Commentary: Turns out, Judaism does believe in life after death — and always has

It is a profoundly this-world-oriented tradition, but God ultimately will defeat death.

(Oded Balilty | AP)The Islamic Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City is seen trough a door decorated with a Jewish Star of David in 2017. Columnist Jeffrey Salkin explains how Jewish adherents believe life goes on after death.

“Rabbi, I have been meaning to ask you…”

If I had a dollar for every time that someone has started a conversation with me that way — in the synagogue, the grocery store or on a cross-continental airline trip, when I out myself as a rabbi to an adjacent passenger — I would have been able to retire five years ago.

Let me tell you about the question that people ask me the most.

“Rabbi, what does Judaism say happens after you die?”

I recently had a conversation with a prominent Jewish intellectual. I asked him: “What do you find the most compelling thing about Judaism?”

His answer: “I have always appreciated the fact that Judaism says that when you’re dead, it’s over and that we do not believe in life after death.”

My response: “I have some bad news for you. Actually, it will ultimately be very good news for you.”

“Judaism does believe in life after death, and it always has.”

Why didn’t he know this?

For a very good reason.

We never made a big deal about it. Judaism is a profoundly this-world-oriented religious tradition.

The Hebrew Bible maintains a relative silence about an afterlife, calling its version of the afterlife Sheol — a shadowy pit where the dead reside and not very much happens. The Psalmist writes: “The dead will not praise God.” Death is the realm where the mitzvot cannot occur.

Fast-forward to the war of the Maccabees against the Syrian Greeks — the story of the Hanukkah rebellion.

If you go to the Book of Daniel, you will find the book that Jews most seldom read. It was probably written during the period of those battles.

There, in the 11th chapter, we find these words: “Many of those that sleep in the dust will awaken, and the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of the sky, and those who have led the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.”

To families of those who died fighting for Jewish freedom, those words meant: “Do not despair. Your sons and your fathers and your brothers — and yes, your daughters — did not die in vain. Their deaths had meaning. Those who have led the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.”

It was the most radical spiritual revolution in history. It became the idea of olam ha-ba — the world to come — what most people in the Western world call “heaven.”

Recall the Pesach song “Had Gadya”: “One kid that my father bought for a couple of coins. Then came the cat that ate the kid … and the dog kills the cat, and the stick beat the dog, and the fire burned the stick, and the water quenched the fire, and the ox drank the water, and the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, kills the ox …”

And then, the Angel of Death comes and kills the ritual slaughterer. The grand finale of the song: God slays the Angel of Death. Someday, God will defeat even death itself. On that someday, at the end of history, the dead will be resurrected.

Childbirth is theology

What do I believe about life after death?

When it comes to the ultimate resurrection of the dead, I view that as a metaphor for the triumph of life over death.

But I can tell you this: We live on.

We live on through our children. Childbirth is not just biology. It is theology. When we name our children after departed relatives, and when we teach our children about who those relatives were, and about their values, our children become their immortality.

We live on through our work. In the Middle Ages, Jewish artisans used to chisel the insignias of the professions of the deceased on their tombstones. The doctor who saves a life is immortal. The lawyer who wins a case that saves a life or re-creates a life is immortal. The architect who designs a building is immortal. The secretary who devises an efficient and lasting filing system is immortal.

We live on through the good things that we do. Call it the immortality of influence. Every time a Black person votes in this country, that act is a kaddish for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When a Jew lands in Israel, that act is a kaddish for Theodor Herzl.

A legend says: When we perform a good deed in this world, that good deed becomes a thread. When we die, God takes all the threads and weaves them into sails for the ship that will carry our soul into eternity.

We live on through what we teach. I recall a yizkor service, years ago in a former congregation. I asked people in the congregation to name their departed teachers. In the pews that morning was the founding rabbi of our congregation, the late Eugene Borowitz, the greatest American Jewish theologian of our time.

When my gaze met his, he called out the name of his teacher, Professor Samuel Cohon.

At that moment, I felt eternity. Cohon to Borowitz to me … to my students …

And, for those who have not reared children, that is the way to immortality. Teach a child — teach anyone — something.

What’s your story?

We live on through our stories. In the legends of the “Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade would tell her husband a different tale every night as a way of forestalling her own death.

We Jews are the Scheherazade of history. For 2,000 years, we have warded off death by telling tales.

My late father had a second cousin named Hyman Isaac Jacobs, lovingly known to his family as HIJ.

HIJ never married and never had children, and when he got older and felt the pangs of mortality, he contracted with Schwartz to say kaddish for him.

Two weeks later, HIJ wrote a note to someone in the family: “Cancel contract with Schwartz. Heard him davven (pray) yesterday. He stinks.”

There is almost no one left alive who remembers HIJ. But everyone remembers the story.

But, you will ask: What if someone has no children or no useful work or never taught anyone or has no stories? And what happens after everyone who knew that person dies and there are no more memories? Are they then, well, just totally dead, totally and cosmically out of luck?

No. I cannot believe that the soul gets deleted from the hard drive of the world and that it disappears.

I believe that the soul returns to God and that God, the Soul of the Universe, is the guardian of all souls.

When I perform a funeral, I recite this prayer: “O God of Compassion, let the soul of our beloved rest beneath the wings of God’s Presence, along with all the other pure and righteous ones in the Garden of Eden.”

I believe those words, as have generations of my ancestors. I have inherited their faith.

Someday, God will defeat even death.

Which is a fancy way of saying: Hope will ultimately conquer despair.

It is a good way to live. Ready to try it?

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)