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Is there afterlife after Auschwitz? Reflections on life after death in the 20th century.

Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?

There is a story told about an eighty-five year old Jewish woman who was in a convalescent hospital, dying. Her concerned daughter wanted to do all she could to help the elderly woman in her final days and weeks. She planned going to the hospital to read to her mother selections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead - a religious text with elaborate descriptions of what one encounters subsequent to physical death.

Just stop for a moment and contemplate that scene. An elderly Jewish woman, probably raised on gefilte fish and chicken soup, is close to the end of her life. Her baby-boomer daughter, a product of Dr. Spock and the Beatles, willingly ready to read to her mother the contents of a sixteenth century Tibetan deathbed manual. That scene suggests a certain kind of cultural smorgasbord possible only in the age of the global village.

A psychologist at the hospital, who was working with dying patients, cautioned the young woman against reading to her mother the contents of this death manual created by Tibetan Buddhist monks. He explained that the arcane symbolism and deathbed meditations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead would frighten and confuse the elderly woman, rather than help her understand the process and experience of dying. Instead, the daughter was advised to go and read to her dying mother old Yiddish love songs.(1)

Given the circumstances, I suppose that Yiddish love songs were an appropriate substitute. The scene of an elderly, dying Jewish woman being read Yiddish love poetry corresponds more closely to my own cultural sensibilities. And yet, at the same time, an important question emerges from this anecdote: why are Yiddish love songs the recommended resource for assisting a Jewish person at the time of death? The Tibetan Buddhists have the Tibetan Book of the Dead; there is an Egyptian Book ofthe Dead; and even medieval Christianity produced a genre of literature entitled, Ars Moriendi, "the Art of Dying," specifically designed for the time of passage from this world. What, exactly, are the Jewish resources for guiding a person through the transition from life to death? And, furthermore, is there a Jewish tradition on the afterlife journey of the soul, or specific Jewish texts which can be of help to people at the time of death?

I have been asking this very question for almost two decades now, both from a place of personal inquiry which has subsequently motivated my own study of Jewish tradition, and also as a question which evokes fruitful discussion in the Jewish death awareness classes and workshops that I lead.

Allow me to phrase the question in a way which speaks most directly to people's personal experience. Imagine for a second that someone approaches you - perhaps a non-Jewish colleague, or someone just beginning to learn about Judaism, or even your own child - and asks quite directly: What do Jews believe about life after death?" How do you respond to such a question?

Generally, such inquiry yields an interesting variety of replies. One frequent response is: "We have a belief in the afterlife, but we have no details to speak of." Or: "Jews believe that the soul is eternal, and after death one lives on as a soul." Another recurring theme is: "Jews believe that there is a resurrection of the dead that will take place after the Messiah comes. My grandmother told me to burn my finger nails so I won't have to go looking for them at the time of resurrection." Or, with some variation, many often claim: "Jews believe in a World to Come, Olam Haba, and eventually one enters this world." In a similar vein, others say: "When I was young and my father died, I was told he was with God in Heaven. We believe in Heaven."

After surveying the beliefs of a room full of people, which I get to do quite often, I find that most adult Jews hold beliefs that reflect the theological thinking of ten to twelve year olds! Think about this, and, for just a moment, travel back into your childhood. What was your earliest encounter with death? Who died? How did the adults in your life explain to you about the finality of death? What were you told about what happens to people after death? Don't read on just yet ... Take some time and think about these questions ... Do you still hold sacred in some secret way the initial teaching offered to you as a child? What do you now think that Jews believe about the afterlife?

There is one additional answer that always emerges when I survey people's views on the afterlife. Invariably, someone tells the story of asking the question of a Hebrew school teacher, a rabbi, or even of one's own parent - "Does Judaism believe in the afterlife?" And, forthrightly, the response comes back:

Judaism celebrates life and the living. It dwells on life here rather than

on the hereafter as other religious faiths do. Life is precious, the here and

the now.(2)

Although absolutely characteristic of modern Judaism's attitude towards the afterlife, this response is the singularly most problematic belief about life after death in the modern Jewish scene. Why? Because it is simply not true! It is only partially true!! Yes, it is accurate that Judaism has a life-affirming, this-worldly orientation which proclaims the sanctity and significance of physical plane life. This world, which is divinely-given for humanity to enjoy, appreciate and sanctify, has always been very important for Judaism, because within the context of physical, embodied life one can fulfill the divine commandments, or mizvot. But to deny or politely by-pass Jewish beliefs in life after death is a pedagogical error promulgated by all too many instructors of Judaism.

