Notes from NNLS
Joining our Ancestors: Life After Death
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout or to comment.]Abraham is the first character in the Torah to die whom we've had a chance to get to know.
This is in fulfilment of Genesis 15:15, the promise made to Abraham in the Covenant Between the Pieces:
Genesis 25:8 בראשית כה ח-כה ח Then Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו׃
And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶיךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם תִּקָּבֵר בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה׃
It's widely agreed by scholars that the Torah itself makes no obvious reference to life after death at all. Various suggestions have been interpreted by later scholars to refer to life after death—Sheol, the underworld—but this just refers to where the dead are. [Though Hertz uses this verse as evidence that there is some form of continued existence of the soul supported in the Torah, because Abraham's ancestors were in Haran and Ur, which he left, not in the land of Canaan where he now lived.]
The only evidence for life after death in the Bible is found very late, in Daniel [12:2-3] (second century BCE), and possibly in a single passage in Isaiah [26:19]. The idea enters Judaism in two forms: from the Near East as the resurrection of the body, and from the Hellenistic world as the eternity of the soul. These are two distinct ideas both of which Judaism comes to embrace.
Josephus, writing in the first century CE, talks about how the Sadducees—the priestly families, the landed gentry—did not believe in life after death, but the Pharisees did. One theory is that the Pharisees were working class, and poor; and one impetus for belief in an afterlife is that if G-d is just, there has to be a domain in which G-d's justice is revealed, because it is not on this earth.
In the first century we can see this evidence being incorporated into rabbinic Judaism (and the idea of an afterlife persists in Judaism to this day as a comfort). The evidence for this is the references to the resurrection of the dead in the second paragraph of the Amidah. It's repeated five times [which repetition attests to the fact there was a significant community at the time—the Sadducees—denying the future resurrection of the dead]. By the time of the Mishna and the Talmud, the idea is already normative.
The rabbinic interpretation of the above passage is that Abraham meets the souls of his family.
Ibn Ezra (who according to tradition may have died in Oxford—we know he visited England, because when he is commentating upon the clouds which covered Mt Sinai for three days, he says "I seen clouds like that in England"):
The word vayigva refers to the departure of the soul in a single moment without suffering or delay. Thus see "he gathered his feet into the bed" and immediately "he expired" (Gen. 49:3). Every gviya means death, but not every death is gviya. The meaning of "And Abraham died", is that he died at a good old age. "He was gathered unto his people": There are those that say this refers to the dignity of the soul, because when it is engaged with the body it is as if it is separate. But when it is separated from the body, it is gathered to its people. And there are those who say this is a form of language. The meaning of walking in the way of his people is that it is as if he is joining them; thus, "And you will come to your fathers in peace" (Gen 15:15).
The first meaning is rather opaque; Gersonides clarifies:
The expression is connected with the soul, for while it is in the body, it is, as it were, in isolation; when the soul leaves the body, it rejoins its Source and is gathered back to its glory.
A century after Ibn Ezra, Maimonides refers to to afterlife as the world of the souls where is no eating or drinking, none of the things we associate with the body, but (quoting the Talmud), the righteous sit with the crowns upon their heads, and enjoy the radiance of the Divine. He says this is all metaphorical; it means the greater a person's righteousness in this world, the closer they get to G-d in the World to Come.
Sforno, who belonged to the Italian Renaissance, has a universalist strain in his writings:
He was gathered into the bond of eternal life with the righteous of all generations, who are his people because they are similar to him. The plural, "his people" implies that there are many nations in the World to Come... Everyone's share in the World to Come is a product of his own unique accomplishments during life. Therefore no two portions in the Hereafter are like. (See Elie Spitz, Does the Soul Survive, p. 34.)
We are not encouraged to inquire after the dead. (Necromancy is specifically forbidden.) They have gone on their journey. There's not a sense in Judaism of "we'll all meet again" in the afterlife, because the journey continues on, and we are taught to get over the anguish of the parting by learning to let go.
The Yalkut Shimoni (77), a collection of earlier midrashim, put together in Frankfurt in the Middle Ages:
"You shall come to your fathers in peace": Does the soul leave the body in peace? Rather, the righteous precede him and say "Come in peace." It is further written, "He was gathered to his people": all souls return, the righteous unto the righteous, and the wicked unto the wicked, as it is said, "He was gathered unto his people."
With Jewish mysticism is developed the idea, alongside this, of גלגול נפשות—metempsychosis. The Baal Shem Tov felt he had the souls of earlier masters. Some thought they even knew whose soul they had: R. Nachman of Bratslav considered he had the same soul as that of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov himself. It is not normative Judaism, but it is a very widespread belief.
