by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
I must confess that in preparing my remarks, I realized that I "rushed in where angels fear to tread." The subject is a very delicate one and I must ask your forgiveness for committing my thoughts to paper.
"Is there a life after death?" is a question which has been asked by man since time began. The ancients would deposit food, gold, silver, and jewels into the grave to give the deceased a start on the "other side." Some tribes would bury the favored wife with the dead man to give him companionship and provide for sex. Saadia, a Jewish medieval philosopher, tells us, "Some of the ignorant people in Arabia are said to hold the opinion that unless a man's camel is slaughtered over his grave, he will have to appear on foot on Judgment Day" (a very disgraceful thing).
A story is told of a Jew who attended a non-Jewish funeral. As the body was lowered, the mourners and friends dropped coins and bills into the grave so that the deceased would have passage for the ferry across the River Styx. The Jew wrote a big check, jumped into the grave, gathered up the money and said, "Here Tony, just cash this!"
No less an authority than James A. Pike, former Bishop of his denominational Protestant Church in California, in a book, "The Other Side," published by Doubleday, tells of his contact with his son Jim who had committed suicide. Jim was a dope addict in life and had frequently taken "trips." Sometimes his father sat by to help him if there was trouble. An excerpt of the book was printed in Look Magazine. Among other things, Bishop Pike described the depression of his son and some trying experiences when he was under the influence of LSD.
Jim Jr. was alone on his way back to San Francisco when he shot himself in his hotel room in New York. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Pike noticed some unusual patterns where objects in a room had been moved. His female assistant's locks had been shorn (Jim Jr. never liked the way she wore them). He was looking for a book one night and found it beside his bed when he awoke in the morning open to the very page he desired. He visited different mediums several times (one a Catholic priest) and they conveyed messages from son to father. Even more, they found that the son was in the company of his favorite grandfather who had preceded him in death. Bishop Pike maintains that there is a life after death with almost physical manifestation.
This was a popular notion in ancient times. The Book of Samuel I, Chapter 28 tells us that Saul, faced by a powerful enemy, was terribly depressed. "When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him neither by dreams, nor by urim (the oracle on the breastpiece worn by the high priest), nor by prophets. Then said Saul, 'Seek me a woman that divineth by ghost, that I may go to her and inquire of her.' His servants knew of such a woman and Saul, disguised, consulted her. After promising not to betray her (since the practice was prohibited) she said, 'Whom shall I bring up unto thee?' and Saul said 'Bring up Samuel.'
"When the woman saw Samuel, she cried in a loud voice, 'Why didst Thou deceive me and thou art Saul?' But the king reassured her. 'Be not afraid: for what seest thou?' And the woman said, 'I see a god-like being coming up out of the earth,' and he said, 'What form is he of?' She said 'An old man cometh up, and he is covered with a robe.' Saul perceived that it was Samuel and bowed with his face to the ground.' Samuel was not pleased however and said to Saul, "Why hast thou disturbed me to bring me up?" Saul explained his distress but Samuel remained angry and told Saul that his dynasty will come to an end. Israel will be delivered from the hands of the Philistines but "Tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me." Then Saul fell straight way his full length upon the earth, and was sore afraid."
This practice was evidently so prevalent in ancient times that the Torah finds it necessary to prohibit it again and again. "A man or a woman who divineth by ghost or spirit shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them by stones" (Lev. 20:27). "There shall not be among you one who maketh his son or daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination or soothsayer or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or familiar spirit -- whoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord and because of these abominations, the Lord thy God is driving them from before thee."
People in ancient times seen to have believed that there is life after death, However, Jewish dead are not to be disturbed in their eternal sleep. The Bible, the Torah and prophetic writings do not concern themselves with the problem of an afterlife, heaven, or techiat hametim (revival of the dead). "Sheol" -- translated as netherworld, is not to be taken as hell but the grave. Jacob uses this word and surely no one would say that he would go anywhere else but to heaven or "gan Eden."
