Afterlife Rabbi

When Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz delivered a sermon about survival of the soul to a group of rabbis in Los Angeles in 1996, a charged discussion followed, and an Orthodox rabbi remarked that he had never before heard rabbis publicly discuss the supernatural.

Bring up a topic like the afterlife or reincarnation, and many Jews become uneasy or dismissive or just think these matters are not very Jewish. Even those very interested don’t talk much about these concepts outside of intimate circles.

A 46-year-old self-described mainstream rabbi who leads a Conservative congregation in Orange County, Spitz takes literally the words of Rabbi Yaakov from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “The world is like a passageway before the world to come.”

As a congregational rabbi, Spitz is around death and dying more than most people. In fact, Spitz postponed a press interview at the very last minute when he was called to the hospital room of a dying congregant. The man died before he arrived, but the rabbi was able to comfort the family as he reassured them that his soul would survive, that death was a door to another realm.

“Does the Soul Survive?” grew out of that 1996 sermon on the subject of immortality of the soul, which took place after a series of unrelated events inspired him to reexamine his own skepticism. “Once I became more curious about survival of the soul,” he writes, “the stories of others continued to come to me as if drawn by a magnet.” But he notes that for him, the belief in the survival of the soul now feels almost like second nature, like “something that’s been part of me rather than something novel.”

The son of Holocaust survivors, Spitz grew up hearing stories about pious relatives he never met. His mother, the daughter of a Chassidic family, spoke of being in this world “only for a visit”; she regularly had conversations with God as she drove to work.

Whenever he speaks about the book and autographs copies, Spitz reports that every other person he encounters has a personal story to relate, and he understands that they feel affirmed in being able to reveal their experiences to a rabbi. He sees patterns in the stories, is sometimes wary but always respectful.

“All in all,” he says, “I do believe.”

His own pastoral work has evolved as he has shifted away from being a skeptic. Now, when he counsels families facing end-of-life decisions, he emphasizes the soul as well as Jewish law and ethics. He also encourages living this life with greater gratitude, generosity and responsibility, in view of an afterlife.

Spitz is now writing a sequel, addressing a key question raised in this book, about how people can live their lives now so as to cultivate their souls before departing to the next realm.

Coming Back for Seconds?

It figures, inasmuch as nobody really knows what happens to people when they die, that a slew of goofy theories would spring up to fill the void. Still, none of them strikes me as being half as bizarre as reincarnation, the ideology that presumes people keep coming back until they get it right.

Frankly, I’m convinced that whoever it was who first came up with that harebrained notion had simply gone off his medication. How such a nutty idea managed to catch on is anybody’s guess. But this is a world, as I must keep reminding myself, in which millions of people happily devote three or four hours a week to watching Regis Philbin ask contestants if “Madagascar” or “170 million miles” is really their final answer.

Anyway, the way reincarnation works, as I understand it, is that after a person — a murderer, for instance — dies, he’s reborn as a baby with important lessons to learn this time around. The problem, though, is that the baby doesn’t remember having been this rotten apple. One can, of course, hope that this time he’ll be raised in a home that fosters better values or that he won’t have inherited toxic chromosomes, but what has any of that to do with learning lessons?

What sort of zany system would saddle some innocent newborn with all that baggage? I mean, it’s not like getting liquored up and blacking out. The drunk is responsible for his actions because he got himself tanked up in the first place, even if he can’t recall anything the next day. But, with reincarnation, it seems, you’re responsible for what an entirely different person did. As a moral system, it leaves a lot to be desired — namely, morality. Holding one individual guilty for the actions of another is about as defensible as playing cards with a marked deck.

If we’re all just the same old souls in different packages, how is it there are twice as many people in the world now than there were a hundred years ago? Are some people simply so awful that they have to return as five or 10 people, because one person alone wouldn’t have the time to learn the lessons, plus brush his teeth and tie his shoes?

Besides, if we’ve all been so busy learning these worthwhile lessons, wouldn’t it figure that the human race would have been improving, slowly but steadily, down through the annals of history? Would anyone who survived the 20th century buy that for an instant?

Most people resent the truism that you can’t take it with you. However, the concept that you’re not going anywhere, either, is even worse. The possibility that death marks the end of your own personal movie, and that there won’t be a sequel, is simply too grim for some folks to accept.

I, myself, subscribe to the belief that this life is all there is. This is not a dress rehearsal. Still, even I can understand the desire to believe that there are rewards and punishments ultimately doled out by a divinity who not only thinks we’re as wonderful as we think we are, but, for good measure, also despises our enemies.

As silly as reincarnation strikes me, I can certainly understand man’s desire for eternal life, even if most people I know have a tough time just making it through a three-day weekend.

Speaking for myself, I’m not sure I could cope with all that extra time. So, I suppose, before committing one way or another, I’d really need to know if there’s cable in the great beyond.

Burt Prelutsky has written for The New York Times and numerous magazines. He has also written for such television shows as “Diagnosis: Murder” and “MASH.”