As an inadvertent result, both Jews and non-Jews often assume that Judaism does not have any belief in life after death. So we have created a cognitive schizophrenia for modern Jews. On one hand, many hold some very core level beliefs about a dead grandparent or other relative who entered heaven, or the world to come. Yet, on the other hand, people remember having been taught that Judaism is primarily interested in the here and now, and not in heaven and the hereafter.

The result of this is that very often modern Jews experience a kind of intellectual paralysis with regard to the question about life after death. They have been given neither the spiritual motivation nor the textual tools to inquire further about afterlife, spirits and the eternal soul. I believe there is a serious need to re-educate people about the Jewish tradition on life after death. And the main belief that has to be taught is that there is, in actuality, an extensive Jewish tradition on the afterlife journey of the soul. It is only in the modern times, as a result of scientific rationalism, secularization of religion, and the Holocaust, that it has become progressively more difficult to talk about life after death in Judaism.

The Pre-Modern Jewish Legacy on the Afterlife

Over the course of four millennia, Judaism evolved and was transformed as it came into contact with various world civilizations. And with this ongoing process of evolution, Jewish theology, language, and culture, as well as Jewish beliefs on the afterlife, continually evolved. A deeper examination of Jewish tradition reveals a vast, ever-changing historical legacy of teachings on the afterlife. Within pre-modern Judaism can be found a plethora of teachings and texts on topics such as immortality of the soul; celestial journeying through heavenly and hell worlds; reincarnation; exorcism of spirits; deathbed stories of famous rabbis as well as innumerable folk tales that reflect a belief in the soul's continued survival after death. Throughout its history, Judaism produced a wide variety of sacred writings on death and the afterlife. By way of example, consider the following:

In 1626, in Mantua, Italy, Rabbi Aaron Berachia ben Moses of Modena wrote a text entitled Ma'avor Yabok, literally "Crossing the River Yabok." (In Genesis 32 Jacob crosses over the River Yabok and this is the metaphor used in the title of this text.) It is a compilation of writings on death, dying and the philosophy of the afterlife. Based upon the Kabbalistic philosophy of the soul expounded by Isaac Luria, this text describes the experiences of the soul at the time of death, and beyond.(3) More than any other Hebrew book, Ma'avor Yabok may be considered as a "Jewish Book of the Dead."

Produced specifically for the Hevrah Kaddishah, or Burial Society, of Mantua, this text was rapidly accepted in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish communities. Over the course of two hundred years, Ma'avor Yabok was printed in at least twenty-five editions, and became the standard Hevrah Kaddishah manual for Jews in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe.(4) Although untranslated, this text is still in print to this day!

Another text worthy of note is Nishmat Hayyim, "The Soul of Life," by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.(5) Menasseh ben Israel was a scholar, commercial entrepreneur, and political statesman, who negotiated with Oliver Cromwell for permission for Jews to re-enter England. Originally a Marrano who re-embraced Judaism when he migrated from Spain to Amsterdam in the early 1600s, he was the first rabbi and spiritual leader of the Amsterdam Jewish community.(6)

In the author's introduction to Nishmat Hayyim, he relates how he was lying awake one night, when a " Malakh," angel or spirit guide, appeared to him at his bedside, and dictated to him a treatise on "din gilgul neshamot," literally, "the law of the revolution of souls" - reincarnation. Nishmat Hayyim is an eclectic text which presents a survey of Jewish beliefs on topics such as: immortality of the soul; the nature of the astral body; the death-moment itself; postmortem, judgment; the afterlife wanderings of the soul; and other conceptions of the hereafter found in Rabbinic or Kabbalistic sources.

One final example: During the medieval period there appeared within the Jewish world anthologies of legendary Midrashic writings. Based upon ancient traditions dating back to the start of the Rabbinic era, and earlier, these unique Midrashim were composed sometime after 1000 CE. Unlike earlier Rabbinic writings, these are not homiletical Midrashim, but, rather, legends about Biblical personages and Rabbinic sages, as well as apocalyptic writings on redemption, messianism, and the nature of the supernal worlds. Among these anthologies are a number of texts that describe with ornate detail the afterlife realism of Gan Eden - the Garden of Eden, or Paradise - and Gehenna - the purgatorial realm.

