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Looking Deeper into the Myth that Progressive Jews Don’t Believe in an Afterlife

Posted on 17 November 2014, 15:19

As an afterlife investigator I always enjoy hearing other researchers’ opinions, and look forward to reading their works. This helps me stay open to new ideas, makes me think and keeps me on my toes. I learned a long time ago that when it comes to investigating spirit matters, this journey is a “we” deal and we as a community must try to be respectful when publicly discussing one another’s work. That said, I recently read an article by author Stafford Betty, PhD, Professor of Religion at the University of California, Bakersfield, California titled, “Why Don’t Progressive Jews Believe in an Afterlife? Are They Missing Something?” dated November 4th, 2014. In his title the Professor makes a blanket statement insinuating all progressive branches of Judaism must be “missing” something because they don’t believe in an afterlife. Though I respect Betty’s endeavor, as a progressive Jew and Spiritualist who has interviewed and collected afterlife accounts from Jewish experiencers for decades, I’m not in complete agreement with his statements. To begin with, below are just a very few of the fascinating Jewish accounts I’ve had the honor of responding to.

• First we have a departing vision:

“Per Rabbi K.‘s request, my Aunt who succumbed after a rapid decline from cancer had visions and conversations with my late father and mother. Her son might be helpful (if you need to talk to him) thanks. Rabbi L.”

• A Jewish woman has premonitions.

“My aunt had premonitions all of the time.  She had premonitions, dreams about her children and when they would get sick.  If she had a dream about a banquet table, full of food, she knew one of her children would be ill.  The fuller the table, the less severe the illness.”

• Another Jewish departing vision.

“I have a story to share that occurred with the passing of my grandmother.  She died around 3am according to the doctors.  That night I dreamed of her passing.  I dreamt that I was driving home and passing by her house late at night when I had to stop to allow a funeral procession to pass in front of me.  Interestingly my cousin said that she woke up at 3am that night and stared at the clock.  Both my cousin and I are pseudo-psychic and Jewish.

• Finally, an example of spirit visitations.

“I am a Jewish male, age 72, who has had these “visitations” for many years.  It is not uncommon for relatives and friends who are deceased to “visit” with me.  Sometimes they deliver messages and sometimes they are just there. Also, many times I am awakened during the night, sit up in bed and see these “forms” moving around the room.
“As I previously stated, these happenings have occurred for many years.  My friends and family frequently inquire if I have seen so-and-so “. 

My cousin, a very religious Reform congregation member, saw her physically dying mother’s soul-body take flight. Michael my Reform Judaism husband, son of Holocaust survivors and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, watched in awe as his father’s spirit begin to ever so slowly separate from the material body. The Reform Rabbi who wrote the introduction to my first book on departing visions, shared with me that he sits with physically dying congregants as they talk about “going home,” “seeing parents,” and how “the next world is beautiful.” He uses these experiences to comfort bereaved family.  Another Reform Rabbi stated he felt a religious Jew could enjoy benefits from investigating Spiritualism, while a Holocaust survivor and member of a Reform temple gave a lecture on angels at a temple I attended.

In an attempt to show the main stream media and public it’s “Meshuggina!” to believe the entire population of progressive Jews in the United States isn’t interested in the afterlife, it’s first important to make clear that members of this community will never willingly open up about spiritual matters. Most Jews I know would rarely, if ever, participate in a “Hello from Heaven” themed movie, or publicly disclose their personal afterlife encounters or beliefs.  Unlike the Christian faith or other religions where proselytizing and giving testimonies about spiritual experiences is the norm, this culture just doesn’t do this. Proselytizing and openly sharing about Judaism or spiritual encounters is an alien concept.  Chances are if a Jewish man or woman was asked, “Do you believe in the afterlife?” their first response would be, “Why are you asking me this?”

Because of this long standing cultural tendency my investigations into Jewish afterlife beliefs are not the byproduct of statistics.  I’m not so sure how accurate these numbers are. My information comes from clinical and personal experience with not only family or client work with Holocaust or gulag survivors, but their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren that continue to carry conscious or unconscious unresolved emotion about anti-Semitism. A few “family of origin” clinicians like myself research and therapeutically work with this concern.  Sadly, outside Jewish culture, academia or Holocaust research centers this work rarely finds an entrance into public arenas.

Beyond Scratching the Surface
     
Betty’s article, though thoughtfully presented, appears to have only scratched the surface on Jews and an afterlife belief.  Very clear Judaic references to an afterlife can be found if one knows where to look. In my books alone I discuss a number of the spirit world encounters of physically dying Jewish individuals. Those family and friends who love them, or caretakers assisting them also had experiences.

If one really “digs” into Judaic history and ancient literature, they will quickly learn there are many instances of afterlife references, descriptions of angels, visions of a heaven, alternative dimensions, communications with deceased relatives and prophecies of future events. Interestingly, tell-tale signs of ancient afterlife beliefs have trickled on down through the ages. According to Midrash (Torah verse), when someone sneezed this was seen as a prophecy of imminent death and prayers were said asking God to not take away the soul from the body just yet.  This also sounds like one aspect of a departing vision.

So yes, truth be told awareness of an afterlife never really left Judaism, and is making a more visible come back among secular Jews and their children. What has been interesting is that the younger generation is much more open to asking questions and investigating near death experiences, departing visions and afterlife communications. The majority of younger rabbis have no problem discussing these matters. This movement is not being loudly announced, but is quietly making its way through congregations across the western world and even Israel. As one Reform rabbi told me, “Jews don’t need to go outside the religion to seek afterlife information. It’s all right here in religious texts like the Talmud, Torah and other regularly utilized Judaic works.”

Torah Lessons

Just research Genesis 25:8, 25:17, 35:29, 49:33, Deuteronomy 42:50, along with Second Kings 22:20 and look for descriptions of departing visions.  The common theme running through these readings is that death means rejoining one’s ancestors. Even patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with Moses who lead his people out of slavery, are “gathered to their people” after death. In Samuel 28:7-20, God allows King Saul to persuade a medium to connect with the spirit of the deceased Samuel in order to obtain a message about the future. This resonates with the spirit contact of today’s modern mediums. Contact with a resident living in the spirit world is made through a medium for the purpose of receiving and then delivering a message to a sitter.

Traditionally speaking, students of famous rebbes have documented seeing the soul leave a teachers’ body at death. These descriptions of the soul are almost identical to not only many modern day accounts, but several of my own personal experiences. Rebbes knew where they were going after this life and such information was passed on to their students as they lay on their deathbed. 

Most Conservative and Reform rabbis I know do believe in an afterlife. Older more established rabbis have shared with me that they must walk a fine line when dealing with some older congregants, those who experienced first-hand the tragedies of the Holocaust, or their offspring who have suffered because of their parents’ heartbreaking persecution.

Within ultra-Orthodox Hasidism or sects of Orthodox Judaism it’s important for a Jew to finish schooling, get a trade with a good income, find a marriage partner, have children and follow all divine commandments (mitzvah) before exploring topics like life after death. One needs to be grounded in the “here and now” before exploring the “world of truth,” “world to come” or “Olam Ha-Ba”. With a majority of the families I’ve worked with there was an Orthodox grandfather or great-grandfather back in Europe before the war. Regardless of the branch of Judaism today’s tradition, Judaic law and belief can always be traced back to earlier times.

The tradition of being settled with family and income before looking at the afterlife has made its way to present date Judaism.  Unknown to most of the public, there were actual rules surrounding when one could begin investigating the afterlife.

What is extremely important to reiterate is that this tradition runs through all branches of Judaism. This is an historical part of the religious philosophy of Judaism. The Christian religion places life after death at the top of the list, while with Judaism, it’s always been the other way around. The Christion religion teaches children about a resurrection and life after death early on. Judaism teaches children about living life and doing mitzvah. This is the way it’s always been.

The Holocaust and Spiritual Confusion

I do whole heartedly agree with Betty that the trauma of the Nazi death camps created great spiritual confusion within the Jewish community. This confusion was then passed down to offspring. Such spiritual ambiguity is not only a reaction to genocide, but also a response to the long standing Jewish history of anti-Semitism and survival.  My husband’s great-grandfather was a rabbi. His grandfather who survived imprisonment in Russia wrote extensively about spiritual matters and heaven. One definition of the Hebrew word “Shamayim” is a dwelling place for God and other heavenly beings.  His daughters and son were given traditional Jewish educations in Poland, but then their young lives were turned upside down.

My mother-in-law’s complicated reaction to my first book on departing visions might begin to explain why her generation and their offspring, needed to push aside afterlife matters and focus in on just trying to live. As a well-respected university professor and chair of her department, I valued her literary opinion. Sadly, with tears in her eyes she told me she felt like she wasn’t good enough, “not spiritual enough” and that the book had made her sad.  She had spent most of her adult life buried in grief and shame, and there were definite reasons for this. My mother-in-law lost her mother to the gas chambers in Auschwitz while her father was deported to a gulag in Siberia. Her sister, brother, brother-in-law and cousins were in death camps. Many did not survive. As a result, she suffered from horrific Holocaust survivor’s guilt.

Some Holocaust survivors reacted with anger, believing no just god could allow the murder of six million Jews. Then there is the guilt of surviving. Not understanding, “Why me? How come I’m still here?” This sort of rage and grief is often internalized and the list of trauma reactions can be long. Decades after their liberation from hellish camps, most survivors still weren’t talking openly about their experiences. Thankfully, healing happened for my mother-in-law before she transitioned and the family witnessed this. She had a full blown departing vision just before she made her journey to the spirit world. Both her mother and my father-in-law returned to escort her to the afterlife.  Healing happened and she left us knowing where she was going and who she was going with. Jewish persecution couldn’t take this away from her.

History of Persecution

During the pogroms beginning in the 19th century, Jews in Russia were persecuted for being successful, but the cover story was that they were behind the assignation of Tsar Alexander ll. The last pogrom ended in 1922. During these difficult years many surviving Jews held secret religious services in homes, away from prying eyes. Their children, seeing the risks or consequences for this, pushed religion aside like a hot flame. Atheist Bolsheviks then enlisted a large number of these well-educated non-religious Jews into their cause. This anti-religious reaction to religion resulting from persecution, continued through the Cold War.

Many middle aged progressive Jews either have or had Holocaust survivors in their families, or as youths went to temples or synagogues where survivors with tattooed arms could be found. Exposure to emotionally aggrieved survivors could be unsettling or frightening. Wounded parents who lost loved ones during the Holocaust pointed an angry finger at God and became bitter. How could any of these traumatized adults pass on to their children a sense of healthy spirituality?

Because rabbis couldn’t adequately help families like this make sense of these losses, deep seated anger, depression, social anxiety disorders, panic attacks, addictions, phobias, obsessive compulsive behaviors and self-destructive behaviors separated them from healing, and any recovery of spirituality. Angry atheism then pushed religion, God and the afterlife away.  It’s important to recognize secular Jews are like most agnostics or atheists. They’re nonbelievers who feel religion has in some way, let them down. Many have loss, grief and trauma or carry pain from the previous generations, which has never been healed. Healing from trauma must happen before healthy spirituality can remerge or emerge. A number of the children and grandchildren of these individuals have turn to Buddhism or other religions in an attempt to find the spirituality they didn’t see within their parents or grandparents. After exploring other faiths some even gravitate back to Judaism and begin digging into Jewish Mysticism. Children will eventually show interest in spiritual matters if family trauma is healed. As one rabbi told me, “All things afterlife and spiritual can be found in Judaism, but with the Holocaust interest can be cut off.”

Not All Progressive Jews

In his article Betty talked about a mid-ninety year old non-believing Reformed Jewish woman named Shirley and used her as an example of progressive Jewish afterlife thinking. Though she provided a perfect instance of a woman who may have internalized the spiritual trauma her generation had to contend with, she doesn’t represent all progressive Jews. Shirley, who didn’t believe in God or an afterlife was most likely the daughter of Jewish Yiddish speaking first or second generation immigrants. Wanting to be accepted and seen as a modern American, she rebelled against her parents’ old world religion and ways (My grandmother did this. Had a flag for every American holiday, looked at fashion in magazines for sewing ideas, and would only speak English in public). Then there was the Holocaust. Prior to WW2, interest in life after death and even transmigration of the soul was deeply rooted within the culture and without the death camps, Shirley, like many Jews of her era may have gravitated back to her religion. 

From family, friends or at synagogue Shirley probably heard stories about Jewish relatives perishing in Europe. Being so young she didn’t have the emotional maturity to know how to meld this tragedy with her religion or any concept of a benevolent Creator. Combined with the anti-Semitism that was in the United States at that time, the sense of persecution was at her doorstep. Also in his article, Betty stated, “Shirley’s rabbi seems to represent this outlook (No belief in an afterlife). In her comments at Shirley’s funeral, she said that death is ‘our destination.’ Later she called it ‘our friend,’ for it forces us to enjoy life more fully and intensely due to its shortness.”

Here is that theme again; living life. Knowing Shirley had been a stanch non-believer the rabbi naturally would have stayed clear of afterlife references.  Just for the record, in the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer said at all Jewish funerals, the importance of living life is first discussed, and the mention of heaven follows in the last few lines. Focusing in on living life to its fullest while surviving persecution century after century is a message Jews have had to live with throughout the ages. This is why living life and uplifting the Jewish people will always override discussions about afterlife matters.  “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;” Ecclesiastes 3:1   Exploration into the afterlife does have its place, but with Hitler and Stalin the time was for survival.

Consequences of Trauma

Trauma with its shame, fear, grief and hidden rage, kicks spirituality and afterlife concerns temporarily to the side. Physical needs must be addressed, with health, safety, job, house and family coming first. Next there are emotional concerns. Losing so many relatives and friends, along with victimization and starvation at the hands of offenders, forces survivors to ask, “Where was God?” This is an expression of rage, betrayal and disillusionment. One successful business Holocaust survivor worked hard at repressing his rage, but the bottled-up emotion leaked out anyway creating fear for his children. One of the adult children said to me, “I always hated God for sticking my father in a camp. I’ve had to suffer for it.”  Unaddressed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) from the Holocaust and war is passed on down to Jewish offspring, with the result often being mistrust of concepts having to do with anything spiritual.

Such carried rage not only created nonbelievers within the Jewish culture, but with those Christians, Catholics, Germans, Italians, French, British, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Asian, Czechs and American citizens and veterans, along with rabbis, ministers, priests or clergy who suffered abuse themselves or believed they failed their congregation during war time. 

The Holocaust, like so many other historical events, forced the Jewish people to focus in on this moment, right now.  As we’ve seen this isn’t the first time this has happened. Starting with the pre-Roman diaspora Jews became scattered throughout different parts of the world.  Living in host countries wary of their culture, it wasn’t always safe to openly talk about religion. Jewish diaspora was the result of persecution, so survival depended upon most cultural traditions and beliefs remaining hidden from public view. Typically these countries wanted their Jewish guests to give up their faith. In some instances to not do so meant death. As a result of this living in the “here and now” was essential.

The persecution of the Jewish people is lengthy, going back before the conquering of the Kingdom of Israel by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE, or the fall of Judea to Seleucid and forced Hellenistic worship (worshipping Olympian gods) in 332 BCE.  With each wave of persecution, those who survived would pack up their belongings and search for a safer place to settle. Throughout history there are numerous examples of Jews living in foreign countries, trying to assimilate and be good guests, while reading Torah, and Talmud behind closed doors or practicing ritual with the curtains drawn. Fear of literature being found also forced religious Jews to mentally remember Midrash (Torah texts). Surviving and blending with host communities was the name of the game, and sharing anything having to do with Jewish mysticism was out of the question. Some Jews found practicing the faith too risky and giving up the religion became the only solution. The Spanish persecution in 1492 required Jews to either leave Spain, convert to orthodox Catholicism (become Conversos) or die.

Progressive Jewish Afterlife Believers

Historical persecution, genocide and the recent Holocaust has tested the faith of the Jewish people. Is the modern day Jewish culture still healing from the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin? Yes. Should they be past this and delving into acceptance? No. Is the current day lack of attendance at temple and synagogues down? Yes, but this is also true for other religious groups. Does a very large part of the Jewish population take issue with the God of Abraham, as described in the Torah? Yes. Many Jews believed God was nowhere to be found during the Holocaust. Trust in the unseen world was lost and healing is still in the process of moving through the generations. But, walk into any temple or synagogue and you will still find congregants who either have some sort of spirituality and afterlife belief or are grappling with this. Having presented a number of lectures on the topic of the afterlife at such congregations, it’s fascinating to hear the audience’s responses. Behind closed doors everyone has something to say about either a personal experience, or an individual they know who’d had an encounter. Get together with a group of progressive Jews and throw out the question of an afterlife and just listen. Angels, reincarnation, prophecy, near death experiences, ghosts, after death communications, levitation, mediums, and departing visions will spring up. The real Torah scholars in the group will look up Midrash which corresponds to modern day accounts. Even non-believers get in on the discussion with mind provoking comments and observations.  And, I’m not even talking about Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism gatherings where discussions of departed souls delivering helpful messages to us while we sleep are seen as common.