The emphasis in Torah is entirely on the present, on the importance of leading a righteous life to enjoy its blessings; or one can bring down the curse if he leads an unrighteous life. Unlike its daughter religions Christianity and Islam, the Jewish religion calls upon its adherents to be loyal to their faith not for the promise of reward or the threat of punishment, but just for sake of the good itself. Pirke Avot teaches, "Be not like the servant who serves his master for the sake of getting a reward." For this reason Judaism never had cause to explore the afterlife proposition.
The mitzvot are to be observed in order to refine the nature of man and one is to refrain from sin because that would cause anarchy in life. In a pragmatic world like ours, where profit and personal gratification are paramount, this may seem idealistic -- but that is exactly what we as Jews always strive to attain -- the ideal.
There are some vague references to life after death in Midrashic literature. Halacha, as far as I know, is silent on the entire matter. The question is put, "Is there reference in the Torah to the concept of revival of the dead?" (that the dead will live again) and the rabbis point out
that in Az Yashir, the song of triumph which Israel sang at the Red Sea, the future is used and not the past tense, Yashir -- "the children of Israel will sing." This proved to them that there will be a resurrection of the dead. This belief became stronger with the rise of Christianity.
Also in reply to the question about the origin of the mourner's Kaddish, the Midrash tells us the legend that Rabbi Akiva once saw an apparition, which he recognized as a ghost, carrying a massive burden of kindling wood. "Why are you so punished and how can you obtain relief?" Rabbi Akiva asked. The ghost thereupon told Rabbi Akiva his sad tale and concluded "if someone will find my son and teach him to say Yitgadal V'Yitkadash Sh'mei Rabba, I will be forgiven." Rabbi Akiva located the son, taught him the Kaddish and brought salvation to the father's soul.
The origin of the Kaddish is based on the belief of survival in some form. This became a credo in Jewish religious thinking. However in telling the story of Abraham, the Torah quotes him as saying "I am but dust and ashes" and in an earlier chapter, God tells Adam, "Dust thou art and to dust thou returnest" giving no indication of an afterlife. The Psalmist does not hesitate to affirm. 'Lo hametim yehallelu kah' "The dead do not praise the Lord nor do all those who go down to the grave."
The Torah and prophets harbor no thought of a post-mortem existence. Rabbinic Judaism developed the concept of a survival of the soul probably after having been influenced by the Babylonian and later Greek mythology and philosophy. The teachings of the rabbis are moderate. "All Israel have a share in the world to come" is found in the tractate of Sanhedrin and is recited as the introduction to Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. There is no attempt to finalize or spell out the meaning of Olam Haba (the world to come.). Jewish literature does not boast of a Dante's "Inferno" or a Milton's "Paradise Lost," nor do we encourage the evangelists of fire and brimstone to bring about repentance.
You will ask what does the "Kabbalah - mistranslated as Mysticism" but really meaning "tradition" (that which has been received) have to say about this matter? Search and you will find that both the Apocalyptic and classical Kabbalistic writings seek only the good life. Through the practice of asceticism, self denial, and privation, the individual can arrive at a clearer knowledge of the Divine. This field of study is also attuned to life; how to become more pious is its theme.
A degenerate form of Kabbalah or to be kind, an offshoot of Kabbala, is the literature called Nistar Mysticism or "Hidden." The mystic attempts to break thru the wall surrounding the unknown. The chassidic movement employed this form to a very large extent and exploited the fears of the untutored and superstitious. Their preachers described the horrors of hell and bliss of heaven in great detail. Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, theologian and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, points out in one of his essays that when rewards and punishment in this life became unexplainable during the Roman persecution -- the wicked seemed to prosper and the righteous suffered -- reward and punishment were transferred to an existence "beyond life." Oppressed and deprived as were most of the communities in which Hassidism flourished, it is understandable that people would find solace in the thought that reward will be meted out to the righteous after death. They will be consigned to Paradise where they will enjoy all spiritual bliss whereas the wicked will go to hell to be subjected to excruciating punishment. The writings of these men delve into the exact conditions found on the other side of the grave, However, no one ever returned from the grave to render a report.
