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Does the Soul Survive?
By Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 245 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin
Rabbi Spitz bases his conviction that life continues after death upon nine phenomena; (1) his belief that there is a soul; (2) mental telepathy; people sensing what they can’t hear or see, such as a person sensing that a relative thousands of miles away suddenly became ill; (3) communications from dead relatives, as when a father appears in a son’s dream and tells him that he just died; (4) biblical statements that other people see as metaphors, but which the rabbi takes literally, such as “he was gathered to his people,” which he understands as a departure to “the world to come”; (5) reincarnation, as when a person said that he would like to return to earth as a butterfly, and a butterfly is seen flying around the rabbi’s head at the man’s funeral; (6) mediums delivering communications from the dead; (7) the ability of people under hypnosis to recall past lives that they say they lived; (8) the existence of many mystics who insisted that there is life after death and who say that they went through some of the above-mentioned experiences; and most of all (9) “near death experiences.” The book is written well, is interesting, and worth reading, but not everyone will find it persuasive. The following are some thoughts on each of his proofs.
The belief in the existence of a soul is very widespread, but science has been unable to prove that a soul exists. Philosophers have questioned how it is possible for an inanimate soul to control a body when the two have no physical connection. While ancient post-biblical Greeks mention the soul, many, such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) understood soul as a synonym for life forces. Thus Aristotle included the digestive and respiratory systems and intelligence in the term soul. He wrote that only the intellect exists after death, not the person’s personality. Furthermore, the notion of the existence of a soul is not in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew term used today for soul, nefesh, means “life” or “person” in the Torah, such as when it states “When a nefesh offers a sacrifice.” Rabbi Spitz admits that “any attempt to define soul in clear, unequivocal terms results either in distortion of glibness,”
True, people claim that telepathy works. However, many scientists say that these are coincidences. Additionally, even if telepathy works, such as being able to identify what number is written on a covered card, this ability really has nothing to do with life after death.
Similarly, scientist call claims of having had communications with a dead person, such as in a dream, coincidences. We also know that dreams are prompted by thoughts during the day, and the dreamer may have been thinking during the day about the physical condition of the person who appeared in his or her dream.
Just as the Torah does not mention “soul,” it does not speak of life after death. However, the rabbi reads it into metaphors such as “gathered to his people.” He is most likely the first person who read these words in this literal manner. The words have always been understood as a poetic way of saying “he died.” It is similar to the English phrase “he passed on.”
There is no proof that resurrection occurs. The rabbi rejects the notion that the soul returns to the individual’s dead body since the body has deteriorated. It seems equally illogical to imagine that the soul would enter another body. Even people who believe that it occurs say that it is a miracle and science has never proven that miracles occur.
Mediums are frequently frauds. The rabbi reads the biblical story of King Saul visiting a medium who brought up Samuel from the dead to allow Saul an opportunity to discuss his impending battle with the dead prophet. True, many fundamentalists accept the story as a true occurrence. But rationalists such as the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) recognized that the tale is impossible and explained it as a dream by an agitated king.
Rabbi Spitz recognizes that the recollections of people under hypnosis of past lives are questionable. The recollections are usually the result of statements made by the hypnotist. Spitz underwent such an experience. Prior to being hypnotized, the hypnotist asked him what he thought about as a youngster and he mentioned Indians, and when he was hypnotized he saw himself as an Indian.
True, there are many statements by mystics, Jewish and non-Jewish, claiming that there is life after death and speaking about reincarnation and similar notions. These include statements by famous Jewish sages that they received instructions from angels and that they were resurrected from earlier Jewish heroes. However, these are the same people who claim that God was composed of ten parts, became separated, and needs human help to be put together again.
No doubt many people believe in near death experiences. However, this is a rather recent phenomenon and may be the result of the recent popularity of the subject and many people being led to expect it. Hardly any ancients spoke about it. The rabbi states that it seems to be true because all of the experiences are remarkably the same. Yet in another section of his book, he admits that there are sticking differences between the experiences of various people. For example, he tells the tale of a soldier who had a near death experience, but there was no white light and no dead relative greeting him, as others claimed. Instead, he was greeted by God who asked him if he wanted to return to life. When he answered “yes,” he recovered. Similarly, many Christians said they saw Jesus, but no Jew made this claim. If Rabbi Spitz truly believes the near death stories are true, why doesn’t he believe in Jesus who allegedly appeared to the Christians?
In summary, none of my comments should be read to suggest that there is no life after death, only that there is no proof that it exists. Whether readers accept Rabbi Spitz’s view about life after death, reject it completely, or remain an agnostic regarding it, readers will enjoy the rabbi’s analyses and the many stories that he tells to support his view, and will be stimulated by the discussions to think more deeply about this and related subjects.