Consider, for example, the following brief passage characteristic of this genre of literature, taken from a text entitled The Treatise of Rabbi Yizhak ben Parnachfrom Gehinnom:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says that man's merits and sins are not testified

to until the day of his death ... Thus, at his death, three ministering angels

come to him, one the angel of death, one a scribe, and a third who is appointed

to accompany them. They say to him, "Arise, for your end has

come." Then the scribe proceeds to number his days and years. At that moment

the man opens his eyes and sees the angel of death, whose length extends

from one end of the world to the other: he quakes exceedingly and

falls upon his face.(7)

With abundant detail the texts goes on to describe the Divine judgment experienced at the time of death. This text is only one brief example; but there are numerous writings, and various versions of Midrashic texts, which expound upon the fate of the individual at death, and in Gehenna and Gan Eden. Texts such as the Treatise of Gan Eden, Treatise of Gehenna, Treatise of the Judgment of the Grave, The Revelation of Moses, among others,(8) are as visionary and imagistic as anything produced by Dante, but are philosophically grounded in Torah and Talmud.

A closer examination of Jewish sources reveals that not only does Judaism have a belief in the afterlife, but there are also abundant details available on the journeying of the soul in the hereafter. The texts mentioned above are not isolated literary products, but part of an extensive and popularized tradition on the afterlife that has continually grown and changed over the course of three thousand years.

However, in the twentieth century, as the center of Jewish life has shifted from Europe to North America, and from a Hebrew and Yiddish linguistic environment to an English-speaking one, an awareness of these pre-modern teachings on the afterlife has been lost. Even in modern day Israel, it is often difficult to track down copies of some of the medieval mystical texts on death and the afterlife - topics not high on the agenda even in the Orthodox Yeshiva world. Why has modern Judaism lost touch with the vast legacy of philosophical beliefs of the hereafter? Why are so many people surprised to discover the existence of a core of Jewish belief's on the life after death? And perhaps more importantly, why are well-meaning Jews often left with little choice but to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Yiddish love poetry, when confronted with the spiritual crisis of death and dying?

The answer to this series of questions is not simple. There are both historical and contemporary factors at play affecting modern Jewish views of life after death and, presently, we shall examine some of them.

Historical Roots Of Jewish Afterlife Teachings

First of all, it is essential to remember that what we think of today as "Jewish tradition" does not necessarily represent the entire corpus of four thousand years of Jewish thought and experience. As one of my colleagues often reminds me, it is the winners who write history. Throughout Jewish history, specific trends and beliefs that were widespread in one era were rejected, ignored and purged by forces which later emerged as dominant.

For example, monotheistic Biblical writers condemned any and all goddess-worshipping by members of the Israelite nation. Yet, as Raphael Patai has demonstrated, there were periods of time, certainly prior to the writing of the Books of Kings, when this form of fertility-based religious ritual was practiced.(9) Some scholars have even suggested that those who worshipped goddesses were possibly involved in ritualistic communication with the dead, and this may have been part of Israelite practice in the centuries after settlement of the land.(10)

Looking at the Rabbinic period, we know that, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the Rabbis of Yavneh attempted to establish a comprehensive normative orthodoxy in the Jewish world. In so doing, they rejected a vast collection of Jewish writings known today as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, written (circa) between 300 BCE and 100 CE (called, in Hebrew, sefarim hizonim - "extraneous books").(11) These apocalyptic Jewish texts include material describing the journeying of Biblical personages through realms of the dead. In spite of their popularity, with the emerging hegemony of the Rabbis after the year 70 C.E., these writings were progressively eliminated from the Jewish tradition of transmission (although Ben Sira, for example, is quoted in the Talmud). They are often maintained within the literary traditions of the Ethiopian, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches. Thus, today, in the Pseudepigraphical text 4 Ezra (a version of which appears in the Catholic Bible as 2 Esdras), one finds the most elaborate description of Jewish afterlife teachings from the first century C.E.(12) Originally written in Hebrew, this text reflects certain streams of philosophical beliefs of the Jewish world in Late Antiquity, and is one of many such texts that were rejected by the Rabbis in canonizing the Torah.