What about the rest of the Jewish community, those refusing to set foot in a synagogue, who like my father-in-law saw first-hand what the Nazis had done to his people? Those with shaved heads, lice, disease, surrounded by piles of naked skeletal bodies, who had lost relatives, been beaten, tortured and rape, and lived day to day wondering if they would survive? After barely surviving one second at a time for so long, and after seeing so much death and destruction, the healing to recover after liberation had to feel unattainable.  Or, what about their children who heard tales of abuse and carried the horrific images with them? Dealing with God has felt overwhelming. Trusting a God who had rescued their ancestors from ancient Egypt, but left Jews in the camps felt like a betrayal.  After this how could they have faith in a God who had promised an afterlife? Why on earth would they want to walk into a Jewish religious center to hear about a God who cares when he wasn’t there for them or their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents or culture? With any trauma healing involves anger at God, the Creator, Higher Power or even the Universal Mind. Today’s progressive Jews are still healing from the Holocaust, and this will take more time.

Without an afterlife experience, the tentative abstract concept of faith must come into play. As we have seen, faith can be dramatically disrupted by life trauma. Holocaust survivors and their families lost faith. Such loss must always be taken into consideration when discussing the afterlife beliefs of any religious group. With the process of healing there are Jews who are returning to their faith and asking questions about the afterlife.

It’s also essential to recognize there are Jews who have made contact with the spirit world, but if a member of this community has such an encounter chances are they don’t know where to go with this. Today’s Jewish afterlife experiencers rarely go public with their spirit world adventures, so they seldom have the opportunity to connect with like-minded people.  With my investigations, the majority of those who encounter the spirit world, be they Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or other, all have difficulty disclosing this. This isn’t unique to Jews, but I believe the burden of the Holocaust makes this more difficult and skews statistics.

Secondly, think of how many Jewish physicists are there are.  Go online and look this up. Take a look at the number of Jewish physicists who have won Nobel prizes, and those Jewish scientists who’ve researched string theory or quantum physics. This area of physics continues to be an exciting field and some researchers even believe quantum physics can explain the afterlife. One might say there are members of the Jewish community who haven’t necessarily forgotten the afterlife. They’ve just redefined it. 

My aunt a Holocaust survivor said, “I had to learn how to have compassion for myself before I could have compassion for others.” She had to make peace with the Holocaust before she could explore her own spirituality. Her spiritual journey really began at age eighty-three when she returned to the Nazi death camps she’d survived. I was there with her. When she was liberated she had to take care of her health, find a trade, get married, raise children, embrace grandchildren, try to sort out her feelings about her horrific experiences and losses with the Holocaust, and only after this could she comfortably address spirituality and afterlife matters. At eighty-three years of age she had met her obligations for attending to life, and it was time. Since her trip back to Auschwitz, Judaism has taken on new meaning for her. Today she’s ninety-four years old. With her spiritual awakening she’s helped found a Holocaust Museum and created a foundation for instructing teachers how to explain the Holocaust using art. All expenses for teachers are paid. This summer she was invited to participate on a panel in New York City at the United Nations (UN) on healing from the Holocaust. Her friends who are survivors have gone through a similar process of recovery. These incredible men and women are amazing and I love being around them. When survivors recover, their healing begins to makes its way down through the generations.  Both my husband, I and children have benefited from her healing.

The afterlife is not forgotten by the Jews. It was just put on a back burner. Tradition says the mission of focusing in on life, and then helping the Jewish people survive will always take a front row seat.  For everything there is a season and the afterlife has its place. After what happened in Nazi Germany, and because of centuries of persecution this is the way it must be.  Caution must always be used when discussing the Jews and an afterlife. Always remember the answer isn’t black or white. It’s very Jewish and very complicated.

“There isn’t anything after life, because life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. The soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.” 1

1 Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Do Jews Believe in an Afterlife?” Cabad.org, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2970/jewish/Do-Jews-Believe-in-an-Afterlife.htm

Carla Wills-Brandon, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is also the author of 13 published books discussing topics including;

• Trauma resolution and PTSD
• Recovery from grief, loss and death,
• Afterlife research and spirituality
• The Departing Visions of the dying

One of her published books, Learning to Say No: Establishing Healthy Boundaries was a “Publishers Weekly Best Seller. The author has lectured across the U.S. and U.K., and has appeared on numerous national radio and television programs, such as Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams, Coast to Coast Radio Show with Art Bell and George Noory, Uri Geller’s Coast to Coast Radio Show and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Wills-Brandon has also appeared on several programs with her husband, Licensed Clinical Psychologist Michael Brandon, PhD.

A Glimpse Heaven is published by White Crow Books and is available from Amazon and other online bookstores. Her other books on departing visions, One Last Hug before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Deathbed Visions and Heavenly Hugs: Comfort, Support, and Hope from the Afterlife


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