There is an absurd side to this too: A story is told about a rabbi having a dream he must go to the bullfight, because the bull would be wounded. The bull had the soul of his father, and he must be responsible for ensuring the bull has a proper shechita, then he must eat it, to elevate his father's soul.
The point here is that there is more than one viewpoint supported in the tradition. There is no clear dogma, and we're not encouraged to speculate. What's the point, and what good does it do us? There's certainly nothing like Dante's vision in Judaism. But it can result in people feeling let down by the lack of a single position they can hold to.
The speaker's personal opinion: The individual soul rejoins G-d... but whether we retain our individuality, or that the sense that this is me belongs to this world, and the soul after death is more like a water drop rejoining the ocean, we cannot know. G-d is the source of all life, out of which new life comes. There are Zoharic passages supporting this.
"Where Does It End?", by Ben Zion Bokser:
I look out upon the far horizon. Where does it end? The line drawn by my eye is only imaginary. It will recede as I come near it. Space, like time, is continuous, and there are no sharp interruptions to differentiate one thing from another.
And is it not likewise with my life? I look back into my past. I cannot tell where it began, I am familiar with some of my ancestors, but my life did not begin with them. It stretches far back into time beyond my reckoning. A long line of generations labored to produce me.
The peculiarity of my walk, my smile, may go back to one, and the bent of my mind to another. The sound of my voice may carry an echo of some unknown benefactor who passed something of himself on to me. The seed that develops in me was planted in a faraway past, and as I reap the harvest I know that other hands made it possible.
Equally long is the line of my spiritual ancestors. The love of life and the sense of kinship I feel for my fellow man are but simple expressions of my spirit, but men achieved it after groping and suffering. The first man who rubbed two stones to produce fire is my ancestor, and so is the first man who discovered the glow of friendship in the clasp of two hands. The men who explored the seas and the mountains and who brought up the hidden riches of the earth are my ancestors. They enriched me with the fruit of their discoveries, as well as with the spirit of their daring.
I am what I am because of the first amoeba that developed into a more complex form, impelled by the divine imperative to grow. A thousand sunsets have shaped my sense of beauty, and a thousand soft voices have taught me to be kind. Waters from a thousand springs have quenched my thirst. I look out upon my world and act in it with all that is mine, with every past experience, and with everything that entered into it.
As I think of the long line stretching far into the past, I also cast my glance forward. The line into the future is just as unbroken. It moves through men into generations yet unborn. And as I think of this, I am comforted. For I am a point in that line., and the course of existence travels through me. I have inherited from all the past and I will bequeath to all the future. In the movement of that line lies the secret of immortality, and I am a part of it.
It's not dealing with the issue of the transcendent. It avoids the question of "what about beyond?"; it addresses the issue of death annihilating meaning.
R. Jacobs argued that the good G-d, being good, having brought the human into existence, couldn't be willing to see something so precious destroyed. Therefore G-d preserves in some way the individuality of that creation.
Judaism also affirms the importance of the continuation and legacy of our existence. The ethical will—a letter or message not about the disposal of our possessions, but about our values, and what we would wish for our heirs—is not about immortality, but how the way we are lives on through those near us. It's been argued the theoretical discussions about life after death has been too much at the price of passing on our ethical values.
An example, from Ethical Wills. This is by Sadie Kulakofsky (1892-1978), a macher in the Hadassah Medical Organization:
Above the material things bequeathed to all of you both in the Last Will and Testament and in a little book, I hope I shall have given all of you something which is more precious than gold and jewels.
I hope and pray that during the years we have had together I have given you a love of our faith, a trust in God, from whom all blessings flow, a devotion to righteousness to justice and to peace—all of which one will find as the principles of Judaism, and the basis of civilization.
These are the jewels, more precious than rubies which I hope will make your lives rich in all that is worthwhile for many years to come as I think they have made mine.
May God shower you with his blessings and may you share your blessings with others.
God bless you all,
Sadie S. Kulakofsky
April 24, 1953
[People interrupted at various points with questions or concerns; I have moved what notes I took of these to the end.]
Somebody said something about the Talmudic assumption is that death acts as an atonement for sins; the rabbi quoted the prayer on a deathbed:
[...] May it be Your will to send me a perfect healing. Yet if my death is fully determined by You [...] may my death be an atonement for all the sins, iniquities and transgressions I have commited before You. [...]
There was reference made, briefly, to the Jewish concept of punishment of the dead, and how this corresponds more to the Christian concept of Purgatory than Hell: "Like the refinement of silver in fire" for a year. And this is what Mourners' Kaddish is for, to help people through this year, in which sinners may be punished.
The first question one is asked when one goes in Judgement before the Heavenly Court is not have you studied much Torah—that comes later—but have you been a decent human being?