In a similar vein, the magical, mystical streams of Judaism were progressively placed into disrepute by the forces of nineteenth century Haskalah. Throughout his monumental study, History of the Jews, Heinrich Graetz repeatedly denigrated Kabbalistic-mystical Judaism, calling it a "mania" that led to a dark age of moral depravity and fanatical intoxication.(13) Influenced by Graetz, early modern Jewish scholarship gave little credibility to mystical Judaism, and the accompanying philosophies of the afterlife journey of the soul that developed in medieval Kabbalah and eighteenth century Hasidism. However, in the second half of this century, Gershom Scholem pioneered the modern study of Jewish mysticism, and demonstrated the important role that Jewish mystical trends have played throughout Jewish history. While there is a growing contemporary interest in re-discovering the wisdom of Jewish mysticism, as yet few inroads have been made in making Kabbalistic and Hasidic afterlife teachings accessible to the English-speaking Jewish world.(15)

But, historical development and these anti-mystical attitudes are not the whole story. There are other factors, inherent in the Biblical and Rabbinic worldview itself, that led to the de-emphasis of teachings about the fate of the individual after death. The short of it is that both Biblical and Rabbinic literature fostered a penchant for emphasizing philosophies of collective redemption of the Israelites over and above teachings on the personal afterlife destiny of the individual. That requires further explanation.

To begin, let us turn to the Hebrew Bible; what are the teachings on life after death found here? Certainly there are intimations that our Biblical ancestors had some form of belief in a continued existence after death. It is possible to speculate that the Patriarchal concern with burial in the family plot at Machpelah may represent a desire to return to an ancestral realm of the dead. However, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find a fully-articulated philosophy of individual postmortem survival.

In 2 Samuel 28, King Saul goes to the Witch of En-Dor, requesting of he to call up the spirit of the Prophet Samuel from Sheol - the postmortem netherworld - and so she does. While this vignette of Biblical narrative points to the existence of a realm of the dead, Saul's encounter with the Witch of En-Dor highlights the ambivalent Biblical attitude towards any communication with those sojourning in this realm. Even though King Saul consulted with the Witch of En-Dor, he did so in disguise, for he himself had prohibited all forms of necromancy, the oracular consulting of the dead. Thus, we see that, on one hand, there were those who did commune with the dead, and, on the other, there had been an outright official condemnation of this practice. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible there are numerous other passages indicating a prohibition against communication with the ancestral dead, and if prohibition was necessary, then obviously someone was doing what had to be prohibited.

It is accurate to say that early Biblical Judaism did have some primitive conception of an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead. However, the belief that the soul separates from the body and survives after death does not appear in the Pentateuch (cf Gen. 1:27), although it is suggested in 1 Sam. 25:29 and Eccl. 4:20-1. Generally speaking it was foreign to early Biblical Judaism, and probably emerged much later, after the sixth century B.C.E. Babylonian Exile.

Another philosophical notion foreign to pre-Exilic Biblical Judaism was the idea of redemption of an individual apart from the nation. In light of the covenant at Sinai, the entire Israelite nation stood in direct relationship with God. God's actions impacted upon the nation as a whole, and vice-versa; the behavior of the Israelites collectively conditioned God's response. The ultimate destiny of the nation is the predominant theme in pre-Exilic Biblical writings rather than concern with the ultimate, personal redemption apart from the nation. Hence, while there are numerous Prophetic teachings about the end-of-days when God will redeem the nation, passages speaking of the ultimate, postmortem fate of the individual are almost totally non-existent.

There is, however, one passage found in the Book of job that is suggestive of a belief in an individual postmortem immortality. From the depths of his anguish, job explains:

But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,

And that He will witness my last upon the the dust;

And when after my skin is destroyed,

Then without my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)

In this passage, job envisions an immortal existence after death with the soul standing in a spiritual relationship with God - "without my flesh shall I see God." This single reference suggests an individual postmortem immortality, but it is certainly not a clearly-articulated or well-developed philosophy of the afterlife.

Without explaining many of the philosophical intricacies, suffice it to say that the Biblical concern with the fate of the nation eventually led to the doctrine of the physical resurrection of the dead,(17) a belief that, at the end-of days, God will redeem His chosen nation and bring the righteous dead to life. Although there existed a less developed stream of teachings about individual postmortem immortality - what happens to the individual person after death - these teachings were overshadowed by a primary concern for the postmortem fate of the collectivity of Israelites.

When we investigate Rabbinic Judaism, we also find a somewhat ambiguous view of the afterlife. In Rabbinic tradition the term Olam Haba, the World to Come, is frequently used in reference to a future postmortem life. But it is often unclear whether this World to Come is inaugurated immediately after an individual's death, or in the distant future, at the end of time and history when the world will be redeemed.

