The Afterlife

The Afterlife – Yom Kippur 5764 (2003)

For most, if not all, of my adult life, I have been uncomfortable with the notion of an afterlife. I know this is part of what appeals to me about the Reform stream of Judaism, for I believe the founders of our movement also felt that discomfort.

I have been drawn more to tales of searching out God in the world through acts of justice and compassion rather than seeking out the path that will lead me to the world to come. I would rather seek out the sparks of God that are bound up in the mundane dregs of the world than search for angels in the hereafter.

My discomfort springs from the same source, I believe, as so many who pursue social justice. I cannot abide the manner in which tyrants, both religious and secular, misuse the tradition of an afterlife for their own gains. Karl Marx wrote, "Religion is the opiate of the masses;" if there is a core to that drug, it is the notion that all will be made right in the world to come.

What could be wrong with such an idea? Why rail against the notion that the good shall be rewarded and the wicked punished in the afterlife? Doesn’t this give us some comfort, some hope, some surcease from the trials and travails of the world? Let me give you a little background to those questions.

First of all, we should recognize that Judaism as a whole does not embrace a unified dogma on the afterlife. Various positions have been held by one major group or another throughout our history: at one extreme entertaining the notion that there is no afterlife at all, and at the other entertaining the notion that there is a heaven to reward the good and a hell to punish the evil. A variety of other positions have been held which are difficult even to place on that spectrum, including a belief in reincarnation and the resurrection of the body.

The Reform movement has consistently endorsed the notion of the eternal spirit of humanity, although it has been notably quiet on what that means. In its clearest position, that taken in the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, it stated:

We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.

Most recently, at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, it declared:

We trust in our tradition’s promise that, although God created us as finite beings, the spirit within us is eternal.

There is a great deal of flexibility in that simple assertion — the spirit within us is eternal — but no dogma, and very little direction.

In fact, if there is one belief within this area that unites most of modern Judaism, it is that there is no eternal place of punishment, or hell. The most commonplace belief (amongst those who maintain a theology that incorporates heaven) is that people spend up to a year in what might best be called a "purgatory," where their sins are cleansed. For the exceptionally wicked — and these cases are as rare as they are wicked — the normative belief is that these souls simply perish after that year of cleansing, and are lost for all eternity.

For me the notion of heaven and hell seems too simplistic, almost childish at times. Let me try to explain why. Lawrence Kohlberg, a Jewish psychologist writing in the 1970’s, proposed a seven-level theory of moral development. People who function at the lowest level — called moral infancy — have no intrinsic sense of right or wrong; they simply do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. People at the highest level (according to Kohlberg) follow universal standards of ethics not because they are frightened, nor to please others, nor to simply "follow the rules," but out of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.

On this scale, the "carrot and stick" approach of heaven and hell is one small step above the lowest level, a tiny step above moral infancy. Most of us would like to believe that we are motivated higher up the scale than that.

For me, this is where the notion of an afterlife has always broken down. If the "purpose" of the afterlife is simply to reward the good and punish the wicked, then that implies that people are only capable of the smallest degree of ethical development. I have much higher expectations of humanity, and I pray that God does as well.

Furthermore, as I look at the world around me I see pain and suffering; I see injustice and tyranny. I hear people crying, calling for relief, hungry for food, wailing for the loss of a loved one. It seems so hollow to say: "Just wait, in heaven, all will be made right." If God is so powerful that the books can be balanced after we die, why doesn’t God balance them now?

So I raise my defenses against the deadening opium of the afterlife, and re-dedicate myself to the pursuit of justice in this world, leaving the matters of heaven and hell, of Gan Aiden and Gehenna, to the scholars who sit in their dusty, shadow-filled rooms.

And yet, something is missing.

There is a new breed of reality show, typified by "Crossing Over," in which a presumed psychic communicates with the dead. In these shows, a caring, humble individual mixes humor and tears and brings well-dramatized relief and release to bereaved family members. These are new shows, but it is an old story, one that the Torah and prophets railed against. Which tells me that it fills a deep-seated, ancient need.

We miss the people we love who have died. We yearn for their touch, we ache for their warmth, we hunger for their smile. Sometimes we dream of them; sometimes we hear them call our name; sometimes we see them slip around the corner, just out of view. We miss them, and want to be reunited with them.

