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Afterlife: What Happens After I Die

You ask what I believe about the afterlife, and I in turn am struck by the fact that yours is a question rarely asked by Jews. It is different with Christian audiences, where inquiries about the Jewish view of life after death are almost invariably the first questions posed. How is it that as a rabbi called upon to officiate at funerals, deliver eulogies, comfort the bereaved, I am rarely questioned about the disposition of the soul after death or the place of heaven or hell or the belief in the physical resurrection of the dead? How is it that in the discussion about the meaning of the Holocaust and the destruction of one-third of our people, the Jewish position on the hereafter plays no part.

How do we account for this neglect despite the prevalence of the ideas of Gan Eden and Gehinnom (heaven and hell), Olam Haba (the world to come) in the rabbinic literature of the Talmud, in Jewish mysticism, and in medieval Jewish philosophy? Despite the praises of God's "calling the dead to eternal life" in the daily prayer book and the references to paradise (Gan Eden) in the El Male prayer recited at the funeral and during Yizkor services, the afterlife does not function as a major Jewish belief among modern Jews.


This-worldliness in modern Judaism has claims to traditional Jewish roots. For one thing, the five books of Moses make no explicit references to another world beyond the grave. The Bible refers to the death of each of the patriarchs as being "gathered to his kin" (Gen. 25:8, 35:29; 49:29, 33). One of the psalms recited in the festival Hallel prayers declares: "The dead cannot praise the Lord nor any who go down into silence. But we [the living] will bless the Lord, now and forever. Hallelujah" (Psalm 115). Carrying out this theme, Jews at the funeral cut the fringes of the prayer shawl that is placed around the shoulders of the deceased. That custom symbolizes the belief that the deceased have no mitzvot, no deeds to be fulfilled. By contrast, to be alive is to have deeds to perform and imperatives to be followed.


The emphasis in Judaism is on the exercise of human free will to mend the universe. For some Jews an ambivalence toward other worldly reward and punishment expresses an apprehensiveness that such belief may be used to excuse lack of individual and social activism here and now. A related story is told of a pious Jew who boasted to his rabbi that he had saved another Jew's soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal. He agreed but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon Minchah prayers. Before serving him the meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing and thereafter to recite the Motzi prayer over the bread. The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. "There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God." The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested "Should I act as if no God existed?" The rabbi replied, "When someone comes to you in need, act as if there were no God in the universe, act as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him except you yourself." The disciple replied, "And have I no responsibility for his soul?" The rabbi replied, "Take care of your soul and his body, not vice versa."

The story expresses discomfort lest an exaggerated emphasis on God as Provider and Rewarder may paralyze the human spirit and rationalize passivity. As the Chassidic Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov put it, God created skepticism so that we "may not let the poor starve, putting them off with the joys of the next world or simply telling them to trust in God who will help them instead of supplying them with food."


There are other factors that may account for the modernist distancing of other worldliness. Jewish philosophers such as Saadia deal with the hereafter in a literal and materialistic manner. Coping with the belief in the physical resurrection of the body, Saadia wonders what happens to the injured or amputated body, or to the person's body devoured by a beast or cremated. How will the resurrection take place? Will the injury to the body be healed? Will the people resurrected be able to exercise free will and sin? If so, will they be punished and if not, then are they without free will?

This sort of materialistic literalism led to strange and unappealing speculation. In this connection, modern Judaism favors a more symbolic and poetic interpretation of the hereafter. Heaven and hell are not geographic places but states of mind, ways of living rather than spaces beyond the earth. The attention shifts from place to time, from "where" to "when" - not "where" is heaven or hell, but "when" is it experienced.

Consider the legend of a good man who after his death enters heaven and is disappointed that there are no "saints" there. He is informed that he is mistaken. The "saints" are not in heaven, heaven is in the saints.

In a complementary story, a Chasidic rabbi is asked, "Where is God?" He answers, "Whenever you let Him in."

So, in discussing, in a moment, the meaning of the immortality of the soul, we shall refer not to "where" the soul is but "when" the soul exists, not to the biology of the soul but to it's mortality.