For example, in one Rabbinic text we find a statement that:

My law will guide you in your path in this world; it will watch over you

in your sleep, at the hour of death; and when you wake, it will converse with

you in the Olam Haba (Sifre on Lev. 18:4).

This passage suggests that Olam Haba is a postmortem world that one enters immediately after death. However, elsewhere in the Talmud we find passages expressing a different point-of-view.

Not like this world will be the World to Come. In this world one has

the trouble to harvest grapes and press them; but in the World to Come a

person will bring a single grape in a wagon or a ship, store it in the corner

of his house, and draw from it enough wine to fill a large flagon ... there

will not be a grape which will not yield thirty measures of wine (B. Ket. 111 b).

We see here a clear message that the World to Come is not a postmortem world but, rather, a world that begins at the end of time and history with the onset of the messianic kingdom. It seems more like a time of global super-technology than anything having to do with death and life after death.

This is exactly the situation regarding the afterlife found in Rabbinic literature. More often than not, collective and individual eschatological teachings are consistently fused and confused in Talmud and Midrash. In other words, there is no clear distinction made between philosophical teachings on the ultimate fate of the nation at the end of time, and those teachings on the destiny of the individual in the hereafter. If there is a Rabbinic view of an afterlife, why do we not find the rabbis elaborating more specifically on what happens to the individual after the body dies? The reason is, not unlike in Biblical times, that collective notions of the afterlife always assumed a priority in Rabbinic literature. The Prophetic vision of a renewed messianic social-political world at the end of time predominated in Jewish eschatological thought for centuries during the development of the Talmud and Midrash (see, e.g., B. San. 99a).

Another reason for the modern confusion about life after death is to be found in the approach to the afterlife of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). As a learned scholar of his age, he endeavored to reconcile Jewish tradition with the emerging philosophical worldview of medieval times. A committed traditional Jew, Maimonides was nonetheless a philosophical rationalist influenced by Aristotelian thought and medieval scholastic philosophy. Many of his views about the nature of reality and human existence reflect a rationalistic perspective that downplays the mystical side of Judaism. In his writings on the afterlife, he affirms the existence of an immortal soul, but he does so in terms of philosophical abstractions that are closer to Thomas Aquinas than to medieval legendary Midrash.

For example, in his Commentary on the Mishnah-Tractate Sanhedrin, Maimonides discusses the Rabbinic dictum that: "In Olam Haba [the World to Come] there is no eating, drinking, washing, anointing or sexual intercourse; but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and they delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence" (Ber. 17a). He explicates his philosophical point-of-view as follows: "With their crowns on their heads," he explains, "means the immortality of the soul, a state of being in which one is in firm possession of the concept of the Creator, blessed be He;" further, "and they delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence" refers to the soul's blissful delight in knowing the essential nature of the Creator.(18) Notice how the language here is all very lofty and abstract; Maimonides envisions the World to Come in the conceptual framework of the medieval philosophical worldview which places emphasis on acquisition of knowledge and development of intellect as ways of communing with the Divine.

Elsewhere, Maimonides speaks of the World to Come as an other-worldly realm, totally beyond human comprehension. "As to the blissful state of the soul in the world to come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it," he declares quite explicitly.(19)

Maimonides opposed the growing folk level interest in mythic descriptions of life after death that had become popular in medieval Midrashic writings. As an Aristotelian, he maintained that there was an unbridgeable dualism between matter and spirit, between human and divine realms. Thus, he rejected the use of earthly realm metaphors to describe the afterlife, stating:

... in this earthly existence we only have knowledge of physical pleasure

... But the bliss of the life hereafter is exceedingly great, and can only

metaphorically be compared with earthly enjoyments. In reality, however,

there is no comparison between the bliss of the soul in the life hereafter and

the gratification afforded to the body on earth by food and drink. That spiritual

bliss is unsearchable and beyond compare.(20)

Maimonides' writings on the afterlife actually provide very little phenomenological information on what happens to the individual soul after death. As in Rabbinic literature, the focus is on the World to Come at the end-of-days, and not on the fate of the soul immediately after death. Also, the inherent dualism in Maimonides' worldview has wedged a gap between the spiritual and human realms, thereby convincing many people that contemplating the question of life after death is a task beyond human ability.

