Open Letter to My Students  33: “Life After Death” or “Memories Are Made Of More Than You Think”

I’ve been thinking about life after death, not just because I am, as they say, gracefully aging, but because of my obsession with the human certainty that we are evolving selves in time, biographical stories in the making, but stories with an inevitable and tragic end. Is Macbeth right when he calls them “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Religion wants to dismiss Macbeth’s world-weariness as just plain wrong. The introduction to the Mourner’s Kaddish in the old Reform Jewish Union Prayer Book, for example, poses a poetic alternative, in two parts: “The departed whom we now remember [1] have entered into the peace of life eternal. [2] They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory.” The second claim is obviously true. But what about the first one? Is there such a thing as “the peace of life eternal”? 

The Macbeths of our time are likely to dismiss it as a bit of rhetorical fluff to make us feel better. After death, our bodies decompose and disappear; we cannot see or know what religious traditions calls “the soul.” Science knows no actual afterlife, so there isn’t one. 

But I am a rabbi, tasked with a religious message. What is that message, if I have nothing to say other than what science already knows? 

*

In my undergraduate days, I studied philosophy with a certain Professor Anderson, who habitually repeated the ends of his sentences three times in a row, in a row, in a row. We privately called him Professor Anderson, Anderson, Anderson. To illustrate Socrates’ parable of the cave, he asked rhetorically, “Can goldfish imagine the possibility of existence beyond their fish bowl, fish bowl, fish bowl?” I came later to believe that I should imagine possibilities outside of my own goldfish bowl, not anything contrary to science, but an enrichment of understanding beyond what science can know, something transcending my life in the here and now, here and now, here and now.

The expression “here and now” is telling, because “here” is spatial and “now” is temporal, so that “here and now,” taken together, conveys our dependence both on space and on time — the space/time continuum of modern science that we have trouble grasping, because our brains are so arranged that we experience space as one thing and time as another. We think of different points in space as coexisting: I live in New York, but when I visit Toronto, say, New York doesn’t vanish. It’s still out there. With a tall enough body and long enough legs, I could straddle and look down upon them both. Time, by contrast, seems more like a video passing us by, frame by frame, and then disappearing forever. Unlike space, time (we think) is not arrayed around us “all at the same time,” as it were. Time passed is memory; time to come is mystery. The very phrase “after death” implies that we cannot be both dead and alive at the same time. 

What Professor Anderson Anderson Anderson’s fish could not envision was life in the space beyond their fishbowl. But what goes for the fish in the realm of space may go for us humans in the realm of time. What if the moments of time do not disappear into a past that is gone? What if moments of time exist side by side the way places in space do? What if time and space really do coexist in a space/time eternity —  the Union Prayer Book’s “peace of life eternal” — even though we human goldfish cannot experience them that way? 

*

We are to goldfish as God is to us, but with this difference: The tiny goldfish brain cannot even imagine us, but our advanced human consciousness allows us at least to imagine God. One of the ways that Jews do that is in our standard blessing formula which calls God melekh ha’olam, which we translate literally as “Ruler of the universe.” But that literalism is misleading, in two ways.

First, it falsely humanizes God as a humanoid ruler, scepter in hand, directing the affairs of the worlds down below. We are better off thinking of God as a perspective, a point of view, the viewpoint of eternity, as Spinoza called it. 

Second, there is the word olam, translated as “universe” a metaphor of space. Yes, the Hebrew olam does denote space, as in the phrase kol ha’olam kulo, “the entire world” or “universe”; but it also denotes time, as in la’olam va’ed (“forever”).  Melekh ha’olam, then, is the perspective that we humans cannot fathom: the point of view that takes in all of space and time (the space/time continuum), all at once. 

From the perspective of God, time does not pass like a video, here today but on its way to an unrecoverable yesterday. Rather, yesterday and today sit side by side; nothing we do or are is ever gone; even after we die, every moment of our lives persists somewhere in eternity. Though we cannot see it, God, by definition, can. From God’s viewpoint, there is indeed life after death, “the peace of life eternal.”