The notion of an afterlife offers hope to all of us that such a reunion can take place. The idea that our loved ones wait for us — for surely none of them are so evil as to require even a year’s worth of purgatorial cleansing, let alone being banished from existence! — can be a comfort, yielding hope when the night seems a little darker, the days seem a little colder.

I miss my mother. There are times when I catch myself, years after her death, turning to her to tell her a story, to share a joke, to revel in the triumphs of my family, to sink into her arms for comfort, only to remember that she is no longer living.

Why would I deny myself the comfort of believing that she lives on? The comfort of believing that she and I will one day be reunited? For I have already asserted my belief in God, a belief I do not try to prove with measurements or sightings; what holds me back here?

The answer comes in two parts: First, there is a part of me that looks for the rational, the logical; some would say it is the scientific counterpart to my spiritual nature. If I am going to incorporate something into my own personal theology, it should make sense with the rest of what I believe.

I very much want the things I believe in to make sense. I don’t believe in flying saucers, because the notion that aliens have been quietly visiting our planet for decades is full of more fallacies than a leaky sieve. But I do believe there is intelligent life in the universe beyond our planet: it makes sense to me, though I never expect to have it proved.

I also want the things I believe in to make a difference, preferably in our world today, and preferably in the way I conduct my life in the face of those beliefs. So, by having taken that leap of faith into the arms of a belief in God, I find myself motivated to advocate for changes in the world, to see people as creations of God who, by their very existence, deserve peace and shelter and happiness.

Now, for years when I held up belief in an afterlife to these two criteria — reasonableness and utility, preferably in support of tikkun olam — that belief fell short. It did not seem reasonable to me, to begin with. Why have such a complicated system? For me, beautiful things are elegant things, particularly in the scientific sense of the word: beautiful systems are systems that do what they do cleverly, with a minimum of waste. The afterlife, as pretty a notion as it was, simply wasn’t elegant; it seemed superfluous, added on.

Worse, it seemed to detract from the drive for tikkun olam, rather than add to it. Why worry about this world if it’s only a few short decades out of eternity? Why bother to help our neighbor? Either they’re being punished for something they did wrong, or they’ll get compensation for their mistreatment on the "other side." No, the afterlife just couldn’t pass muster to get into the way I looked at the world.

Then one day I saw a rainbow. A large, bright, complete rainbow, filling the afternoon sky with brilliant colors against a darkening storm. As usual, at first I was reminded of the covenant with Noah, and the story of one of God’s promises to humanity. But my overwhelming experience was to be in awe of the stunning beauty that presented itself to me.

As my spirit lifted, I was reminded of other moments I have had the privilege to experience. The sights from a high mountaintop. The smell of fresh rain in a secluded forest glen. The babbling of a brook under starlit skies. The touch of my children as I held them, newly arrived in this world.

My attention returned to the rainbow. The scientist in me knew where to look, could explain about beams of light and refraction and hundreds of thousands of water droplets. The student of mythology in me could recite the various ways that rainbows are understood amongst the diverse peoples of this earth.

In that moment I realized something with a power and a conviction that I have rarely felt. I knew that the ability to perceive beauty was due to that spark of God that is within me. The ability to perceive beauty: not to simply see colors in the sky — any animal can do that. But the ability to be able to experience the beautiful. I knew in that moment that God has not put beautiful things into this world for us to experience, but it is that bit of God within us that that makes it possible for us to see the beauty that is all around us.

And I knew then that something about me is eternal. That there is something in me that will live beyond this fragile shell I inhabit. I cannot tell you how, or why, or in what manner. Nor do I believe that angels wait for me, nor fine meals, nor even the chance to study Torah with God. I cannot even say that I will be aware of myself as an individual.

But now I do believe that there is, in fact, a spark of God within each of us: not just as a convenient metaphor, not just as an elegant turn of phrase. But in truth, in reality.

And I cannot imagine a better reason for tikkun olam. For who are we to let that spark in another tremble or wither under the harsh yoke of oppression? How can we let our kin, whoever they may be, suffer needlessly without raising a hand to help? How can we ignore those sparks of the Eternal that surround us every day, those sparks who when nurtured, can sing and fly and dance among the stars?

Now I realize that the search for the remnants of God dispersed amongst the dregs of the world is not merely a beautiful metaphor; it is in fact the true story of a search for God through justice and compassion. A search that we can share but never complete. A search that is as eternal as the spirit of God that lives within each of us.

Come; let us take that journey together.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2003 James F. Brulé