Today, close to eight hundred years later, Malmonides' belief that the spiritual life of the World to Come is beyond human comprehension persists within Judaism. In spite of the increasing demise of the rationalistic, Aristotelian worldview, we find these philosophical conceptions echoed in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm, one of the most widely read modern books on death and Judaism. In discussing the afterlife, Lamm reiterates Malmonides' point of view, saying that, in spite of the Jewish belief in immortality, there are no details available on the afterlife. Why? Because "flesh-and-blood man cannot have any precise conception of the pure, spiritual bliss of the world beyond."(21) This is an uncritical acceptance of Maimonides' philosophical rationalism that ignores the mystical, apocalyptic stream of Judaism wherein are found the magnificent textual depictions of the afterlife realms.

As I see it, Maimonides' philosophical dualism actually makes it problematic to understand the nature of Jewish teachings on the afterlife. If the spiritual life of the world-to-come is so lofty, humans cannot even come close to understanding it. Thus, with the Maimonidean influence as a background, it is no wonder that modern Jews have trouble reflecting on the whole question of a life after death.

But, in a contemporary culture that is birthing a new paradigm which purports to bridge the spirit-matter chasm, Maimonides' Aristotelian dualism, like Newtonian physics, is no longer adequate. To wrestle effectively with many of the philosophical and spiritual questions of our age, we will have to develop a Jewish model that reflects the emerging consciousness of the late twentieth century. Certainly, with regard to the topic of immortality and life after death, there is no doubt that we have to go beyond Malmonides and beyond the rationalistic stream of Judaism, to discover a way of seeing the afterlife journey of the soul in terms that speak to our contemporary point-of-view.

The historical evidence examined thus far explains why teachings on the afterlife seem vague and obscure to modern Jews. In addition, however, there are contemporary factors which have made it difficult for twentieth century Judaism rightfully and proudly to claim the legacy of Jewish afterlife teachings.

Twentieth Century Rationalism

First of all, with the ascendence of scientific rationalism at the end of the last century, Western intellectual thought discounted the importance of religion and religious experience in an individual's life. The scientific worldview emphasized objective, observable phenomena of human experience, rejecting the relevance of any non-observable, internal, subjective or spiritual phenomena. Sigmund Freud, the atheist Jew who profoundly influenced modern intellectual trends, saw religion as a "universal obsessional neurosis" which reflected a regression to infantile forms of behavior. To relate to God, according to Freud, was but a childish yearning for a relationships with one's father.(22)

In the opening decades of this century, as scientific rationalism, logical positivism, and psychoanalysis became increasingly popular, angels, souls, mystical experience and life after death were eliminated from the agenda of intellectual inquiry. In a scientific, rationalistic universe, death is seen as the final cessation of life. A person dies and that's the end; survival of a soul in the afterlife is a non-option.

There is no doubt that the rationalistic, secularizing forces of modern thought have impacted upon twentieth century Judaism. As a result, it is not only a belief in the afterlife that is problematic for modern Jews, but even more, almost anything to do with questions of faith, God, religious experience and the inner life are perplexing to an entire generation of Jews who were raised spiritually tone-deaf. While the social and intellectual dimensions of Judaism are addressed in Jewish communities and congregations, spirituality and questions of a personal, intimate relationship with God are often not addressed, except in small pockets of the Jewish community where a relatively recent process of spiritual renewal has begun,(23) and some hasidic groups.

Afterlife and the Holocaust

There is one final factor that has affected modern Judaism's perspective on life after death, and that is the experience and impact of the Holocaust. Undeniably, the Holocaust has been a powerful force operating upon the psyche of twentieth century Jews. The difficulty that modern Jews often encounter in reflecting on the issue of life after death is, in many ways, a direct response to the Holocaust. Think about this for a moment, and ask, as I often do, the following question: "Is there afterlife after Auschwitz?" What a question! You haven't heard it asked before, primarily because after Auschwitz the concern is life and re-birth, not death and the hereafter.

After Auschwitz the spiritual mandate was to re-generate Jewish life, re-settle refugees and build a Jewish homeland. Imagine what it was like in 1945, as the discovery and the liberation of concentration camps began. Could the task at hand have been accomplished if Judaism had a strong philosophical preoccupation with the state of the souls of six million dead?

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the memory of the six million was best honored by affirming the continuity of Jewish existence, not by focusing on the postmortem fate. Such a mission was too monumental and too overwhelmingly painful for contemplating. After Auschwitz, I maintain, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Judaism, collectively, to relate to the idea of an afterlife. Modern Judaism - at least in the forty years after the liberation of the concentration camps - simply could not integrate the Jewish philosophy of the immortal soul with the reality of the Holocaust. So it was best ignored, left to the private sphere but not the public sphere of religious life, except for Yizkor services when the six million martyrs were remembered.

The spirit of the times of the fifties, sixties and seventies necessitated building a socially responsive and intellectually viable Judaism. Within the context of a post-world War II North American Judaism, there was no room for a concern with spirituality and disembodied souls in the hereafter. Within the past decade, however, there has been a progressive yearning for spirituality and spiritual renewal. Today, as we stand on the doorstep of the twenty-first century, it is time to re-claim the Jewish tradition on the afterlife. Forty-five years after the Holocaust, we are in a time of societal transformation and spiritual questing, and it is critical that we wrestle with, and learn to understand, the Jewish spiritual legacy that was buried in the ashes of Auschwitz. This era, as a more evolved and accepting approach to death, dying and bereavement is being developed in Western culture, is the opportune time to bring to light the full legacy of Jewish teachings on death and the afterlife.

Envisioning the Future

Oddly enough, there is a very interesting story which suggests that the seeds of rebirth of the Jewish approach to the afterlife emerged out of the Holocaust itself. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist who is known as "the death and dying lady," tells the story of her experiences as a relief worker in the Maidanek concentration camp. It was there, in 1945, that she became fascinated with the mystery of the human encounter with death. Surveying the vacant Maidanek, she was overwhelmed with the ever-present stench in the air, the barbed wire, the tall chimney of the crematorium, the boxes of baby shoes, jewelry, and women's hair, and, above all, with the scribbling found on the walls of the empty barracks. There, amid the graffiti and hundreds of initials carved into the five-tiered wooden bunks, she noticed countless drawings of butterflies! Perhaps days or only hours before dying in the gas chambers, adults and children left behind their final message - butterflies - the symbol of hope, rebirth, the symbol of the eternal human soul. This curious juxta-position of images of life and death left a profound impression upon the young Kubler-Ross, and ultimately motivated her to study death and dying.(24)

Over the course of the past twenty-five years, she has single-handedly pioneered a profound cultural transformation in attitudes towards the dying and the bereaved. In light of her work with the dying, there are more compassionate, caring approaches to care for the terminally-ill and the grief-stricken. Just as Sigmund Freud altered Western attitudes towards sexuality, Kubler-ross has broken the cultural taboos surrounding death in our society. She has generated an entire cultural movement dedicated to understanding the nature of the dying experience, and all that it entails for individuals and families dealing with terminal illness. In the wake of her influence, there has been a tremendous burst of creative writings on all facets of death and bereavement. And yet, even though thousands of new publications have been produced documenting psychological, sociological, and spiritual perspectives on death and dying, within the Jewish community relatively little new material has been written in the past two decades. Kubler-Ross herself has written:

I have always wondered why the Jews as a people have not written more

on death and dying. Who, better than they, could contribute to understanding

of the need to face the reality of our own finiteness?(25)

It seems that with Kubler-Ross' cultural influences, the psychic grip of the Holocaust has prevailed and Jews have simply avoided writing on death, dying and the afterlife. But the dearth of Jewish writings on death is a modern phenomenon; within the history of Jewish tradition, there are rich resources not only on the afterlife, but on all aspects of the encounter with death. It is up to the modern generation to rediscover those resources, and reconsider and re-evaluate the attitude of our rabbis - in the distant past, and doubtless for good reasons then - which was so averse to apocalyptic literature.

Perhaps now, as we stand on the verge of the twenty-first century, it is time to begin to extricate ourselves from the psychic shackles of the Holocaust, and to begin a process of integrating traditional Jewish wisdom on death, dying, mourning and the spiritual journey of the soul in the afterlife with new, emerging perspectives on the psychology of death and dying. I believe that the best way to meet this need is to bring to life the rich, unmined legacy of Jewish afterlife teachings. These are found not only in the Bible, Rabbinic literature, and in Maimonides, but in some of the more esoteric and less known corners of Jewish tradition. Guidelines for creating the next generation of Jewish death literature will come from medieval Midrash, from the Zohar and other texts of Jewish mysticism, and from the ancient Jewish apocalyptic writings.

