Why Don’t Progressive Jews Believe in an Afterlife? Are They Missing Something?
Posted on 05 November 2014, 15:11
Shirley was in her mid-nineties when she died. Long ago she lost faith in Jewish religious teachings, but she loved her people and frequently wrote of Jewish life, even religious life, in our local newspaper. She was a “cultural Jew” and a member of the local Reformed Jewish synagogue.
Her daughter and son-in-law, both in their seventies and my good friends, do not believe Shirley survived her death. Their view is typical of well educated, prosperous, progressive Jews affiliated with Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in North America. Rabbi Howard Jaffe sums up their position on the afterlife: “Reform Judaism, while not taking any ‘official’ position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing.”
Shirley’s rabbi seems to represent this outlook. 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.
How different from a Christian funeral, I thought to myself. Christians regard death as an enemy to be overcome, while heaven, not death, is our destination. One of the greatest poems in our language, John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud,” concludes triumphantly,
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Yet most progressive Jews not only deny this claim but are apparently indifferent as to its truth.
As a professor who studies attitudes toward death among a wide populace, I ask myself, “Are my Jewish friends in denial?” After all, if death really is our destination, then we cease to exist when we die. And if that’s what death means, it’s hard to see how it could be “our friend.” Jews are among the wealthiest, most prosperous, best educated subset of Americans alive today. Can they really be indifferent about giving the good life up and becoming nothing? Why doesn’t the thought of losing it all haunt the Jewish soul more than any other? And why don’t Jews beat the bushes to see if their conclusions might need a correction? Evidence of an afterlife—evidence not based on religious teaching but on contemporary secular consciousness research—is pointing to just such a correction, which we’ll consider briefly below.
As I see it, there are five reasons for the Jew’s rejection of an afterlife.
First, the Olam Ha-Ba, or “world to come,” is a relatively late Jewish belief. Most Jewish scholars agree that the Torah, the fundamental guide to the Jewish way of life, has no clear reference to an afterlife.
Second, from the Torah down through the Talmud down to the present day, Jews have been a people committed to the betterment of this world, and there is enough to be done in it to leave no time for consideration of the next.
Third, an underlying antipathy to Christianity leads Jews to want to separate their religious beliefs from the dominant ideology, which decisively affirms an afterlife.
Fourth, the Holocaust has left many Jews asking how God could exist and let such a thing happen. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel cries out, “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.” Included in those dreams was an afterlife.
Fifth, Jews identify themselves with what they regard as an enlightened worldview—which includes the discoveries of neuroscience. They have read that the activity of the brain produces consciousness and that when the brain dies, we do too. End of story.
Like many non-Jews who share this worldview, Jews have told themselves they better get used to the prospect of becoming nothing and not worry about it. Preferring not to think much about what death means—their own death, their children’s death—they enjoy the present and only world as much as they can.
But as the notable Jewish-American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, a non-believer, reminds us, at some point we must look death “full in the face.” And when we do, quoting William James, “the skull will grin in at the banquet.” And we will experience, in Becker’s words, not only fear, but terror.
But perhaps there is a better way to live one’s life and put away that terror. One doesn’t have to look outside the Jewish tradition to find it, either. Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, Herman Wouk, Chaim Potok, Jacob Needleman, and Harold Kushner all found ways not only to make their peace with God but to love Him as their author. They are joined today by a growing army of female rabbis who are changing the face of a once male-dominated religion.
Less celebrated Jews are also a part of this change. They have found direct evidence of an afterlife that makes sense of suffering, even the Holocaust, and gives life meaning, both here and in the world to come. Several of the most developed near-death experiences (NDE) ever recorded feature Jews. Reading about the NDE of Beverly Brodsky, a Vassar graduate, might make one question the claim that death is our final destination. The notable NDE researcher Kenneth Ring calls her case “possibly the most moving in my entire collection”—which includes hundreds. Brodsky, an atheist up to her NDE, affirms the afterlife without reservation.
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, a Lubavitcher Chasid, does too. He has collected fifteen stories of people who claim to remember their previous life as a Holocaust victim. One reviewer wrote, “For me, to discover that life goes on was a huge awakening. More than that, it has given me a renewed zest for this life.”
These accounts, of course, can be dismissed as wishful thinking, but once one searches outside Judaica into the serious research being done today on the afterlife, such dismissals aren’t so easy to come by. Consciousness researchers are making an impressive case for the brain not being the producer of our conscious states but the instrument of our nonphysical self, whose nature is to be conscious. So it’s not the self that gets Alzheimer’s and finally dies, but its instrument. The self carries on once freed.
This is only the beginning. Anyone curious about this research might consult one of many books covering it—like any of Michael Tymn’s books dealing with evidential or my own works on the probable nature of the afterlife.
Perhaps it was once true that the evidence seemed to support pessimists like Becker and Wiesel, but that is no longer true today. There is good reason to think Shirley is eating leviathan and drinking hallowed wine, as the Yiddish folksong puts it. Where she is, there is no skull grinning in.
Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and author of The Imprisoned Splendor and The Afterlife Unveiled. His latest book Heaven and Hell Unveiled: Updates From the World of Spirit is published by White Crow books.