Educator digs up Jewish concepts of life after death

Unlike some other religions, Judaism doesn't make a song and dance about the concept of an afterlife. In fact, so little is discussed that many Jews don't know what their religion has to say on the subject of life after death.

Contrary to popular belief, "Judaism isn't silent on this point," said Jody Feld, an Orthodox educator. "It's just not an `out there' kind of thing."

Feld began a recent talk at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco by asking, "When do you feel most alive?" and "When do you feel most dead?"

"I'd like to take these terms `life' and `death' and explode their definitions," said Feld, co-founder of a beit midrash (house of study) in Berkeley called Ohr HaChaim.

Turning to the Torah, Feld cited several instances where the concept of life is enshrined within the concept of death.

"The Torah portion called `The Life of Sarah' has that name despite the fact that Sarah dies in its very first line," said Feld. Similarly, the section dealing with the death of Jacob is called "And he lived," indicating that "in the Torah, every time we think to mention death, we also have life."

Though the Torah doesn't deal extensively with the question of an afterlife, Jewish mystical texts such as the Zohar have much to say on the subject, Feld said.

According to the Zohar, "death is the shedding of one garment and the putting-on of another," she told the audience. The nature of the second garment depends upon a person's mitzvot, or good deeds in life; it might be full and shining, or ragged and missing a sleeve.

"As one rabbi put it, for every good deed you carry out it's as though you're putting money in the bank upstairs."

Feld referenced a passage from the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which says that "this world is like a corridor before the World to Come. Fix yourself up in the corridor, so you can enter the banquet hall."

"When we read that, it seems as though the big thing is the banquet hall, and this life doesn't really matter," she said. "It's actually the opposite — everything you're doing every minute counts."

And what of the world to come? Heaven in Jewish tradition is "a life of unimaginable bliss," closely approximating the Garden of Eden, said Feld. Hell is "sometimes described in the literature as a hot place," she went on, but "we're told that almost nobody stays there for more than 12 months."

There's also a Jewish belief in reincarnation, "much to everyone's surprise," Feld revealed. "There's a strand of thinking in the mystical literature that says that each time you come into this life, you come with a mission. If you don't achieve it, you get to come back again."

Meanwhile, Orthodox belief in resurrection necessitates "keeping the body as intact as possible" after death, she said. "We don't do autopsy unless it can't be avoided; cremation is frowned upon, and organ transplant is a big question in Jewish thinking."

The idea of resurrection itself might seem "unbelievable," said Feld, but "we spend most of our lives blind to the miracles."

After the Talking Tuesdays lecture, some of the 40 audience members lingered to discuss the topics raised.

"Everyone wants to have some sort of answer," said Mel Waldorf, a 27-year-old graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. Despite being Jewish, he said, "Most of what I knew about heaven and hell came from the Christian tradition, so it was good to have the Jewish point of view explained."

For San Francisco resident Kimberly Warsett, 22, the evening brought a sense of deeper reflection. "I didn't realize how important one's deeds are in determining what will happen after death," she said.

"Now I feel challenged to make my life worthwhile."