Here is another challenging and highly unusual question I have received over the years that relates to my last “Question to Ponder” about the existence of an afterlife.
Once more, I emphasize that my answers are my personal insights and do not represent what many term “normative” (Orthodox) Judaism. However, I believe that my responses are deeply Jewish and religious, and are important for everybody to consider.
Rabbi Cardozo, last time you discussed your views about the afterlife. Do you believe that the question as to whether there is an afterlife, has had a major impact on modern man?
Currently, I spend much of my life in a retirement home, and when I observe its fine residents and management, I realize that in our times, humankind has undergone a radical change as to how to view the mysterious “end of life experience,” and that this, in fact, has fundamentally changed our appreciation of and the significance we assign to life on earth.
The fact that I call it the “end of life experience” and not by its “real” name, “death,” is itself a reflection of this phenomenon.
The problem is that we have buried death.
In the past, “death” was not an enemy but a companion. It stood right at the center of our lives, and yet, was nothing to be scared of. In fact, it was anticipated; once one had completed one’s mission in this world, he or she would somehow look forward to it, believing that the road simply continued on the “other side” of death, – a road full of pleasant surprises.
Death was seen as a customs officer, so to speak, who also told you to change your garments and asked whether you had anything to declare. If everything was in order, you would continue on with your travels. And if you had done anything faulty, you would be interrogated by the Head Customs Officer and have to explain yourself. Unless you were an arch scoundrel, you would be asked to make a statement stating your remorse or that you were not aware of your violation. The Head Customs Officer may give you some kind of castigation to clean your soul, but then you could continue your journey without any problem, looking forward to your new dwelling place – which was often nicer than anything you had ever experienced.
In other words, the journey did not end with death. The opposite was true – real life had just started. Until death, one had walked through a kind of vestibule in order to reach the real location.
A “travel agency” had organized the journey and you were on your way.
Hence, there was little to worry about. Death was a kind of “homecoming.” You had been there before. For nearly an infinite time, prior to birth, you had already dwelled in that place.
The only problem was not death itself but its “collaborators” who could make the journey in this world highly unpleasant. Illnesses and other exceedingly unpleasant experiences could adversely affect the road while traveling through the vestibule.
Today we have lost this viewpoint and belief. The traffic has been re-routed. There is no customs officer who asks for your passport so that you can continue on your travels. Following death there is nothing more than a meaningless blackhole, an abyss.
When someone died, people would say: “She/he is out of time,” which is an excellent way of putting it. It meant that the person had left for another world where time is meaningless, she or he had entered infinity where time has been cancelled. The Theory of Relativity itself became relative by showing that it was limited.
And here is the crux of the problem of our “senior citizens” and retirement homes today. It is not so much that there are not sufficient retirement homes, but that we have robbed them of their future home. In the days of old they waited to enter their new surroundings. But we closed the door on them and now we all stand in the street. We are all dressed up for the journey but nowhere to go.
This is an enormous tragedy. Because it does not just put all of us in the street at the end of our lives, but retroactively deeply influences how we see our contemporary home in this world, which became our only home, and therefore a kind of jail. This world is all that there is; a box without a door or window. So, our world has become a huge problem since we can no longer breath freely. The problem is not just that our home is temporal, but that there is no future once we depart it. We have been jailed and so become traumatized and depressed.
Death became our enemy because, in our view, it denies us any ultimate happiness. Thus, there is but one thing available to us: to deny death as much as possible and flee it. Modern man became deathly afraid of death!
We try to deny that we are mortal. And so, we do anything to look young in ways that are really a farce. Sure, we have an obligation to stay healthy and look dignified, but it has been said that more people find themselves in beauty salons than in hospitals. This is symptomatic. Beauty salons have become our cities of refugee, our cities of denial.
This is not a plea to “reinstall” the afterlife. You cannot retroactively install a belief or prove it. Looking back only darkens the future when it is a cheap attempt to recapture the past. An old religious belief cannot be reinstated by donning carnival garments.
Only a radical new way to understand our lives and a deep awareness that appreciates that there must be more to life than our contemporary homes make this possible. This cannot be forced, but only developed in a spontaneous natural way. We need a broader look at life to make this to happen.
Today our whole education is focused purely on the “here and now.” It has become an education of rejection of the serious possibility of life after death.
The fact that modern man has decided that there is no afterlife is baseless, because there is no way to know whether this is true or false. It has nothing to do with sophisticated thinking, philosophical speculation or scientific knowledge. It belongs to a different realm. It has probably more to do with the fact that we are scared of the questions the Head Customs Officer will ask us as to how we lived our lives.
However, it is also true that nobody has ever returned to tell us that there is an afterlife. Neither positions can be verified. It is all guesswork and a matter of belief and neither of these beliefs is more sophisticated than the other.
Only when we realize that our world has become barer and barer, and incapable of giving itself ultimate meaning is there hope that we may recapture the possibility of an afterlife. Our denial of the afterlife and the need for a spiritual passport to continue the road has created enormous psychological problems.
Only when we acknowledge that our existence on earth is one huge mystery which we cannot solve, may we realize that after all, there may be a door and a customs officer that enable us to continue our journey.
Only then may we come to believe that we are going on to a grand guesthouse managed by the most unusual, fascinating Host of all. The Boss Himself.