Over almost forty years in the pulpit have given me ample ammunition for almost every imaginable inquiry. Sifting through all of those interrogations – some of them very formal and others closer to drive-by-shootings at ongei Shabbat or at the supermarket – I think the most oft repeated (by children and adults) is “What happens when we die?” The translation of that has nothing to do with the physical aspects of death and everything to do with “is this all there is?”
There are a surfeit of very fine books roaming around Amazon including (but not limited to) It Must Hurt A Lot by Doris Sanford,
A Candle for Grandpa by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer, Where Do People Go When They Die? (General Jewish Interest) (Life Cycle) By Mindy Arva Portnoy and the classic Bubby, Me and Memories by Barbara Pomerantz.
There are a slew of books revolving around rites, rituals, ceremonies and the arcane nuts and bolts of Jewish mourning. They run the gamut from the very traditional to the most progressive. I have found a totally secular book by Richard Matheson, What Dreams May Come (from Hamlet’s soliloquy) to be of particular comfort to those who are clinging to a notion of some sort of life-after-death. Will we see our loved ones again? Are they safe? If they are with God, in what way? I cannot tell you how often I have inwardly winced at parents who have told their youngsters that grandma or grandpa are in heaven with God, forgetting that this is, at the worst, syncretism and at the best, denominational cross-pollination. It certainly isn’t Judaism.
Of course, our Orthodox cousins have an easier time of it. There is a formula that revolves around the soul returning to God (its source), the body being placed in the earth and the resurrection of that body reuniting with the soul when the messiah makes his appearance. The reanimation of the dead was and is such a strong theological tenet, that it appears in the second paragraph of the Amidah and has been reinserted in the URJ’s Siddur – granted, as an option – to either guarantee a measure of authenticity or in response to the rabbinic dictum that one who denies it is worthy of excommunication and will never enter the World-to-Come. I’d like to think it’s a matter of the former and not the latter only because I am not ready to cede to rabbinic orthodoxy that kind of power over my eternal destiny.
It is facile to fall back on the “this worldliness” of Judaism as an answer. Better you should worry about what you do in this life and let God be concerned about what happens after it concludes (so you had better lead a good, meaningful, kind, generous and decent life in the here-and-now). For some reason, as I have dutifully intoned these words, the lyrics of “You better watch out. You better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why…” always come to mind. Face the reality: we in progressive Judaism don’t have the sort of answers that people are seeking. We dance around the question with remarkable artistry that effortlessly becomes sophistry.
Yes, we read on the High Holy Days, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…” but that doesn’t answer the original question. But I do have an answer; it’s not the strongest, best or most satisfying but since we really DON’T know what happens after we die, it works for me – and does so without fantasy, magical thinking or borrowing someone else’s tradition. In typical rabbinic style, I answer the question with another question.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Not owning a concrete conceptualization of heaven and hell really puts us at a distinct disadvantage. So I ask, “Do you remember what it was like before you were born?” Unless my interlocutor is Shirley MacLaine, chances are the answer will be “no.” That will be the very worst thing. If there is more, follow my lead and be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, take care of this life of yours now: be strong, just, truthful and of good courage. As the current of life flows onward, there ARE things we cannot hope to understand.