I recall the first time I asked my parents about death. I was a precoscious five or six year old, and their answer was direct: consciousness stops, the body becomes an inanimate object like a rock and begins to disintegrate, and all that remains are the memories living people have of us. But the Christians believe in Heaven and Hell, I persisted, what do we believe? We focus on this life. My parents are skeptics, but Yeshiva University’s Norman Lamm quoting Maimonides is equally reticent: “We believe in an afterlife, but we don’t have any details.” In a talk last Friday evening at Park Slope Jewish Center Simcha Raphael, author ofJewish Views of the Afterlife explained that these views have evolved over the millennia, but that there are in fact traditional Jewish beliefs in the immortality of the soul and an afterlife.
Dr. Raphael, who is a practicing psychotherapist finds these beliefs mirror and traditionally tie into and inform burial practices and the mourning process. For example, while the body is being washed prior to burial implements are not passed across the body because that would invade the soul of the deceased’s spiritual space.* During the seven days of intense mourning following the burial the soul of the deceased is disoriented and wanders back and forth between the house of mourning and the cemetery mourning the loss of its body. We do not speak ill of the dead not only out of politeness, but because of a belief that the dead can hear what we say about them.
For the eleven months in which the survivors say Kaddish for the deceased his or her soul is in Gehena, a place of purgatory where unresolved moral accounts are settled. Dr. Raphael quoted a medieval text that describes torments of transgressors reminiscent of Dante’sInferno in which immodest women are hung by their breasts, slanderers are hung by their tongues, and adulterous men are hung by their penises. Saying Kaddish during the initial eleven months of mourning and during Yizkor services and Yartzeit anniversaries in subsequent years is believed to assist the soul of the deceased to transition from Gehena to the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. After entering the Garden of Eden, over the decades or perhaps centuries souls become bored of Paradise’s problem-free/stimulation-free existence and eventually volunteer to be reincarnated in the bodies of earthly newborns; thus the cycle begins anew.
In the most moving part of his talk Dr. Raphael performed both parts of a dialogue between a surviving son and his deceased father during the eleven months of saying Kaddish. At the outset resentments and recriminations are expressed but over time these are transformed into acceptance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I have not read Dr. Raphael’s book and am of two minds as to whether I want to do so. On the one hand on the basis of his talk I am sure that the book contains fascinating and fantastic stories that are valuable both as narratives and as products of the imagination. On the other hand it is clear that our traditional burial and mourning practices, however therapeutic they may be, are based on superstitions. On the one hand I value how emotionally healing are our traditional funereal practices, and on the other I am not comfortable with their superstitious origins. Maybe this is a modern example of the saying “It’s hard to be a Jew.”
* This point was made by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips who heads Park Slope Jewish Center’s Hevra Kadisha (Holy Society) whose members wash the bodies of their deceased, sew shrouds, and guard the body prior to burial. Keep reading this column for more on the PSJC Hevra Kadisha in a future article.
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