Yes, Judaism does believe in an afterlife! Almost fifty years after Auschwitz it is time to resurrect the ancient Jewish tradition on the afterlife journey of the soul, and to make those teachings available in a language and style appropriate for contemporary Jewish life, in the metaphor of the modern psychology of consciousness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead may well be sufficient for Tibetan monks. But now there is a need to develop a Jewish Book of the Dead that will be a guide and a manual for dying grandparents and their children and grandchildren. Now we need to bring to life Jewish wisdom on the mysteries of death and the immortal soul, so that the next generation of Jewish life will be lived with greater fullness and with a profound sense of the spiritual significance of life and death.

(1.) This story is found in: Stephen Levine, Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1982), p. 272. (2.) This quotation appeared in 1981 in a newspaper article about a rabbi who had given a lecture on the Jewish approach to bio-medical ethics. When asked by a young nurse, "Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?" he responded as quoted here. Jean Hershaft, "Patient Should Not Be Told of Terminal Illness: Rabbi," The Jewish Post and Opinion (New York), 13 March 1981, p. 12; (3.) Aaron Berechia ben Moshe Mi'Modina, Ma'avor Yabok (B'nai Brak: Yishpah, 1967). (4.) Jacob R. Marcus, Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1947). (5.) Menasseh ben Israel, Nishmat Hayyim (New York: Sinai Offset Co., 1965). (6.) For biographical information see: Cecil Roth, A Life of Menasseh Ben Israel (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1934). (7.) M. Gaster, ed., The Chronicles of Jerahmeel (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1971). Text XII, pp. 29-30. (8.) English translations of these texts are found in Ibid., and in Moses Gaster, Studies and Texts (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1971). Hebrew texts are found in: Adolph Jellinek, ed., Beit Ha-Midrash, Six Volumes (Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1967), and Y.D. Eisenstein, Ozar Midrashim (New York: Grossman, 1915). (9.) Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (New York: Avon Books, 1967), pp. 16-41. (10.) Archaeological research from the Ancient Near East has revealed a structural similarity between the high places, or bamot, where the Goddess was worshipped, and unearthed funeral mounds where evidence suggests that people brought specific foodstuffs to offer to the dead. A number of Biblical scholars have suggested that the bamot may have also functioned as burial sites where specific funerary practices of communion with the dead were carried out. Sce, for example, Rolland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. I & II (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1965), Vol. I, p. 58; Vol II, p. 287; W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London: Athlone Press, 1968), pp. 177ff.; Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 5, 1167. (11.) The Mishnah documents the Rabbinic attitude towards these writings with a rather serious statement to the effect that one who reads the extraneous books (sefalim hizonim) shall have no share in the world to come (Sanh. x, 1). The term hizonim clearly has the connotation of heresy, and in another Mishnaic passage (Meg. IV, 8) we find a reference to hizoniut - understood here as heresy or sectarianism - i.e., "those who follow their own way and not the ways of the Rabbis" (q.v. Rashi's commentary on Mishnah Megillah IV, 8). (12.) 4 Ezra 7:26-140. The Fourth Book of Ezra can be found in: James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. I (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1983), pp. 517ff. (13.) Heinrich Graetz, Histon of the Jews, 6 Volumes (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1894), IV, pp. 617ff. (14.) Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971). More recently, see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988). (15.) Two notable exceptions are Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Life in the Hereafter - A Tour of What's to Come," in The Jewish Almanac, eds. Richard Siegel and Carl Rheins (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), pp. 594-596, and Edward Hoffman, The Way of Splendor - Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 1981); see especially Chapter 8: "Life and Death - The Immortal Soul." (16.) See, for example, Deut. 26:14; Jer. 16:7; and Hos. 9:4. (17.) For more elaborate discussion of this general topic see: R.H. Charles, Eschatology: The Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, Judaism and Christianity (New York: Schocken Books, 1963). (18.) Fred Rosner, trans. and ed., Maimonides' Commentary on the Mishnah - Tractate Sanhedrin (New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc., 1981). (19.) Moses Hyamsori, trans. and ed., Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, Vol. I: The Book of Knowledge (Jerusalem: Boys Town Publishers, 1965), p. 91a. (20.) lbid. (21.) Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969), p. 225. (22.) Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion (Garden City Anchor Books, 1961; originally published 1927). (23.) See Arthur Waskow, These Holy Sparks - The Rebirth of the Jewish People (New York: Harper and Row, 1983). (24.) This story is related in Jack Riemer, ed., Jewish Reflections on Death (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 1, and Derek Gill, Quest - The Life of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), p. 131.

SIMCHA PAULL RAPHAEL is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Religion at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, Pa.
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Title Annotation:belief in life after death following Jewish Holocaust
Author:Raphael, Simcha Paull
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:7129
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