In Judaism the extraordinary emphasis on life in this world makes a second life elsewhere appear as pale compensation. Death is regarded by some Jewish thinkers as an insult, a contradiction to the purpose of religious life. The mourner's act of tearing a part of his clothing they suggest, expresses anger at this assault upon life and its promises. In the "Chad Gadya" hymn sung at the Passover Seder, the Angel of Death is slaughtered by the God of life, an echo of Isaiah's prophecy, "He will destroy death forever; the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces" (Isaiah 25:8).

The Nobel literary prize winner S. Y. Agnon suggested that the Kaddish the mourner recited to magnify God's name is meant to console God, for the loss of a human being diminishes the strength and glory of the Creator. The mourner's Kaddish itself speaks not of death or of another world but of life in this world and in our time. The ritual of the Kaddish calls for a minyan, a living community of at least ten Jews, to honor the deceased. So the memory of the deceased depends on the presence of life.

In matters of faith such as that of the afterlife, there are no scientific or logical proofs. If "seeing is believing," what is it we are looking for in speaking about God, soul, immortality, resurrection?

Science measures and weighs what is, faith is concerned with what ought to be.

Following that distinction, we may find a clue to the beliefs about the afterlife. What fears and what yearnings of the spirit in this life go into the belief in the continuation of life after death?

The hope for life after death may be related to our discontent with the status quo. The world in which there is so much poverty, war, illness, a world in which innocence suffers and wickedness prospers cannot be the last word of God. Seen in this light, Olam Haba (the world to come) expresses a protest against the injustices and imperfections of this world. In Judaism this world and everything in it is far from perfect. As the Talmud puts it, the grain needs to be ground, the bitter herbs need to be sweetened, the soil must be plowed, "everything requires mending." There is a huge gap between the world as is and the world that ought to be. That vacuum is filled by belief in another world in which to live. For some then, belief in another world is driven by the conscience to compensate the victims of this world. Yet, for others, other worldliness is suspect lest it be exploited by those who seek to delay forever the tasks of this people, this day, in this world.

The rabbinic tradition tries to hold on to both worlds, to counter both the seduction of passivity and the submission to the status quo. Consider the surface paradox taught in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot, or Avot): (4:17).

Better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than the whole life of the world to come; and better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than the whole life of this world.

On a more personal level, I relate the interactions of traditional Jewish wisdom and my own experience. My grandmother died three days before the festival of Sukkot. The funeral was held, the mourning period, normally seven days in duration, began, but in accordance with Jewish ritual , once the festival began, the mourning ended. The tradition is clear: "Haregel mevatel gezerat shivah" - the festival annuls the mourning period. I was at first somewhat resentful that the personal mourning of the family was to be subordinated to the public celebration of Sukkot. But as I thought about the ritual rule I sensed the wisdom of the tradition. My grandmother was a devoted Jew, and she would not wish to disturb her people's joy. (In Yiddish she would say: "Nishtfarshteren die simchah.") Her immortality was bound to the eternity of our people. Individuals die, but ein hatzibur mait- the community does not die. Eleven months after her death that faith was inscribed on my grandmother's headstone. It read, in the traditional expression, tehei nishmatah tzerurah bitzror hachayim - may her soul be bound up in eternal life.


But what is her "soul"? I do not understand soul as a material object but an expression of her life. She was a woman of kindness, gentle in speech and manner, a woman of charity who baked and cooked for sick and poor, who blessed her household as she closed her eyes and raised her hands before the lit Shabbat candles. I still call to mind her counsel, her embrace, her charity. She created memories that inform my life and helped shape my values. In that sense, my grandmother enjoys an immortality of influence. In speaking of her soul I mean those godly qualities in her personality that transcend her bodily existence and affect the character of those she touched.

There is a parallel here to what we learned in physics as the principle of the conservation of matter. That principle maintains that the sum total of the energy of the universe neither diminishes nor increases though it may assume different forms successively. Analogously the spiritual energy expressed during our lives - the wisdom, goodness, and truth of our lives - does not evaporate into thin air but is transformed into different forms of thought, feeling, and behavior and is transmitted through our memory: the conservation of spiritual energy. A while back some parents asked me how to answer their young child who wanted to know before her grandmother's funeral,where grandma had gone. I included the following answer in the eulogy:


