Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1994. XII, 148 pages. $22.50, cloth. Also New York: UAHC Press, $10.00, paper.
When Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. When he saw them he began to weep. His disciples said to him: Lamp of Israel, pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer! Wherefore weepest thou?” He replied, “When there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?” (Berakoth 28b)
For those who don’t know the Messiah, death is an unfathomable, even frightening, abyss about which a person finds more questions than satisfying answers. No mortal has returned and lectured on the topic. And no scientific device or method has been invented to prove that there even is a soul, much less a life after death. So what happens after death is relegated to that subjective and philosophical area of our civilization known as “religion.” In the Jewish community today, death is treated eloquently, sometimes directly and sometimes evasively, but hardly authoritatively.
In What Happens After I Die? Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme collect a compendium of Jewish views on life after death. Sonsino, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Reform Judaism’s rabbinical college, is presently the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts. Syme, also a graduate of Hebrew Union College, currently serves as director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Commission on Jewish Education and is vice president of the UAHC (the umbrella union of Reform Jewish congregations).
Sonsino and Syme never claim to dogmatically answer the question, “What happens after I die?” But they do attempt to provide the Jewish reader with a representation of the wealth of Jewish thought on the subject.
We hope you will discover within these pages at least one thinker whose ideas resonate with your own…at the very least, however, we trust that this book will open your mind to the richness of our Jewish heritage in this realm. We need not look elsewhere for answers to our quest. (pp. ix-x)
The lack of a definitive answer is plainly seen when Sonsino and Syme leave it up to the readers to find “at least one thinker whose ideas resonate” with their own.
Sonsino and Syme approach the subject in three stages: part one presents six classical views of life after death beginning with the Pentateuch and proceeding through the prophetic, rabbinic, and medieval Kabbalistic writings. It concludes with portions of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the founding document of the American Reform movement.
Part two presents contemporary views on the subject of life after death from writers ranging from leaders in the Reform movement to a contemporary orthodox Jewish writer of feminist thought. In the concluding part, Sonsino and Syme present their own ideas on the topic. Throughout the book the subject is dealt with on three levels: the question of immortality, the question of reward and punishment (personal eschatology) and the question of the resurrection of the dead (general eschatology).
This book is of value to the Jewish believer as a window into the struggle, exasperation and pain of those who do indeed search for definitive answers to a question treated in our generation as unanswerable. In the writings of the individual thinkers, we find the motives and factors that affect their world views and “next-world views,” if you will. Finally, without meaning to, Sonsino and Syme demonstrate the inherent inconsistencies in maintaining that religious thought is entirely subjective and therefore relative to the individual.
Especially intriguing is the discussion by Blu Greenberg, feminist thinker and writer who is a graduate of Yeshiva University in New York. Greenberg interviews several anonymous friends and concludes with a discussion of her personal faith in a true olam haba (world to come). She explains that for her, a belief in an afterlife is a necessary foundation for good and moral living:
My primary and recurrent association with afterlife is its inhibition over my baser instincts, the fear of being found out at the end of my days.…Yes, I know we should exhibit virtuous behavior for its own sake, out of pure love for God and humanity, and not out of fear of punishment. Nevertheless, I am grateful that even an inchoate vision of the next life keeps me relatively “clean.” (p. 89)
Alluding to the twelfth-century rabbi Maimonides, who taught that those who deny the existence of an afterlife will not inherit the world to come, she concludes:
The truth is that here I am not at all sure what I envision.…The rabbis say, who does not believe in it will find no place in the world to come. I am not willing to take any chances. I believe. I believe. (pp. 93-95)
Standing in sharp contrast to Blu Greenberg is Dr. Alvin Reines, professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Reines writes more authoritatively and less evasively than Greenberg but concludes that life is entirely finite and that there is no immortality as most religions teach. He prefaces his discussion by saying that Reform Judaism frees up the believer to formulate his or her own views.
There is no particular belief or dogma in Reform with respect to the subject of afterexistence that is incumbent upon Reform Jews to accept. (p. 128)
He produces two tests for faith: the experience of the five senses and non-sensory experience. Sadly, in the end he concludes that a belief in immortality as envisioned by Holy Scripture and traditional rabbinical understanding fails both tests:
My notion of God, generally stated, belongs to what are characterized as “finite God” concepts.…It is not, therefore, humans alone who are finite, but everything that exists is necessarily finite, from subatomic particles to galaxies and the universe itself. Accordingly, human death is not the result of divine punishment but the result of divine finity. (p. 140)
One problem I find in the book is that Sonsino and Syme take a noncommittal position throughout, asserting that in our struggle with the question of death there are no objective answers. Most of the writers avoid speaking authoritatively or dogmatically on any point. There is clearly a low view of Scripture and there is no consideration by any of the writers as to its inspiration, much less its revelatory nature. Sonsino and Syme write, “The Tanach—the Torah, Prophets, and Writings—demonstrates an evolving understanding of life after death” (p. 11) and deny that the writers had definitive answers: “‘If a man dies, can he live again?’ (Job 14:4). The biblical answer is no” (p. 15).
Whereas the biblical answer is a resounding yes (Job 19:25-27)! A place for treating Scripture as revelation is not found here even though that is the view of traditional orthodox Judaism.
This leads me to a further criticism of the book: its perspective is too limited to the Reform treatment of this topic. Though there are two Orthodox writers, the general treatment is from the Reform mainstream. Notably absent in part one is the Christian view, certainly counted as a Jewish position in the first century. In spite of the traditionally negative Jewish view of the New Testament, few historians would deny that it reflects first-century Jewish beliefs concerning heaven, hell (Gehinnom), and redemption through a personal redeemer. Yet this is plainly missing from the discussion.
Sadly, the writers leave the reader without a solid answer or rung to grasp but only more questions. The non-Christian reader can find in these pages the sympathetic shoulders of those who share the desperation in grappling with the eluding issue of death. The Christian reader can peek into the fears and questions of those without faith in Israel’s Messiah. In the end, the believer is reminded of a different reality, expressed in Yeshua’s words to Martha at the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Stan Meyer directs the Fort Lauderdale work of Jews for Jesus.