By Simcha Raphael
At the age of four, I encountered death for the first time when my maternal grandmother suddenly disappeared from my life. Faced with the absence of a person who had been a deep source of love and nurturance, I probingly questioned all the adults around me as to her whereabouts. In response to my innocent, yet persistent inquiries, I was told that “Bubby” had died and gone to Heaven. However, no one ever explained to me exactly why she died or why she left without even a goodbye.
As a result of that early experience, the remaining years of my childhood were spent looking toward the heavens. Night after night I prayed to God for Bubby Mina’s peace and found myself communicating with the spirit of a dead grandmother who perpetually radiated love and protection. Although I did not know it then, at an early age, seeds were planted that would inspire and motivate the writing of this book on Jewish views of the afterlife.
Throughout the years of late adolescence and early adulthood, death was a frequent visitor in my world. Growing up in the 1960s, when my contemporaries were attracted to drugs and fast cars, I lived through the deaths of all-too-many young people. The highway or misuse of drugs claimed the lives of several friends and family members I loved deeply.
In my early twenties, death impacted my life in an irreversible way, when two close friends died suddenly—one in a car accident and the other from a massive brain hemorrhage. I discovered the stark reality that someone I loved could be alive one day and dead the next. One cold winter’s day in 1973, my life was changed forever as I stood witness while the body of a beloved friend, a young man of twenty-two, was lowered into the frozen earth. With an aching, numb heart, I found myself wondering, as people often do: What happened to the life force once animating this body? Was this the end? Was there a soul that somehow lived on? Was there any ultimate meaning to life and death? This ordeal catalyzed a profound and ongoing process of wrestling with questions about death, immortality, and post-mortem survival, a process that has continued to this day.
Encounters with death have led me into the depths of spiritual despair and personal disintegration. And yet, out of the alienation, suffering, and grief, I have discovered an invisible thread of spiritual purpose and destiny pervading human life itself. From the meaninglessness of death, I learned to find meaning, purpose, and faith in my own life. Seeing the obvious temporality of the human condition, and yet feeling the infinite, transcendent nature of love between people, I have come to see death as but an expression of the unfolding of the divine on the plane of human existence. Death can be cruel and painful, and for many it often is. Yet, in my own life, death has been a spiritual teacher, a source of much inspiration, and a catalyst for genuine spiritual growth.
In dealing with the intensity of my grief reaction, I found myself continually drawn to the study of death and the afterlife in modern psychology and in the great religions of the world. Teachings on life after death in Eastern religions were often easy to track down. Certainly, during the 1960s there were numerous gurus, swamis, and lamas popularizing Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in the West. For a time, in the 1970s, teachings on reincarnation, yoga philosophy, and meditation were almost normative—after all, the Beatles and Mia Farrow had meditated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was a frequent guest on late night television. Nonetheless, my thirsting Jewish soul ached to find Judaism’s wisdom on life after death. But, as many have discovered, it was not easy to find Jewish writings on the afterlife. Until recently, studies of death and Judaism would usually have only descriptions of the Jewish rituals of dying and mourning. Prior to the 1990’s it was almost impossible to find anything written on afterlife in Judaism, other than in perfunctory references to a post-mortem existence.
However, in the midst of my yearning for meaning and solace, I was encouraged by teacher and mentor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, to begin a systematic exploration of little-known Jewish traditions on the hereafter. And once my pursuit had begun, I continually unearthed more and more treasures of Jewish wisdom on the afterlife journey of the soul. The first edition of this book was almost fifteen years in the making, and originally had been submitted as a doctoral dissertation to the California Institute of Integral Studies; the revised second edition included new material on synthesizing Jewish views of the afterlife with contemporary Jewish rituals of death, burial, and mourning. This third expanded edition includes additional material on the topic of reincarnation in Jewish mysticism, and an entirely new chapter on images and themes of life after death in Yiddish literature.
Above all, this book is a product of a lifelong personal quest to understand the mysteries of life, death, and the world beyond. I wrote it originally to find solace in my own process of grief and mourning, essentially creating the book I would have wanted to read when my dearest friend was killed in a car accident. Over the years, through my teaching, counseling and rabbinic work, I discovered ways of offering compassionate comfort to those walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It is in this spirit that I am grateful to share the fruits of my own search through this third edition of Jewish Views of the Afterlife, twenty-five years after its first publication.
Adapted from Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 3rd edition by Simcha Paull Raphael. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).
Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., Founding Director of the DA’AT Institute for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training, was ordained as a Rabbinic Pastor by the late, renowned Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. A psychotherapist and spiritual director in Philadelphia, he has written extensively on death and afterlife and is the author of the groundbreaking Jewish Views of the Afterlife.
Afterlife and Reincarnation in World Religions – Practical Counseling Wisdom
A One-Day Workshop with Simcha Raphael
Sunday, May 19, 2019, 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
To learn more and register, click here.