I say without fear of contradiction: There is no official Jewish outlook on the afterlife. Rabbinic Judaism, and particularly our Jewish philosophers from the day of Saadia, accept the thought of soul survival. Saadia, who lived in the 10th century, goes to the trouble of proving that there is a soul.
(Parenthetically let me say, it was interesting to note in the press the remarks of Dr. Christian Barnard, heart transplant surgeon from Australia. On a visit to Rikers Island Prison, he was asked, "When is a person dead?" Barnard replied, "When his brain is dead." He further maintained that "The mind is more important than the heart. The mind is the seat of the soul, not the heart." A modern scientist also evidently recognizes the existence of a soul.)
Man's body is the same in life as in death, Saadia argued. The change must therefore be in the flight of the invisible something -- the soul. This soul is treasured by the Creator either in His heaven or His hell, depending upon its achievement when it was in partnership with the body. Storage place is no problem, for the soul is not spacial and does not take up any room. For us corporeal beings, this concept is difficult to comprehend. The Christians had to assign a physical form to their divinity and Bishop Pike speaks of his dead son as existing "on the other side" in some physical form. At the end of time Saadia affirms these souls will live again, he does not say whether the body too will be resurrected. Saadia does not teach transmigration of the soul from one body to another as do the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and some of our Chassidim.
The greatest of all philosophers, Maimonides -- the Rambam -- attempted to formulate Jewish belief into a system of dogmas "the thirteen principles of faith." He equates the belief in God as the Creator with the belief in "reward and punishment" and the belief "that there will be a revival of the dead." His formulation was never accepted as the official standard for Jewish faith, that is, a way to determine who is and who is not a Jew.
The Kaddish, the Yahrzeit and Yizkor would have no meaning unless there is an acceptance of the premise that the grave is not the end but that there is "a survival after death." I submit that no one questions that the body returns to the dust, and that only the soul survives. The entire "soul concept," however, is of post biblical origin. The giants of Jewish thought are fully in accord with this view. We cannot explain it or rationalize upon it but neither can we challenge it. The understanding of the concept may differ depending upon the individual capacity to engage in speculation, but we are not in a position to reject it.
This is my own position and you may take for whatever it is worth. I admit that I give little thought to what will be after life. If one accepts life, I maintain he must accept death as an integral part of it. We do not know where we were before birth except perhaps, as microcosms in the physical being of generations preceding us to the beginning of time, including our own parents. The Midrash intimates this view when it says that we were all with Adam and we all stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. We will enjoy life eternal through our children even as past generations live in us. We are not concerned with the problem of before birth, then why be troubled by the question "After Life - What?" We just cannot know what will be after death.
I know some people have a morbid fear of the grave. They rebel against the fact that the body becomes part of the earth around it. Even in a crypt of a mausoleum the body is not long preserved but turns to dust. Science teaches that matter cannot be destroyed: Only its form is changed. The seed of eternity is at the heart of this axiom. Speaking personally, I entertain no fear of death. I am not terribly disturbed about it. More important, in my judgment, is how we live: What we do within the brackets between life and death. How much we do to refine and improve this world and human nature. We know not what was before birth nor what will be after death. We can only know life as it is a present in eternal time. What we do will determine whether this life will be a heaven or a hell. This is the concern of Torah and the prophetic writings. The primary purpose of all religions should be to guide their adherents in ways that will usher in the "Kingdom of Heaven" to our world.
Having faith in the Almighty one needs no further assurances. The liturgical poet expresses the thought in the Adon Olam:
B'yado afkid ruchi -- In His hand do I put my spirit
B'eit ishan v'a'eerah -- When I'm asleep and when I wake
V'im ruchi geviati -- And with my spirit my body, too.
Hashem li v'lo eera -- God is with me I have no fear.