The current chapter in the book on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, On Heaven and Earth, that my friend Daniel Murphy and I have been reading is the one titled, “On Death.” On the surface, there are core distinctions around how Catholicism and Judaism seem to understand death and the afterlife, but as is often the case with the authors, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the underlying truths that emerge through their conversation are strikingly similar.
Many Jewish people are surprised when they hear that Judaism believes in an afterlife, as many of us grew up hearing that Judaism doesn’t believe in Heaven and Hell and that the only life that matters is this one. And while that may be largely true, the ancient and enduring (though often unstated) teaching in Judaism is that the life of the soul continues after we die. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that Judaism does believe in an afterlife, but we have absolutely no clue as to what that will actually look like or even mean. I’ve always liked this, as it feels refreshingly honest. Some Jewish thinkers speak about reincarnation, while others imagine a World-to-Come not predicated on judgment or division based on one’s earthly behavior. Still others teach about a kind of cosmic compost in the spirit of energy not being created or destroyed, but endlessly recycled into different forms.
Rabbi Skorka compares humans to trees — we blossom, we bear fruit, our leaves fall, we die/hibernate and then are reborn/reawakened the next spring. In this spirit, he teaches, “There is some kind of transcendence here in this world.” We all have experienced this sensation of resurrection within this incarnation, whereby something in us comes back to life that we thought would never live again. Or we find ourselves in a place where previously we could imagine no possibility, and then suddenly there is an opening that appears. There is a rebirth that we experience on this plane, not unlike the cycle of seasons that our earth experiences. Another way of putting this would be to say that the World-to-Come is not something that only happens after we die, but that we get glimpses of and can experience in this life — at those moments when we are most alive and attuned to G-d and to one another.
If the truth is that none of us knows what will happen after death, why speculate? It’s a good question. But I would say we speculate because our views about death and what happens to the soul afterward say a lot about our values in this life. An example of this is that in Judaism we do not believe in individual salvation. As far as redemption is concerned, it is all of us or none of us — and so we need to figure out how to think about our lots and fate being intertwined and interdependent. Believing that we are all connected in death can remind us that we are all connected in life.
One of the most famous verses in the Torah commands us to “choose life, in order that you may live.” This is our work as human beings, whatever our religious tradition might be and however differently we might describe the content and charge of that task. Meditating on death and its relationship to our lives as we live them is surely part of how we choose life.
— Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the spiritual leader of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland.