Whenever anyone says to me “Rabbi, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask”, the question is invariably: is there an afterlife and what will it be like?
Despite people feeling embarrassed at asking, it is a very sensible question. Normally, we prepare for the future, be it next year’s holiday, mortgage repayments or retirement. It would be good to know what to expect after death too.
Here lies a distinction between some of the major faiths. Whereas Christianity has a clear map of the hereafter, with signposts to heaven and hell, and stopovers at perdition, purgatory and limbo, Judaism is much less certain.
To put it bluntly, no one has ever sent a postcard back and so the rabbis prefer to admit, “we don’t know”. Instead they say that we should focus on this world and make the best of the life we have; the next world is God’s world, and we will find out about it in due course.
That may be very honest and pragmatic, but it still leaves agonisingly personal questions hanging in the air. How will it feel? Will I still be me? Will I meet up with those I have loved? We know we cannot know, but we still desperately want to.
The result is that although there is no definitive Jewish theology, various (sometimes conflicting) theories have emerged. One is that death is final. Like a matchstick that goes out, whose light flickers and disappears forever, so do we.
Perhaps that is what the psalmist was alluding to when he said: “We are flowers that grow in the morning but by evening are withered and cut down” (Psalm 90, 5-6).
For some, this is logical, but many find the idea of our eventual non-existence too harsh to contemplate, and look for other options. This includes the immortality of the soul, with the idea that the body disintegrates but the soul — the divine spark that makes us alive and unique — lives on. It could be hinted at in Proverbs 12.28, which promises eternal life.
But what form might that take? Would we still have individual consciousness? My personal image is that it would be like drops of rain that fall from the sky, trickle down the side of a tree, where they have a clear identity, and then slide into a puddle at the foot of the tree. The raindrops — we — are still there, but no longer have a separate existence. But if we are no longer ourselves, is not that death anyway?
Hence a third option to which some Jews subscribe, inspired by verses in Daniel, that at some future point, the soul — which had been biding its time somewhere — will link up again with the body, and we will be resurrected.
It smacks of wishful thinking and the inability to accept one’s limited lifespan. Yet it remains a powerful idea, partly because it panders to our desire to have a second go at life, and partly because many people prefer to have a dubious answer to no answer at all.
In many ways, rabbis — perhaps like clergy of other faiths — are caught in a religious trap. On the one hand we feel uncomfortable with making predictions when we cannot be sure. On the other hand, we do not want to take away hope from those whose lives in this world have been blighted and are sustained by thoughts of a better future or a reunion with those whom they have lost. Denying hope would be another form of death for them.
Our solution is that the prayer book talks of God “renewing life beyond death” in a phrase that is deliberately vague. It can be taken as reinforcing the rabbinic emphasis on this world, reminding us that we live in the achievements we leave behind or through the influence we had on others.
Rabbis are adamant that we should concentrate on what we can control — the here and now — with everything else being speculation that is interesting but unproven. We should live this life with an exclamation mark and leave a question mark over the next.