by Amy E. Schwartz
Ask Jews what happens after death, and many will respond that the Jewish tradition doesn’t say or doesn’t care, that Jews believe life is for the living and that Judaism focuses on what people can and should do in this world. But not so fast. If anything is less Jewish than belief in heaven and hell, it’s Jews agreeing on an official theological party line. And after 4,000 years of discussion, you’d expect considerable variation. Sure enough, when Moment asked an array of prominent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers and other doers to tell us what they think they’re headed for, the range was extraordinary. In the following ruminations you’ll find ghosts, zombies, animal souls and reincarnation, along with more familiar discussions of memory, legacy and divine judgment. And, of course, disagreements. As they say: two Jews, three afterlives.
An Imaginary Sphere
I think everybody thinks about it. The afterlife is the principal preoccupation of anyone who’s going to die, regardless of religion. Judaism has never decided on a formal approach to the afterlife. It’s never had a formal approach to eschatology, either—what’s going to happen at the end of the world. We’re left with a typically practical, or provisional, interest in the world as it is—a regulation of the mundane, the here and now, rather than a pondering of the celestial.
I’ve always felt the afterlife exists in relation to life in the same way literature exists in relation to life. It’s an imaginary sphere, in which one can play out one’s fears, neuroses, desires and pains, but it’s still a terrain strictly for the living. Only the living can play, or imagine—or read. Once a man dies, his afterlife ceases to exist.
Jews, if not Judaism, regard death as a great injustice. Everything I’ve read tells me that Judaism is loath to encourage a positive view of the afterlife, because it might encourage a more positive attitude toward death. Anything that would see death as a salvation risks encouraging the believer to shirk his job on earth, or opt for thoughtless martyrdom. The classic refusal of salvation is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which says nothing about death, or about life after death. I have always read the Mourner’s Kaddish as a unique provocation to God. “Magnified and sanctified is God, Who brought us all here to the graveside to suffer and yet Who still hasn’t offered any reward.” It verges on gallows humor. I’ve never subscribed to the myth that the Kaddish can be used to spring one’s parents from purgatory. It’s merely a call to duty. I remember as a kid thinking, “Yes, yes—that’s a very effective way of getting me to shul.”
Joshua Cohen is the author of A Heaven of Others and Witz.
Beyond Bodily Death
Maybe most Jews haven’t, but Judaism has absolutely always had a view of the afterlife. From the 14th century on, a belief in gilgul, reincarnation, was as kosher as Manischewitz. In the Artscroll prayer book, there’s a line in the bedtime Shema, “Forgive anyone who has harmed me in this incarnation or any other incarnation.” Even in the Bible, Saul goes to the Witch of Endor to raise up the spirit of Samuel from the dead. It’s forbidden, but it’s practiced.
Most Jews today see the Jewish tradition through the lens of 20th-century rationality, so they don’t see those aspects. The collective shock of losing so many people in the Holocaust was just too great. We had to move ahead, found the State of Israel, deal with the devastation and the trauma—no one could afford to think about six million souls. And then the culture was increasingly secular. Rabbis didn’t talk about God and spirituality from the pulpit, they preached about Israel and anti-Semitism.
But now we’re really on a quest for spirituality. Young people are saturated with material things. They want some kind of connection with nature and the universe, not just with the next iPod. And an interest in the afterlife emerges from that. You see it in popular culture as well: movies about the supernatural, a cop show where a medium is the protagonist. No one would have touched that 20 years ago.
How do we evolve a different pastoral approach based on the idea that consciousness survives bodily death? How does it change the way we think of Kaddish, of caring for the dead, of sitting shiva? There are long-term implications that we haven’t even begun to investigate. I’ve done a lot of work in hospice, and my sense is that with all our science, we really can’t comprehend the subtlety of what happens when we die.
Simcha Paull Raphael is the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife and specializes in bereavement in his private psychotherapy practice.
Love is Immortal
To me, the afterlife consists of the memories that we leave in the minds and hearts of the people we love. Obviously, we all want to leave a heritage for the world, but it’s given to very few of us to do that. But what one has been to one’s spouse and one’s children, and perhaps one’s students, carries through to countless generations. I don’t believe in immortality except in that sense. My sense of religion has to do with community, with continuity, with going to synagogue and identifying publicly with the Jewish people. Continuity doesn’t mean some shadowy figure of your individual self goes on. It means your work and your love go on.
Nature is cyclical. Just look—in the last few months all the green stuff has come out, birds are chirping, everything is renewed. Nature is an environment in which we die so others may live, so that our civilization can expand, so new ideas and experiences can be promulgated. Why should human beings be an exception to all the other biological phenomena?
Sherwin B. Nuland, a retired professor of surgery, teaches bioethics and medical history at Yale University. He is the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.
Heaven is for Everyone
Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife differ Read the rest of this entry »