I have lived with the death of a dear one since I was a child when my father died suddenly at the young age of 53. I was 9 years old. That loss was especially painful in my young life as it is for any child who loses a parent.
I have often wondered where my Dad was after he died. I knew exactly where his remains are buried in the cemetery, but where was the essence of him after he took his last breath? What happened to his spirit and soul, his mind, memory, and consciousness? As the years passed, did he know what became of his sons, my brother and me, his family and friends? Or, upon death did he simply cease to be, his memory gone, his consciousness inert, and his being nullified. In the Hebrew Bible, death is sometimes described as a state of non-being in “Sheol,” the “place” of non-existence, darkness, lifelessness – neither heaven nor hell.
I have had to help congregants over decades cope with our powerlessness before and following the death of loved ones, of our inability to answer the ultimate question about what happens to us, if anything, when we die. I read everything I could find in Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Islamic Sufism, Buddhism, Native American and other faith traditions about the nature of the soul and that which animates a human being. At times, I allowed myself to believe in the idea that the soul is indestructible and eternal, that it retains its memories as it journeys into the metaphysical realm, and that it is aware of the lives of its surviving loved ones. I allowed myself to believe the evidence of past-life memory and the eventual return of the soul to effect tikun (repair) as a consequence of the former life’s bad behavior and moral failings. I found that this was often a comforting response to those who needed or wanted to believe that there is a reality to the soul separate from the body that transcends the material world.
The French Catholic Jesuit Priest and theologian Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once said: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I quoted him high and low for years, and part of me believes he was right, that there is far more to our lives than our earthly material experience, that soul-consciousness exists in the metaphysical realm, that it is a remarkable truth that one soul comes into one body to create a human life, and if it does so once, why not twice and many times.
In 1995, after two years of reading, polling my congregants about their experiences of past-life memory and intuitive knowledge, I delivered a Kol Nidre sermon that I called “The Journey of the Soul” in which I made the case for reincarnation – in Hebrew, gilgul hanefesh (“wheel of the soul”) – and justified it based on the work of many originally skeptical scientists and physicians such as Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Dr. Raymond Moody, Dr. Melvin Morse, Dr. Brian Weiss, and others into near-death experiences and past-life memory. I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the scientific work of the University of Virginia researcher Dr. Ian Stevenson on evidence of past-life memory in a number of subjects whose knowledge of former lives could not have been known through any normal means.
In Reform Judaism, the 19th and 20th century liberal Jewish religious stream that grew out of the European Enlightenment, I knew that when I delivered that sermon I was taking a risk of alienating rationalists in my community on the holiest evening of the Jewish year. I was surprised, in spite of the history of my movement, that many resonated with what I said and were inspired and comforted by the possibility that one’s soul-life survives death and is very long. I shared the stories of people in my community who told me that they had experienced visitations by dead relatives through dreams and in their waking moments. One told me she knew that her father died in exactly the way he did as a result of a catastrophic auto accident before being informed of the death because he came to her (they lived hundreds of miles apart) to tell her that he was at peace and that she should not worry about him. One well-known and highly respected non-Orthodox Jewish scholar in the Los Angeles Jewish community told me confidentially of a visit by his dead father soon after his funeral to him in his waking hours. I asked, “What do you make of this?” He said, “I don’t know because if I gave it any more thought I would have to change everything I believe to be true.”
In his series of books beginning with Many Lives, Many Masters, Dr. Brian Weiss presented compelling evidence that human beings can access the souls of the dead through hypnosis, and that there is a thin line between this world and the metaphysical realm. Part of me believes it’s true. Of course, no one can prove by empirical means the reality of soul-consciousness beyond death. Belief in it involves intuitive thinking and accepting the truths provided to us through non-rational (as opposed to irrational) thinking.
If gilgul hanefesh is a true thing, Jewish mysticism affirms that our souls undergo a process of tikun in the first eleven months after death, and then the soul ascends to the Otzar Ha-Nefashot (Treasury of Souls) before ascending higher into either lower Gan Eden or higher Gan Eden before returning to a new life.
There are many take-away lessons to be learned in reincarnation theory, that our lives are far more complex than we realize, that we are here to learn and evolve morally and ethically, that human life is short in the greater expanse of time, that a soul’s life is long, that the virtues of humility, appreciation, gratitude, and generosity are key elements to fulfillment, magnanimity, wisdom, and happiness, and that we are here to love and, hopefully, be loved.
Regardless of whether we believe in reincarnation theory or not, those truths are worthy in and of themselves.
Geri Mund said:
I just received a notice from Temple Judea of Donna’s passing and am so sad. I agree with everything that you say about her. I worked closely with her on TIOH projects in the years before the millenium and then ran into her periodically at Temple Judea or at the physical therapist that we shared. A sweet and gentle person.
Rabbi Anne Brener said:
Thank you for this, John. I am sad to hear about Donna. I had a question- quite literally about the word, “Sheol”. I know that it is translated as you said, however, I have always wondered if, in fact, it meant “question.” Basically, this would mean that all attempts to know what the afterlife is, are futile. Does this make sense to you?
Mitch Gries said:
Thank you John,
What a wonderful article on your understanding of death and the possibility of existence after death.
I still remember how comforting it was when I called you right after my mother died 13 years ago
Barbara Mutterperl said:
Thank you for sharing this. It gives great comfort.
Stanley M Davids said:
I was flying from Milwaukee to Cleveland. My mother, having struggled with brain cancer, was dying. During the flight, I was overcome by a most unwelcome certainty. I told my wife at that moment: Mom has just died.” We checked the time. Upon landing in Cleveland, I called my father. My mother had died at precisely the moment that I had been ‘informed.’
Dennis Cambly said:
Rabbi we must have met as we moved through the journey. Having read all the books you mentioned there is one more I keep next to me. I purchased it while going through a tough time in 1981 almost as thought he wrote it for me. The book written in 1981 by Rabbi S Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Have you published The Journey of the Soul?. ps: WordPress would not let me like your blog
sending condolences. Hamakom yenachem
Marsha Pinson said:
Thank you for this heartfelt message. I am sorry to hear of your family’s profound loss. I first learned of Many Lives, Many Masters when reading Irvin Yalom’s book, Staring at the Sun, a compelling look at his work with psychotherapy and existential fears. I am left with being one who doesn’t count on the afterlife but hopes to be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, I need to make this life the best one I can. I also found comfort recently when I heard a rabbi say that perhaps we don’t have to believe in “Heaven,” but we just need to be able to imagine it. I certainly see “signs” from my late husband that help me feel his presence more than his absence–especially at meaningful times. May your friend’s rich life continue to inspire and comfort, as your message has. Marsha