Rabbi David Weissman
(This article is adapted from a sermon I gave at Shabbat services on Friday evening, April 27th.)
As we get older, many of us become more interested in the topic: What happens to me after I die? Do I just cease to exist? Or do I continue to live on in some form?
The world we live in is a physical world. We can speak because we have a mouth and tongue. We can see because we have eyes. We can hear because we have ears. We can physically feel things because we have a body whose various parts can come in contact with other physical things.
But once we die, we no longer live in this physical world. If someone is buried in the ground, he no longer has any of these physical senses. He can’t speak, he can’t hear, he can’t see and he can’t touch. And eventually the body decomposes. And all that’s left are skeleton fragments.
Today, an increasing number of people are cremated when they die. For these people, all that’s left is a heap of ashes which can fit into an urn.
So if there’s life after death, what is it that survives?
I read obituaries in the newspaper. And many of these obituaries say that the person who has died has joined his previously deceased loved ones in heaven. And all our deceased loved ones are looking down upon us.
And sometimes people will say that their departed loved ones are doing the same thing in heaven that they did while they were alive on earth. So if someone told a lot of jokes in his earthly existence, he’s telling jokes in heaven. Or if someone liked to play poker on earth, he’s playing poker in heaven.
But where is heaven? And if people who have passed away no longer have a physical existence, how can they be doing these things in heaven? So what is it about people who pass away that survives?
In Orthodox and Conservative Jewish prayer books, God is referred to as (physically) “resurrecting the dead” (m’chayeih hameitim in Hebrew). The Reform Jewish prayer book is more cautious and refers to God as “giving life to all” (m’chyeih hakol in Hebrew), but, for those who prefer, provides an optional reference to God as “resurrecting the dead.”
I find it difficult to believe in an actual physical resurrection for human beings after death. And, on a persona level, one thing that has never been clarified is which of my physical bodies will be resurrected. Will it be my thirty year old body? My sixty year old body? My eighty-two year old body? I guess you can surmise which body I would prefer.
You’ll often hear it said that the soul survives. But what is a soul? I would say that a soul refers to consciousness. What distinguishes living creatures from inanimate objects is consciousness – an awareness of our own existence and an awareness of the existence of entities beyond our own existence. But if our sense of consciousness survives our physical existence, then this sense of consciousness survives without any of the senses which our physical existence – our bodies provide – without such things as the ability to talk, the ability to hear, the ability to see and the ability to touch.
Our physical bodies have various organs, each with a different function. One of these organs is the brain. And scientists tell us that different parts of the brain perform different functions. But the brain and the mind aren’t synonymous. The mind is an intangible thing. The mind is the part of a human being that provides consciousness – a sense of self-awareness and the ability to reason, understand, to ability to perceive, the ability to experience emotion, the ability to love, the ability to have compassion, the ability to have a sense of obligation, the ability to have a sense of loyalty, the ability to have a sense of honor. These are all the things that make up someone’s personality. And the mind is the storehouse of a person’s memories.
And so if anything survives when a person passes away, it’s this sense of consciousness which we can call the soul or the mind.
I dream a lot. When I’m sleeping, my eyes are closed so I can’t see, I don’t talk, I don’t hear and I don’t have the ability to touch. And , yet in my dreams, I see, talk, hear and touch. So perhaps this is what life is like after death.
In the year 2,000, a Conservative rabbi by the name of Elie Kaplan Spitz wrote a book entitled “Does the Soul Survive?” I originally read the book shortly after it was first published, but as the topic of the book became more relevant to me as I got older, I recently decided to reread it.
Basically, Rabbi Spitz gives two main arguments for believing in life after death:
The first argument is the well-documented experiences of people who had near death experiences or people who were declared clinically- dead, but were then revived. All of these people recounted similar experiences of being drawn into a powerful light, of experiencing a flashback of the lives they had lived, and of being greeted by departed loved ones during the period when they were unconscious.
The second argument involves documented reports by respected scientists that people placed under hypnosis have been able to remember places and events from passed lives they have lived which they had no way of knowing about other than by having lived in a prior existence. Under hypnosis, some of these people were even able to speak a foreign language they had never been exposed to in their present lives. These hypnotic sessions were conducted by highly- trained, highly-respected professionals, not by some phony carnival charlatans. The conclusion is that when people die, their souls are eventually reincarnated into other physical bodies. And a belief in the reincarnation of the soul is a belief which appears in many Jewish mystical writings.
We often say that we live on in the good deeds we performed while we were alive in this world. We live on in the positive impact we’ve had on the lives of those who survive us. And I’ve often said that in delivering a eulogy at a funeral.
But I think it would be much more comforting to say that we live on as distinct entities unto ourselves – that our consciousness, our souls, our minds, survive our physical existence. I think it’s much more comforting to live on as ourselves than to live on in the minds of those who survive us.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan said: Every prophet prophesied only for the days of the Messiah; but as for the World to Come (the world beyond the grave), no eye has seen what God has prepared for us.
Can I say that there is 100% proof of life beyond the grave? The answer is “NO.” But Rabbi Spitz’s conclusions are not based on the tenets of any particular religious persuasion. They are based on empirical evidence. If you want to explore this topic further, I recommend that you read the book. You can buy it at amazon.com.
In a rabbinic work known as the Tosefta, which is about two thousand years old, there is an ecumenical statement that “there is a place in the world to come for the righteous of all nations.” I think what this means is that not only do our good deeds live on in the minds of those who survive us, but they also accrue to our benefit in our own existence beyond death.