REFLECTIONS ON DEATH AND THE AFTER-DEATH

By Rabbi Anson Laytner

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The Montréal Review, February 2024

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What happens after we die has always been a major source of religious speculation, and providing answers to this question has also been one of religion’s chief tasks. Many faiths use the fear of death and the lure of an afterlife as a sort of spiritual club to dun adherents into proper moral behavior and correct belief in this world, promising all sorts of things to the worthy righteous after death. Pragmatically speaking, this promotes a very positive outcome, but how does one verify the benefit package?

Judaism is remarkably non-dogmatic regarding the afterlife, or as I prefer to call it, the after-death. Jews at one time or another have advocated a shadowy netherworld (Sheol); transmigration of the soul (gilgul ha-nefesh); an immortal soul that returns to God (hayyei olam); and most normatively, belief in a personal physical resurrection (tehiyyat ha-meitim) after the coming of the Messiah and the Day of Judgment. But even with all this speculation, the focus of the faith has always been on the here-and-now because how one lived here determined what came after, whatever the after-here is.

Perhaps this very diversity of ideas led me to realize, early on, that what was being taught went far beyond our ability to know. Since whatever might exist after death is beyond our knowing, all ideas of the after-death are just ideas—images, dreams, wish fulfillment—requiring giant leaps of faith. But what we really about it know is bupkis (Yiddish for “nothing”)! Consequently, it was easy for me to let go of traditional concepts but finding a replacement—something that offers hope for some form of continuity—has been a more challenging endeavor.

At any rate, long ago I let go of the grave certainties of Jewish tradition in favor of the certainty of believing that this life is all there is. And, for many years, this sufficed. Now, however, where once I was a true believer in the finitude of this life, today I am a skeptic. Two things worked together to change my mind about what happens to us after death. 

The first was the realization that life is not only what it appears to us to be. Usually, we think of ourselves as singular entities, just as we like to think of steel or wood as solids, or colors as colors, etc. But colors apparently are really the absences of light that have been absorbed, and what appears solid is in fact a mass of swirling electrons. Similarly, what appears to us as a human being is actually a mass of various kinds of living cells and organisms, all working—one assumes unconsciously—more or less in harmony to allow us to function as we do. Were we to have the awareness, we would know that our bodies are alive, not just with us, but teeming with other life forms as well. There are dust mites and other critters on our outsides and micro-organisms in our insides, some of which are essential to our well-being, like those which live in our stomachs and aid with digestion, and others, like lice, which just enjoy our hospitality.

What appears and operates to you and me as you or me is in truth a universe of symbiotic systems. I sometimes wonder if I am an actual universe to those micro-organisms who share my body. I consider this and then wonder if our perception of things is as limited as theirs, both physically and spiritually. What exactly are we? What really is our existence? What constitutes reality? It is times like this that I believe that Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who to be a most profound book of speculative metaphysics because it posits an entire unseen world existing on a piece of fluff. The truth is that we know very little about anything—and that certainly includes what happens after death.

So when we think about life and death, existence and non-existence, think again. Things may not be as they seem. Think of all the billions of little lives you maintain and, with them in mind, ask yourself again: What is reality? Life, big or small, apparent or imperceptible, is a profound mystery that invites our wonder and awe. Life is not always what it seems, which reminds me of the Hindu concept of maya (illusion) and its depiction of the vastness of “real time” as opposed to our “perceived time.”

That was my first awareness.

The second thing that helped change my thinking about death was my experience, over the years, of working with people dying of AIDS-related diseases and being able to observe dying and death firsthand, more so than I would have in a normal lifetime. I trace this change in perception to one of my first encounters with a dying person who, fortunately for me, seemed to know what he was doing.

I had known “N”, a Tibetan Buddhist monk for a number of years through our work together on interfaith issues. I always had been impressed with his simplicity, his peace, his kind demeanor, and his thoughtfulness. I didn't know then that he had AIDS.  Later, after I came to Multifaith Works, I invited him to join our interfaith pastoral care group. One day, he told us he had AIDS and was just recovering from a long battle against lymphoma. A week later he was in the hospital "just for a few days" because of PCP. A week later “N” was dead.

When I visited him in the hospital, I didn’t know what to expect. To me, it seemed that “N” just hovered in his bed.  He had become so slight and so pale, ethereal really, that only the bedcovers restrained him from floating away. Every breath he took was an effort—I could hear the mucus rattle with his every inhalation—but he was peaceful. I began to look at him differently. He was no longer the person I knew as “N”. His body was there in bed, but it wasn't “N”. His body had become just a cage to his life force. (Dare I call it his soul?) Like a captive bird, it was just waiting to fly free once the cage door opened. 

But that life force wasn't totally “N” either. The person I knew as “N” was both his life force and his body, and maybe something more besides. But now his life force was trapped in his failing body. I watched him breathe, his eyes closed, oblivious to the world around him. Then, suddenly his eyes would open, and his body and soul would work in unison again. Suddenly my old friend was there once more, and he would smile at me and we'd talk. But I had seen the separation, and the image of the caged bird never left me.

“N” was not in spiritual pain. His training as a Tibetan Buddhist was spent readying himself for the moment of death and liberation. He was at peace. He smiled at me but needed nothing. He was waiting for the cage door to open.