*

All we poor human goldfish have is what we call memory, zekher or zikaron, in Hebrew. But I have looked up every instance of zekher/zikaron in our classic liturgy and I can tell you that there is a lot more to zekher/zikaron than memory. Sometimes, when applied to time, these words do mean “memory,” but they are applied also to logical argument, having nothing to do with time. When the Talmud is convinced of a legal point but can find no proof for it, the Rabbis say, “Though there is no proof for the matter, there is a zekher to it.” Zekher can hardly mean “memory” here. A better translation would be “pointer” — a kind of pointing, or showing, across a logical gap, to what cannot be logically proved but can be pointed to as true. We use logical pointers (“Just look,” we say, “Can’t you see it?”); but also spatial ones (signposts, for example); and temporal ones too, which we call “memories.”

Like the words “ruler” and “universe,” the word “memories” too falls short of reality, because we are trained to think of memories as insubstantial mental traces of what has passed us by and is now gone. That misconception is derived from our goldfish-like blindness to time being like space, where all points coexist side by side. The more general term, “pointer” avoids that bias, by making memories the same as signposts, but in time, not space. 

The consequences for religion are significant. When Jesus says, at his last supper, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is better pictured as asking his followers to engage in ritual action that points their way to him. The Jewish High Holy Day entreaty, zokhrenu l’chayim, doesn’t mean “remember us for life” (an English construction that means nothing at all, actually); it means “point us toward life,” life in the here and now, certainly, but equally, life as it still exists for those we knew and loved, even when we think it has disappeared from our impoverished goldfish-limited view. 

There really is life after death, a “peace of life eternal,” though we lack the perspective to see it. And meanwhile, there is the promise of our own lives in process. Religion points our way toward life in the now, even as it points us toward the continuance of life forever.

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4 responses to “Open Letter to My Students  33: “Life After Death” or “Memories Are Made Of More Than You Think”

  1. Steven J Weinberg

    But is religion pointing us in the direction of a life eternal that is so much more closely in touch with God that we more clearly see our true true near infinitely infinitesimal place in God’s universe. And is such an afterlife of glorious near nothingness then so different from this life as to be an incomprehensible form of “existence”, even the eternality of it?

    • Steven J Weinberg

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic Rabbi Hoffman chose for this latest letter and must thank him for providing me with someone with whom to finally be able to “discuss” this subject matter.

      Are there more among his readers who are invested in this topic enough that they would like to discuss the topic further? On a zoom organized by Rabbi Hoffman? I’d be there in a flash.

  2. Hi, Larry – I absolutely love this, and have thought a great deal about such things since Jonah’s death. Someday I’ll tell you how water imagery has worked for me. I also love the Aylin/lamed/men representing what is ne’elam/invisible, existing simultaneously with all that is in time and space.

    At the moment, I am quarantined in J’salem, having just finished with a group for two weeks, I tested positive before my flight home. I am asymptomatic, but stuck in a quarantine hotel until at least Thursday. Life unfurling in its own strange ways. I am grateful to be feeling fine, and hopefully will be home soon.

    I hope to see you sometime this summer, perhaps – I would love another visit, or to have you over to the house for a meal. Kol tuv, and thank you again for this lovely piece to consider while I am here and beyond E

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Thought-provoking indeed, thank you. I would add a couple of overlays. First, there are words in one edition of the URJ HHD siddur about prayer, repentance and charity tempering judgement’s severe decree. No one has been back to report on the efficacy of those. Second, Stevie Wonder asked rhetorically in the song “Always,” “Did you know that life is love a guarantee to last forever and a day?” I interpret that to mean the love we create on earth is a thing unto itself that outlives us and never dies itself. Maybe this is part of the world’s collective memory or maybe it is just “out there” for us to seek out and from which to draw inspiration.

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