February 15, 2001
Books: Beyond Mortality
Exploring the possibility of past lives and afterlife from a Jewish perspective
"Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose"
For those who struggle with the concept of God, the primary issue is God's existence. Once established, one's belief in the divine informs other areas, such as the afterlife, reincarnation and resurrection. Those important, speculative themes are where Rabbi Elie Spitz's book "Does The Soul Survive?" begins. Written in a style that is both informative and mainstream, Spitz's debut is well worth reading.
The book begins with the author's own admission to being skeptical of documented reports of near-death experiences (NDEs), past-life regressions, mediums and the like. A lawyer by training and an ordained Conservative rabbi by calling, Spitz likens himself to a juror in a courtroom listening to the evidence being presented, evidence gathered largely from his congregants' own anecdotal experiences. As the material unfolds, the case mounts. Turning the pages, Spitz shares his unease, his amazement and ultimately his conclusion, or as he refers to it, "from denial to acceptance." The whole time, he shares his personal journey, one that leads him to a significant theological reevaluation, conveyed openly and honestly in the first person.
While Spitz's voice is heard throughout the book, the material is presented in a way that a reader can explore a given idea or concept in greater depth, due largely to the end notes, which are extensive and most helpful, as are the appendix and the bibliography.
Any rabbi would be the first to admit that helping someone search for deeper meaning and purpose in life is exceedingly difficult. If that were not difficult enough, the challenge is compounded further by the fact that we will all die. To that end, this book can provide much needed comfort, hope and inspiration.
Believing there is something beyond our existence on earth is spiritually pleasing. While we are made in God's image, a basic Jewish belief is that our behavior can alter our lives after death. If we all shared the same destiny after death, God's universal moral standard would be severely compromised. To think that a truly decent person has the same fate as an evil one is morally problematic.
In fairness, Spitz does not suggest that struggling to find meaning in NDEs, or undergoing hypnosis so as to engage in a past-life regression, or visiting a medium is for the purpose of providing comfort to those who are bereaved. Admittedly, that may be the byproduct of such effort, but it is not its primary function. Most importantly, the book addresses the hard basic question: Are our souls eternal?
To answer that question, Spitz relies heavily on the research done by psychiatrist Brian Weiss. Spitz quotes extensively from Weiss and refers to Weiss' book "Many Lives, Many Masters" as the seminal text that helped him through his initial skepticism. Spitz uses his rabbinic knowledge, thoughtfully bringing pertinent Jewish sources to the subject. The Torah gives only cryptic references to the afterlife, largely because it developed out of an Egyptian civilization that both worshiped and glorified the dead. From a literary standpoint, the Torah is as much a polemic, reacting to its indigenous surroundings, as it is a proactive, independent moral code.
But we Jews, no matter our affiliation, are not biblical Jews. We are heirs to the rabbinic tradition, and it there that Spitz helps us understand what positions the rabbis held regarding afterlife, reincarnation, resurrection, and so on. Take, for example, the use of mediums. Most informed Jews would assume our tradition absolutely forbids them. After all, the Torah explicitly states: "There shall not be found among you ... a consulter with familiar spirits ... or a necromancer" (Deut. 18:10-11). By incorporating quotes from the Bible, kabbalistic and legal opinion, along with Chassidic stories, Spitz shows how Judaism validates their use if they are not manipulated to foretell the future or as an idolatrous act.
What is most agreeable about "Does the Soul Survive?" is the author's perspective. At last, persuaded by the evidence, the verdict is in: the soul survives, it is eternal. Lest you think, however, you can now add past-life encounters to genetics and environment as rationalization or justification for one's behavior, think again. As a responsible and committed spokesman for Judaism, Spitz sums up his feelings best when he writes, "Our challenge is to live now in simplicity, with gratitude to God, and with a willingness to act generously and responsibly. ... Our past has meaning and our future has relevance only if we live with awareness and compassion in the present moment."
Often most meaningful is the process or stages that lead one through life. With wisdom and perspective gained, the journey can be more important than the sought-after goal. While it is human to speculate on what happens to us upon our demise and to grapple with what occurred prior to our birth, we must remember that life lived here and now is the blessing of our being. To his great credit, Spitz reminds us of that, all the while challenging us to think about issues that otherwise we might not have thought tenable.