Encountering the Mysteries of Life, Death and the World Beyond –
A Personal Journey
Adapted from JEWISH VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE by Simcha Paull Raphael, 2nd Edition
(Latham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), pp. 1-3; 9
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 towards 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 a very early age seeds were planted that would inspire and motivate the writing of my 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 1960’s, when my contemporaries were attracted to drugs and fast cars, I lived through the deaths of all-too-many young people. The highway or too many drugs claimed the lives of several friends and family members I loved deeply.
In my early twenties death impacted upon my life in an irreversible way, when two very close friends died suddenly – one in a car accident, 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 which 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; 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. Since the 1960s there have been innumerable gurus, swamis and lamas popularizing Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in the West. For a time, in the 1970’s, 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. Most modern studies describe Jewish rituals of dying and mourning, but only in perfunctory ways make reference to a post-mortem existence.
However, with the encouragement of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, I was appropriately led 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.
In 1996, after fifteen years of research and writing, I completed the first edition of JEWISH VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE, which explores the historical evolution of Jewish ideas on life after death and postmortem survival. In 2009, a new edition was published by Rowman and Littlefield. This expanded second edition of JEWISH VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE, includes work I have done synthesizing Jewish afterlife teachings with contemporary rituals of death, burial and mourning. As author of JEWISH VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE I attempted to create the book I would have wanted to read when faced with the stark reality of death as a young man in my 20‘s.
My writing on the topic of life after death has been my own way of wrestling with the enigma of human morality, and the uncertainty of what lies beyond the transition between life and death. As a scholar of religion, in my writing I have brought together a vast collection of Jewish texts and traditions on death and the afterlife. As a psychotherapist and bereavement counselor, I have attempted to articulate in contemporary psychological terms how I understand the essence of Jewish teachings on the post-mortem journey of the soul. As a Rabbinic Pastor and a grief therapist, I offer functional guidelines for bridging Jewish afterlife teachings and the lived experience of Jewish death rituals. And, finally, as a mortal human being, I humbly recognize that ultimately, there are no final answers to the mystery of life and death.
Simcha Paull Raphael, Ph.D.