayan ha-emet implies an anthropomorphic god who judges individual people, decides when to sentence them to death, and always makes the true (correct, honest, dependable, consistent) decision—in other words, the right decision.
Yet we can all think of individuals who deserved to live longer, from innocent infants to adults who were still improving the lives of others. Why should God judge that these people deserve death, by fatal illness or by other means?
Barukh dayan ha-emet is an example of the classic Problem of Evil: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal, why is this world flawed? Why do bad things happen to good people?
(And in case you are wondering if death is “bad”, let me add that Jews traditionally say Barukh dayan ha-emet upon first hearing of any tragedy, including a house burning down or a plague of locusts destroying a crop.)
The easy answer to the Problem of Evil is to say that “God works in mysterious ways” and does everything for a good reason. Every death and every misfortune has a meaning and a purpose, even if we will never understand it.
I reject that easy answer. I do not believe in an unresolvable paradox just because some religious authority tells me to. If an answer neither speaks to my inner heart nor makes sense to my faculty of reason, I look for another explanation.
Here are a few better ways to justify calling God “the true judge”:
* “…the blessing teaches us on some psychological level to acknowledge that the binary opposites of Creation, e.g., light and darkness, good and evil, suffering and prosperity—all serve a higher purpose and contribute toward the overall welfare of the world. Were it not for death, the world could not contain or sustain all of the world’s inhabitants…” (Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel)
Yes, we could not be fully human without the existence of both good and evil, and the world could not function without light and darkness, birth and death. But if everyone must die to make room for new human beings, then why can’t all decent people die painlessly at age 120?
* “…God has given and God has taken; may the name of God be blessed.” (Book of Job, 1:21)
Job’s pious statement is the source for many commentators who urge us to bless God for everything, good and bad. I can see that blessing God for everything is a useful reminder that we are not in control. But what kind of god are we blessing?
* “Emet is one of the 105 metaphorical names for God in Judaism. …Dayan, ‘Judge,’ is another fitting name, as an anthropomorphic metaphor for how we feel—that a difficult verdict has entered our own lives—loss, death, the departure and ascent of a soul beyond our world of experience…” (Rabbi Goldie Milgram) (Also see her book Living Jewish Life Cycle.)
Rabbi Milgram continues by hinting that there are tasks for a soul after death. While I cannot follow her there, I can at least relate to the idea that we assign anthropomorphic names to God in order to express our own feelings about something bigger than we are.
Why do we call God dayan? The Hebrew Bible frequently depicts God as judging both individuals and nations. When God’s judgment is favorable, God provides rain for crops, fertility, and protection from enemies. When God’s judgment is unfavorable, God sends a fatal disease or an enemy army. In the next millennium, the Talmud continued to accept an anthropomorphic god as the judge of the world, and many humans accept it today.
Ha-emet is merely a noun form of emet. Calling God ha-emet is declaring that God is honest, dependable, and/or consistent. These are all desirable traits in a deity, but they do not mitigate God’s role as one who passes death sentences—especially when so many deaths seem arbitrary.
It’s about time we give up on the paradox called the Problem of Evil, and define the word “God” a different way. If calling God a reliable judge is an anthropomorphism, so is calling God omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal. After all, power, knowledge, benevolence, and personal attention are all human qualities. How tempting it is to project these qualities onto a big screen and attribute them to God!
My father was lucky that he lived to age 88, and that his final illness was relatively brief. I am grateful for that, though I cannot direct my gratitude toward an outsized, humanoid god.
If I am emet (honest), I cannot say that God is either a dayan (judge and executioner) or emet (reliable and consistent rather than arbitrary).
So I have decided I will no longer say Barukh dayan ha-emet. The next time I hear that someone has died, I will stick to “May his/her memory be a blessing” and “May God comfort you”. Because comfort can come from a non-anthropomorphic God.