Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven's Door: Jewish Psychopomps

One of the great religious stereotypes of the Christian tradition is the image of St. Peter waiting at the gates of heaven to direct the soul of the dead to the appropriate final destination. But how many of us know St. Peter is just the Christian version of an almost universal spiritual/mythic tradition, the psychopomp?

[Angel collects the soul of a martyr of the Kishinev Pogrom. Illustration by Ephraim M. Lilien]

Many spiritual traditions have an entity, a spirit, deity, angel, or righteous ancestor, whose responsibility is to escort newly-deceased souls to the afterlife. This creature is known as a psychopomp, from the Greek, meaning the "guide of souls". The role is not to judge the deceased, but simply provide safe passage. In Greek mythology, this is usually Hermes. In Egyptian myth, Anubis. In Christianity, it’s St. Peter.

Judaism has this concept also. But in keeping with the doctrinal chaos that reigns in other aspects of Judaism, there is no firm agreement on the identity of the psychopomp (maybe, in the World-to-Come, as in this world, Jewish authority is simply not centralized).* Here are some of the more popular candidates:

The angel of conception not only brings souls into this world, but then returns to them at the end of life. When the soul recognizes the angel, then Lailah take it on to the next stage of its journey:

When a man’s time to die comes, the same angel [who brought him into the world] appears to him and asks, “Do you recognize me?” The man answers “Yes,”… (Midrash Tanhuma Pekude 3)

Abraham: Just as he did in this world, in the World-To-Come, our beloved ancestor awaits wayfaring souls – just not in the place you would expect:

As he sat in the tent door in the heat…Rav Levi said, in the World-To-Come, Abraham will sit at the entrance of Gehenna [the Jewish purgatory] and permit no circumcised child of Israel to descend there….(Genesis Rabbah 48:8).

Elijah: Some traditions place Elijah at the scene of the resurrection of the dead. But he also greets the souls of those entering their everlasting reward:

The good way has two byways, one of righteousness, the other of love, and Elijah, may he be remembered for good, is placed exactly between these two ways. When a man comes to enter, Elijah, may he be remembered for good, cries aloud concerning him, saying, Open you gates, that the righteous nation which keeps truth may enter it (Isa. 24:2)…(Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 15).

Zal g'mor - Go learn more by reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

*So a priest and a rabbi are talking. The priest complains of the burdens of his parish: My friend, you have no idea what it’s like being the priest to 500 communicants. Perhaps not, responds the rabbi, but then you have no idea what it’s like being the rabbi to 500 rabbis.


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