Why can’t we talk about death? What are the lies, the truth, and the unasked questions? Why do the answers we get from religions fit like an old bathing suit, all stretched out? Modern Judaism is a case in point; a faith nearly fully encapsulated up by modern materialism, its beauty and variety worn away from eons-long battles of ideas.
Our loved ones’ bodies can be stolen by impersonal mortuaries, eager to sell an overpriced, elaborate coffin as a symbol of love. They are whisked away, with no chance for closure, no good-byes. This is followed by a seven-day (or less) food fest, with awkward conversations and uncomfortable silences. My first and worst death was my father’s, who died of a sudden, massive heart attack in the spring when I was 17. My mother, sister and I were we couldn’t pray for him, that we didn’t count; and some men in Israel were paid do the ritual, rather than the people who loved him best but had the wrong plumbing. We women had no role. My mom and I cried for him to Bobby Goldsboro’s song “Honey” on the radio.
But Dad was not really gone; he said his last good-bye in nightly dreams for one year that felt so real. He apologized for abandoning the family, hugging me once more and told me that he loved me. The nightmare was waking up, and finding him not there. Had I been able to share my feelings with someone who would listen and understand, perhaps my life wouldn’t have gone on the downward spiral it did, leading to a horrible accident and a near-death experience that convinced me in the hardest and most concrete way that there is a God and an afterlife. Despite my previous beliefs, my shortened time with my dad, living more of my life without him; I believe that he lives on, and perhaps has been reborn.
In the 12th century CE nearly all Jews believed in gilgul or reincarnation as completing the cycle of life. This kabbalistic doctrine was universally accepted as kosher as Mogen David wine. (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Paull Raphael, 2nd edition, 2009, p 314). At some point this belief was suppressed. We don’t know the exact timing like we do for Christianity, which was at the 4rd century Nicean Council. At this time Emperor Constantine tried to unify the church, sanctioning some beliefs while suppressing others. This was done by committees of bishops first in 321, then in 381. The resulting Nicene Creed contains the following statement:
“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and life in the world to come, ” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed), which is similar to Jewish beliefs at the time.
Originally, the tribal society in Biblical days envisioned a reunion with one’s ancestors. In later days, God had complete control over the realms of Heaven and Hell or Gehenna. Talmudic rabbis, concerned with ethical life and practices without the Holy Temple, where sins were purged every Yom Kippur by the High Priest, “evolved a philosophy of the hereafter based on a belief in divine retribution and reward and punishment,” (ibid, p. 358).
In the Middle Ages, like Dante, Jewish midrashists (sacred storytellers) wrote portraits of multileveled heaven and hell. Rabbinic interpretation varied wildly. Scholastic thought became de rigour, contrasting with kabbalistic mysteries synthesizing the macrocosm (universe) and microcosm (soul). Little of this was translated into English or studied, as materialistic science and logical positivism added to rationalism came to dominate beliefs, or nonbelief, in the expression: “Dead is dead.” But this is not a Jewish attitude, being only a modern gloss over a rich history in which life is viewed through the filter of the afterlife.
The Jewish people have lived in hope of a final communal resurrection, as well as reincarnation in the journey of spiritual evolution. Rabbi Raphael lays out a contemporary psychological model of the afterlife, reflecting the worldview or lens of the eras out of which they come. The cultural context includes the Jewish renewal movement, thanatology, near-death research, transpersonal psychology, and Eastern philosophy, including Buddhist and Hindu thought. In the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “escatology equals psychology” (p 363); the metaphoric depictions of the afterlife describes the hero’s journey of the disembodied consciousness after death.
Three years after my dad made his transition, I had an awakening or near-death experience following a skull fracture from a motorcycle accident. I was taken to the heart of the universe and the cosmic void before Creation. I was blessed beyond knowing to experience an unconditionally loving genderless Being of Light, not the emotionally labile Father God of the Torah. I saw the unmanifest world and felt the perfect love that created all things. After a radiant tour of the Universe with the Being of Light/ G-d/ Ha Shem, we went through the portal which connects all things to the One. There were no more things there, or even Light. This was the plenum from which we all emerged in this cycle. I was like a drop in the cosmic ocean; I knew I had been the girl who prayed for G-d to take me, who called forth an angel from on high, but I was also that angel, those stars, the galaxies, and all beings that ever will be, for we all were there, in this spacious eternal now which emerges as we call it forth with our love.
I learned that I am not my body, nor my ego, nor an identity the world assigns me due to my roles and relationships in this lifetime. In the void before time, space and form, I was one with the ocean of life and the Creator. In our sacred writings and our conceptions we remake God in our image through our limited understanding. A new pulse has come to the far reaches of the Milky Way, even to Earth. We are waking up, re-envisioning our Creator, and rethinking who we are in this world. As I light the 50th yahrtzeit (anniversary) candle for my father, I see death as a window, not a wall, and my dad’s passing as his opportunity to graduate into the Transcendental Field of Light and Oneness that we all are. As James Dillet Freemon wrote: “We cannot go where God is not, and wherever we are, God is.”