Parshas Behaaloscha (5771)
By Rabbi Zee
I don’t know if you caught this, but in an interview this week in The Guardian, eminent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking spoke his mind about, among other things, what he believes happens to a person after he dies.
He is quoted as saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” [To read the full interview, click here]
It is quite interesting that Professor Hawking’s interview coincides with the weekly Torah portion of Bechukosai. This week’s portion is devoted mostly to describing the material blessings – such as prosperity and military victory - that G-d will give to those who are faithful to His Torah, and the material deprivations – such as famine and financial ruin - that are in store for those who are not.
Strangely enough, however, there is no mention at all (neither in this week’s Torah portion nor explicitly anywhere else in the Torah) of the Afterlife and of the spiritual rewards that await those who serve G-d, as well as the other-worldly punishments that await those who sin against Him.
This glaring omission has even led some Jews – i.e. the Sadducees and other ‘fringe movements’ in our history – to conclude that Judaism doesn’t believe in life after death, just as Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in it.
The truth is, of course, that belief in the immortality of the soul and life after death is one of the fundamental tenets of our faith. [See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s excellent article The Real You at: click here for a detailed explanation of the Jewish view of the soul and what happens to us when we die.]
As to why the Torah never explicitly mentions the Afterlife, Rabbi Kaplan explains that details of immortality are not mentioned in the Torah since revelation only deals with the present world. The prophet therefore says when speaking of the World to Come, "Never has the ear heard it -- no eye has seen it -- other than God: That which He will do for those who hope in Him" (Isaiah 64:3). That is, not even the great prophets were allowed to envision the reward of the righteous in the Ultimate future. [See also Abarbanel in his commentary to Parshas Bechukosai, where he presents seven reasons why the Afterlife is conspicuously absent from the entire Torah.]
Now granted that it is not so simple to prove the existence of life after death. Some of the greatest minds throughout history have grappled with this very question of immortality and the soul. Socrates wrote: “Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from one place to another.” And the debate continues until today. (I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.” And George Carlin once quipped: “Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.”)
Allow me to share with you a few interesting philosophical and scientific ‘proofs’ of life after death.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that just as the unborn child has many endowments which are of no use to it in the womb, but demonstrate that it will be born into a world where they will be used, so does a human being have many endowments which are of little value in this life, which indicate that man will be reborn into a higher dimension after death.
Dennis Prager, in his book Think a Second Time (p. 236), writes the following:
“Since Judaism and all monotheistic religions are predicated upon the existence of a G-d who is nonphysical and beyond nature, and who is just and loving, our physical existence cannot be the only reality. It defies logic to hold that the nonphysical G-d would create a world whose only reality is physical. And it is illogical that a just and loving G-d would create a world wherein the sum total of the existence of any of His creations is often cruel suffering. To state this case as starkly as possible, if there is nothing after this life, then the Nazis and the children they threw alive into furnaces have identical fates. If I believed such a thing, I would either become an atheist or hate the G-d who had created such a cruel and absurd universe.”
In a thirteen-year study of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) titled Near Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands, and published in The Lancet, a highly respected international medical journal, on December 15, 2001 (see full article - click here), and in a letter to Dr. Jeffrey Long MD., the lead researcher, Dr. Pim van Lommel, wrote the following:
“How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG? … NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation. There is a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science, however, states that consciousness is the product of the brain. Could the brain be a kind of receiver for consciousness and memories, functioning like a TV, radio or a mobile telephone? What you receive is not generated by the receiver, but rather electromagnetic informational waves (photons) that are always around you and are made visible or audible to you by the brain and your sense organs. In our prospective study of patients that were clinically dead, the patients report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, or memory from early childhood occurred, as well as perceptions from a position out and above their "dead" body.”
Now it certainly isn’t proven 100% that we live on as souls after our bodies die. And I fully understand a scientist like Stephen Hawking being very skeptical about the existence of a soul and the Afterlife.
Yet what disturbs me is the finality with which the good professor decides that there is no heaven and that it’s merely a “fairy story” for those who are “afraid of the dark”.
You see, with regard to the incredible order displayed in the universe, Hawking humbly suggests the possibility of Divine intervention, as he writes: “The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.” Yet somehow when it comes to the existence of heaven and the Afterlife, all of a sudden, he is absolutely sure there is none?!
One day in the future each and every one of us – including Professor Hawking – will find out the ultimate truth about the Afterlife and its spiritual rewards and punishments. So to kind of paraphrase Pascal’s Wager, I would say the following: If there really is no heaven and hell, yet we lived our lives here on earth as if there were – well, I would think that we’d still have led pretty decent lives. But if we find out that there really is a heaven and hell, yet we lived our lives down here as if there weren’t – oy gevalt, are we in trouble!