After the death of my beloved wife two weeks ago, among the 161 visitors who came to offer condolences during the week of shiva, many expressed the comforting thought of an after-life when we would be re-united in a blissful heaven.
The belief in the after-life in Judaism is a tenet of Orthodoxy. It was created to assure the mourners who are bereaved that death is not final, that there is a life beyond the grave when we will be joined together with our deceased loved ones. I am sure that such an expression offers comfort to those who have suffered a painful loss in their lives. It gives them the hope of a future re-union.
Liberal Judaism, in its three branches (Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform) do not conceive of an after-life. If one is happy on earth this is their heaven and if one is miserable on earth this is their hell. Beyond that there is only nothingness.
The only alleged story of a resurrection is found in the Gospels of the New Testament which relates that a wealthy Jew, Joseph of Arimathea, gave a burial cave for the body of the crucified Jesus and when his disciples went to visit the tomb the next day they found it empty and proclaimed “he has risen”.
Judaism certainly teaches the idea of techiyat ha-maitim, but liberal Judaism dismisses it as unreal and impossible. The dead do not rise up from their burial place.
When I question the concept of an after-life with traditional Jews, they agree that the body remains in the grave but that the soul ascends unto heaven. I ask them, “what is the soul and where is it?”
When I go to a doctor he examines my heart, lungs, and kidneys but he cannot examine my soul. No stethoscope can find it nor hear it.
I have always taught that the soul is the memories we have of our loved ones now gone. As long as we think of them, as long as we remember them, as long as we continue to do the good deeds which they did in the land of the living, they can never really die. They remain an eternal part of us which we pass on to our children and grandchildren for future generations.
Death must come eventually to everything that lives. Every beautiful flower fades, every green leaf withers on the tree and falls to the ground. All our prayers for their eternal preservation are in vain. Nothing can last forever…. Nothing that is, but a shem tov…a good name.
My beloved Rahel has died. She lived and died with a shem tov. But her soul will live on forever in the hearts of all who loved her. As long as she is remembered, as long as her family and friends continue to speak of her, she can never really die. As long as others recall her noble deeds she will continue to live within them.
That is what Judaism means, I believe, when it speaks of the immortality of the soul. The memory of our departed continues to inspire us and with those memories kept alive and the recollection of beautiful years together, my beloved Rahel will be kept alive in the hearts of all who knew her and loved her.
The myth of an after-life when we will be re-joined is a myth like that of a tooth fairy. It offers me no hope and no comfort. But the memories, the thoughts, the dreams of our great love will continue to inspire me.
And while when reciting prayers in the siddur referring to a techiyat ha-maitim, a physical resurrection of the dead , I recite the words by rote and by custom but not by belief.
Her precious soul is in my heart and there it will remain forever until I am called to surrender my own.