Years later, while I was in Toronto to help see our Mum through some heart surgery, this image of the caged bird came back to me. While recuperating, she was given some strong painkillers that made her temporarily delusional and occasionally paranoid. Her condition prompted me to reflect again on the interrelationship and connections between body, mind, and that mysterious other quality we call spirit.

Normally, when we look at a person, we see them as a totality: body and mind combine into one living being with a distinct personality—a human being. The components are usually inseparable. A person can lose a limb or organ without losing his/her identity. Although one may feel impaired in various ways, identity generally remains intact. But can a person lose a mind with the same impunity? What truly constitutes “being”? 

Gradually, I began to better understand something about the human situation. Outwardly, my mother was physically the same person I knew and loved. But, under the influence of her medications, she had temporarily lost her mind. As Mum rambled on in her shadow world, I forced myself to disconnect from the association I had maintained since birth about the unity of her mind and body. I was forced to accept that, although her body remained intact, her mind had gone elsewhere. But what did that mean? What actually remained? Just a body, a shell? A body with a mind operating in its own reality? Or was there something more?

As I observed her, I realized that in addition to body and mind there is something more, something intangible, something that constitutes the sum of her life experiences; her personhood as she lived it, as I experienced it and as others did too. It is more than personality or character, more than just the life force, certainly much more than mind.

Here on this bed lay a unique woman, one whom I knew but a little as her son. Even without a rational mind, somehow this person, my mother, remained very present. With my Buddhist friend, I first thought to compare the soul of a dying person to a bird trapped in a cage, awaiting the opportunity to fly free. That image remained and I called it to mind. On this occasion, I also thought of the Hindu greeting “Namaste.” “I honor the God in you” is one of its many meanings. I realized that, even without her mind, my mother still existed for all that she had been and still was. Body and Being.

Even when a mind goes, the person remains, present in every way but in mind. Something beautiful still exists and it is to this that we are still called to say “namaste”. In the Jewish tradition, a dying person is to be treated with all the honor and respect that a healthy living person is. The question for me however is this: When a body dies, the mind goes with it—so what happens to the formerly caged bird that is now set free? Where does that unique bit of animating energy go?

Over the years, I have seen a number of dying and dead people. The chasm between the dying and the dead is so vast that it embraces all the mysteries of the universe. The dying are alive, they breathe, they retain that life spark. The dead only resemble the living in form; in content the dead are something else.

All I can say about death and the after-death today is that I am convinced that the life force that exists in each of us, and indeed in every living thing—if not something more than the mere life force—must go somewhere. Energy does not disappear; it changes. Beyond this pale assertion, I cannot say more with any certainty. I do like to speculate that the particularity of our individual life forces continues in some way too, but that is one-hundred percent conjecture and pure unadulterated hope.

The work of Dr. Melvin Morse, who has documented and analyzed the near-death experiences of children, offers information that can lead to some interesting speculation precisely because it has a clinical foundation. According to his research, children who have nearly died and been revived share similar kinds of perceptions of their experience regardless of their faiths or cultures. So perhaps there is something of hope to which to cling deriving from these near-death experiences. At the very least, one may take comfort from the apparent fact that, even though we may never know what happens after death, it appears that, once the pain associated with dying is done, the experience is not half bad. In fact, it even may be “pleasurable” in its serenity. 

Beyond this, the most encouraging words about the after-death I have ever heard were told to me by a friend who had suffered (or perhaps “had been blessed with”) a near-death experience following a cerebral hemorrhage. He told me that what he remembers is the great feeling of peacefulness that had embraced him coupled with a sloughing off of daily concerns. To this day, he remains in touch with this feeling and, when asked, he says he is totally unafraid about death because of his experience. Unfortunately, he also said that the further in time he travels from his near-death experience, the more caught up in mundane anxieties he gets once again. (I suppose this proves that you can’t take it with you—either from this world to the great beyond, or vice versa.) 

There is a midrash in the Talmud (Niddah 30b) that increasingly nourishes me in my thinking about death. In one famous speculation regarding what happens prior to birth, it was taught that souls dwell with God in Paradise where they are privy to all the mysteries and secrets of the universe. There they stay until it is time for a baby to be born. Then, just as a soul is joined with a body before birth, an angel touches the fetus on the upper lip and all that soul’s knowledge disappears. And that is why babies cry when they are born—they are lamenting all they no longer know—and it also explains why we are born with that indent on our upper lips.

To me, this midrash is an equally great metaphor for the after-death because death may be a portal, just as birth is to this life. We honestly don’t know. The main thing about death is this: Do not be afraid. Fear the pain if you must—and thank God and doctor and nurse for the drugs. Make your peace with friends and family to the extent that you are able, but do not be afraid. The energy that marks each of us as unique and distinguishes us from that which is not alive, somehow endures. Is that cold comfort?  Not for me; not right now.

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Anson Laytner is a retired liberal rabbi, living in Seattle, whose career in non-profit and academic settings focused on fostering positive interfaith and interethnic relations.  He is the author of Choosing Life After Tragedy (2023) and The Forgotten Commandment (2023)He is also the author of Arguing with God (1990) and The Mystery of Suffering and Meaning of God (2019), co-author of The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity (2005), and co-editor of The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (2017). To learn more, visit his website: www.ansonlaytner.com

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