The young child asked
"Where is Grandma?"
And the adults gasped
Not knowing what to say
Certainly not in the earth
Buried, covered over with soil and small rocks
Certainly not in the heavens
Distant, far off, a fantasy of the imagination.
Much closer than earth, much closer than heaven
Grandma, dear child, is within us all.
In our memories of her kindness and goodness
Memories that are not faint echoes but resonate in us each day
Grandma is in our tenderness with each other, in our loyalty to family
for friends, in our love of our people.
Nothing noble dies with death. Warm embraces, wise counsel do not
evaporate into the air. Grandma is not "where" but "when"
Wherever we gather together to celebrate festivals
Whenever we offer help to the poor, the homeless, the sick
Whenever we defend the innocent
raise our voice against injustice
Grandma's influence is present.
Grandma stood for ideas and ideals
Grandma stood for care and concern and comfort of the other.
What she stood for we now stand for. Even as we rise for the
kaddish in her memory, in her honor for her immortality.

(Poem by author)


You ask me to be more personal about my own after-life. To ponder what I believe will be the essence of my immortality is an invitation to write my own obituary. The challenges are two-fold: to filter out my conceits and to try to remember the future. I invite the reader to attempt the same exercise.

A celebrated comedian concluded his monologue on the afterlife with the roguish punch line: "I believe in my immortality, but I want it while I'm still alive." There are indeed intimations of immortality I have experienced while yet alive. Whenever I see my granddaughter cover her eyes before the Sabbath lights and hear her sing-song the benedictions in Hebrew, I sense a transcendent joy quite different from that derived from her recitation of a nursery rhyme. It is not the curtsy "cuteness" of her lisped recitation or her precociousness that touches me, but in her benediction lies a shock of recognition. This benediction I heard chanted by my grandmother and mother. It is intimately associated with my family and the warmth and festivity of the Sabbath table. This blessing is a nexus, a sacred connection between my ancestors' world and that of my grandchildren. Hearing it from my grandchild, I know that I am not alone in my future. My Jewishness is validated not only by the origins of my past but by the continuities resonating in my grandchildren. I am not only descendant but ancestor of my tradition.

Additionally I have been blessed with a vocation that brings me into the lives of others. People come to me sharing their most intimate concerns. They come with fears, ambitions, disappointments, and I am privileged to think with them, to cull insights from the wisdom of our tradition, and to disentangle the knotted skein of their anxiety. Years later I hear from some of them sentiments acknowledging my help. Therein abound hints of something personal that lives beyond the grave.

One particular project I was privileged to institute ties me with both my people and the future. In 1987, I founded the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers of the ADL devoted to searching out,identifying, and helping those non-Jews who risked their lives rescuing persecuted Jews during the dark years of the Holocaust. History occurs, but not everything is automatically inscribed in its books. Not history but human beings record events. Unreported, the most important episodes in life are as if they never happened. Unrecorded, the good are robbed of their just immortality. The rescue behavior of non-Jews who reached outside the circle of their own faith to rescue Jews hunted by the Nazis has regrettably not been systematically researched. If that situation is not remedied now, humanity will be denied important evidence of goodness lived and practiced even in the hell of Auschwitz. The past has to be properly remembered so that the future may be property changed. I believe there are sparks buried in unrecorded history that must be freed from the caverns of amnesia. Moral archaeology, digging out the nuggets of supreme value from the past, helps shape a more balanced and wiser theology for the future. Discovering and understanding the flesh-and-blood heroes of our tragic past may provide models and motivations for the generations after the Holocaust. Immortality, mine, my people's, and others, refers to to something indefeasible, something sacred that will not be trampled underfoot. I hope - don't we all? - to leave a shadow on this earth to offer testimony that I have lived.

For all his humor the comedian may have been right in hoping to have his immortality here and now. It's a question of knowing where to look for it.

A legend tells of the angels who were jealous that God was to create the human being in God's immortal image. God and his human creations would share immortality. Envious of humans, the angels plotted to hide it from them. One angel proposed that immortality be hidden from them in the mountains above or the seas beneath far beyond the reach of man or woman. But others argued that human beings would surely climb the mountains and plumb the oceans to find it. The shrewdest angel of all suggested that immortality be hidden within and between human beings. That angel surmised that within and between would be the last place on earth people would search to discover eternal life. But we know the secret. Immortality is within and between us, and its intimations are here and now.


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Tue, February 27 2024 18 Adar I 5784