Dont kill yourself with worry about the afterlife

I suspect I’m like many of you: My beliefs about what happens after death vary with my circumstances and mood. The only thing I’m absolutely certain about death is that I much prefer its antecedent.

Our tradition’s understanding of olam ha-ba — the world to come — “is decidedly vague,” notes the Encyclopedia of Judaism. Bodily resurrection at some future Messianic moment is a hallmark of traditional rabbinic Judaism. But beyond that, there exists “differing opinions about nearly everything related to the afterlife.”

Perhaps that is why contemporary Judaism — unlike Christianity and Islam — dwells less on the possibility of posthumous destinations than it does on how we are to act in the here and now, the olam ha-zeh. Why make yourself crazy trying to figure out the unknowable future when there’s so much we do know about that needs immediate attention and fixing?

Curiously, Judaism shares a predilection for the present with Buddhism, a prime reason, I’d venture to say, why so many contemporary Jews largely unaware of their own tradition’s contemplative practices find it easy to adopt Buddhist techniques, despite their outward exoticness.

Then there’s the concept of immortality — a question for the High Holy Days if ever there was one.

Here again, our tradition offers various interpretations — a vivid manifestation of the two-Jews-three-opinions school of philosophical inconclusiveness. In short, we are able to select from a smorgasbord of ideas, within certain parameters, that seem designed to appeal to the broad range of psychological needs.

Being a rationalist — albeit one tortured by unrequited transpersonal longings — I gravitate toward the thinking of Moses Maimonides, medieval Judaism’s greatest intellectual light. He postulated immortality as a function of the rational mind, which is to say that immortality is not so much about being around for endless tomorrows as it is about seeking to understand the eternal in the context of every day existence.

Put another way, immortality is not about personal survival. We are not so important that personal survival matters to anyone other than ourselves and the small circle of people that love and depend upon us in one way or another. Not even the prophet Abraham was promised personal immortality. Instead, God’s covenant with him was the promise of immortality through descendants as numerous as the “dust of the earth,” (Genesis 13:16) — the people of Israel.

For this Jew, then, immortality is the process of trying to step outside the personal and identifying with the dreams and disappointments of my “religious civilization,” to use Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s exquisite phrase. I also think there is no better time for connecting to this concept of immortality than the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The familiar liturgy and time-honored and haunting melodies, knowing that Jews worldwide are similarly engaged, the altered physical state brought on by Yom Kippur fasting — to participate fully in this is to experience immortality.

I once had the good fortune to visit a 500-year-old Jewish cemetery in Ukraine. The experience of the sweep of Jewish history it afforded was extraordinary. To say Kaddish there was an opportunity to step out of ordinary consciousness and to enter immortal time.

I experienced a similar feeling more recently at the brit milah in Los Angeles of my first grandson. Holding him, smelling his newness, staring into his searching eyes and imagining his future and his children’s future. This, too, was an experience of immortality.

I generally spend Rosh Hashanah in New York, attending services at my father-in-law’s Yonkers synagogue. It is a congregation in transition, moving from its solidly middle class, Ashkenazi Conservative past to a still uncertain future as a younger, inter-racial modern Orthodox synagogue. I view it all as yet another example of Jewish immortality.

In the end, immortality is a state of mind, an awareness of being part of a 3,000-year-old tradition, and understanding that our responsibility is to remember that the past is indeed prologue.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu.

Ira Rifkin is an author and journalist living in Annapolis, Md.