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The pros and cons of being immortal

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Eternal Life by Dara Horn (W.W. Norton)

When God warned Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, He threatened: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen 2:17). Adam and Eve ate the fruit but did not die. Bible commentators struggle to explain what happened. One common explanation is that Adam and Eve were originally meant to live forever. When God said, “You shall die,” He meant that they would be punished by becoming mortal. 

Thinkers have struggled to understand human mortality: most of us have difficulty coming to terms with our ultimate end. But some books (Tuck Everlasting is a great example) and movies (The Age of Adaline) explore the flip side: would it really be a blessing to live forever?  How would it feel to be immortal when other humans continue to die?

The old talmudic story (Taanit 21a) of Honi “the Circle-Maker,” who lived in the first century BCE, may be the first Jewish discussion of the issue. Honi, the Talmud says, fell into a deep sleep and miraculously woke up 70 years later.  Before he fell asleep, he had watched someone plant a carob-tree sapling. Thus he had the rare opportunity to see that sapling grow into a mature tree.  But Honi felt the loneliness of outliving everyone of his generation. With no living friends, he told God he wanted to die. God obliged. The poignant lesson the Talmud learns from Honi’s story is “o havruta o mituta—[let me have] either friends or death.” 

Rachel, the central character in Dara Horn’s novel, Eternal Life, has, like Honi, lived too long and wants to die. But unlike Honi, her wish is not granted. We meet her as a grandmother in the 21st century but we learn that she has been alive since the first century CE. Each time she grows old, she goes through an experience, generally a fire, that ought to lead to her death, but instead she miraculously comes alive again, in the body of an 18 year old. Each time, she finds a mate and has children and grandchildren. People around her get sick and die, so she experiences loss again and again. 

After almost 2,000 years of near death and rebirth, she has had enough, but cannot break the cycle. The fantastical elements of the novel require considerable suspension of disbelief, but they hold the reader’s interest.

READ: A SINCERE SPIRITUAL SEEKER’S RELIGIOUS JOURNEY

Part of the novel is historical fiction, set in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago when Rachel was (first) born. Horn attempts to bring the Jewish experience of the first century CE to life but, to my mind, she falls short of the high standard Milton Steinberg set in his classic As a Driven Leaf (1939). That book was also set in the land of Israel, one generation after the events of Rachel’s first lifetime.  Steinberg wrestles with some of the issues found in the talmudic texts, whereas Horn takes the bare bones of the characters and invents a story around them.

Rachel is the mother of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (son of Zakkai), one of the heroes of first-century Judaism. In Horn’s retelling, Rabbi Yochanan’s father wasn’t Rachel’s timid husband, Zakkai, but her more interesting lover, Elazar, who, like Rachel, becomes immortal and keeps being born anew.  Rabbi Yochanan, like everyone else, assumed that Zakkai was his father. (The historical evidence we have provides no justification for portraying Rabbi Yochanan as the product of an illicit union.) 

Horn retells and embellishes the talmudic story (Gittin 56a-b) of the end of the great Jewish war with the Romans.  Jerusalem was under siege. The Jewish zealots who controlled the city wanted to fight to the last man, woman and child. But Rabbi Yochanan felt differently. He pretended to be dead and was smuggled out of Jerusalem, ostensibly for burial.  He then negotiated with the Roman leaders to spare the town of Yavneh and its scholars. Jewish thinkers argue about whether Rabbi Yochanan should have asked for more, but in any case, when the Romans granted him his wish, they ensured (whether knowingly or not) that Torah study would continue. When Jerusalem and the Temple burned down in 70 CE, Judaism was born anew in Yavneh, just a few kilometers away. 

Rachel’s strong desire to die once and for all is the heart of the story.  On a personal level, Horn portrays the human condition as so full of sorrow that of course we want to die.  Many elderly people who outlive their friends and experience great loss wonder why they should go on living. Horn may also be noting specifically how women experience loss. In the novel, Elazar seems perfectly happy being immortal. Watching generation after generation of his descendants die does not affect his positive outlook. Only Rachel, the constant mother and grandmother, finds this
unbearable.

Horn also makes us think about the costs of the Jewish experience.  The American Jewish thinker, Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957), once referred to the Jews as the “Ever-Dying People,” since we have been on the brink of annihilation so often in history. Many people, and I include myself among them, see our survival as cause for celebration. Rachel points out that there is a sad side to this – she bemoans the fact that Jews are actually the “Never-Dying People” (a term coined by the contemporary Jewish thinker Daniel Gordis) and that our coming back to life is inevitably accompanied by a terrible sense of loss.