January 19, 2020

Jews and the Afterlife

Years ago, I attended a funeral officiated by a prominent Los Angeles Conservative rabbi. In his remarks at the grave site, he told the grieving family and friends of the deceased that Judaism does not affirm a belief in an afterlife, rather “we live on through our good works and in the memories of loved ones.”

Almost everything about that assertion is wrong.

Judaism fervently affirms the existence of an afterlife. As the Encyclopaedia Judaica, a secular work of scholarship, notes in its entry on “afterlife,” “Judaism has always affirmed a belief in the afterlife.”

Yes, it is true that most Jews do not believe in an afterlife. Most Jews are secular, after all, and cannot be expected to affirm Judaism’s religious beliefs. But that is precisely why it is wrong to identify Judaism with what Jews believe. If what Jews believe is the same as what Judaism teaches, one might as well argue that Judaism does not believe in a God,  as so many Jews are agnostic or atheist.

Furthermore, the notion that human beings “live on” through their good works or through the memories of loved ones — usually meaning a person’s children and grandchildren — is comforting only to those who can find meaningless clichés comforting.

First, this precludes from “living on” the vast majority of children who die. The number of “good works” most children are even capable of doing is minuscule. As for babies who die, well, the less said the better. Babies don’t engage in good works.

Second, I am sorry to burst the Santa Claus-like bubble of those who believe that some form of immortality is attained through good works, but the truth is that bad works live on at least as long as, and probably longer than, nearly any good works. Indeed, if works make us immortal, Hitler — thanks to his evil works — is far more immortal than the kindest people on earth. Ask Holocaust survivors, their children and their grandchildren how long Hitler’s evil lives on after his death.

Third, as for living on in the memories of our children or other loved ones, what does one say to those who have no children? “Sorry, you don’t live on”? And far more troubling, this belief denies immortality to most of the Six Million, as all their loved ones, all those who had any memories of them,  also were murdered. All those whose definition of immortality is living on through others’ memories are denying immortality to most of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Anyway, while I certainly hope to live on in the memories of my children and others touched by my life, I am well aware that I cannot name a single great-grandparent of mine. I presume that the same will hold true for my descendants one day.

Moreover, living on in anyone’s memory — as beautiful and desirable as that is — is not the same as immortality. And it is hardly a substitute for the afterlife. As Woody Allen has put it, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

If there is no afterlife, we don’t live on. Period. Let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that and not offer empty substitutes to make us feel a bit better about dying. I am all for comfort — but I am not alone among those who cannot be comforted by the obviously meaningless or untrue. And in the cases of children and Holocaust victims where these notions cause anguish, they can do more harm than good.

Of course, none of this proves there is an afterlife. It only means that those Jews (and others) who deny its existence should be courageous and honest enough not to offer palliatives in its place. If there is no afterlife, we don’t live on. Memories of some of us live on, in a few people, for a relatively short period of time. That has nothing in common with an afterlife or immortality. Virtually every human being who has ever lived is long forgotten. Just as we will be.

Having made that clear, let’s deal with the issue of really living on after death — an afterlife.

As I have long believed and as logic dictates, if there is a God and that God is just, there is an afterlife. It’s really that simple. In fact, it is axiomatic. Given the stupendous injustices of this life, only an afterlife enables justice. 

Also, because God is the ultimate incorporeal reality, the physical world cannot be the only realm of existence.

Those Jews who doubt God’s existence have every reason to doubt an afterlife. But if you believe in a just God, there is an afterlife.

What is the afterlife? I have no clue and do not spend even five minutes a year meditating on it (except to hope that all those I love are there with me).

However, my belief in God and the afterlife keep me sane. The thought that this life is all there is, that children are burned alive and that’s their lousy luck, that their torturers get away with it and that’s their good luck, that this life is all one big crapshoot — such beliefs would drive me mad. I don’t see how it doesn’t drive mad those who deny God and the afterlife and who are sensitive to all the unjust suffering in the world.

The truth is, I think it does drive them a bit mad, which is why so many of them make up the untrue — and sometimes even implicitly cruel — substitutes of “living on” through children’s memories and through good works.