HERRING IN HEAVEN
Everyone knows about heaven and hell — but what do Jews think about the afterlife?
BY NATHANIEL DEUTSCH
The first time my father died, he came back and told us what it was like to be dead — and Jewish. My father didn’t see a light at the end of a tunnel; he saw his ancestor, a famous rabbi known as the Hasam Sofer, who stood at the end of a long hallway and gestured for my father to join him. Although they had never met, my father had always had a close relationship with the Hasam Sofer, a Hungarian rabbi widely considered to be the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy. Having a noble yihus (lineage) was very precious to my father, and it gave him solace during the many difficulties he experienced after escaping from Europe during World War II. Along with his good name, yihus was the one thing that no one could take away from him and that he could bequeath to his own descendants. It was, in effect, a kind of immortality.
My father liked to tell stories about the Hasam Sofer, followed his minhagim (customs), and even felt his presence, especially when he was writing plays. In fact, my father was so intimate with the Hasam Sofer that he expressed shock when I confessed I didn’t feel his presence. So we weren’t surprised to hear that it was the Hasam Sofer who welcomed my father to the afterlife or, to use the Yiddish expression my father used, the yene velt or “other world.”
After exchanging a shalom aleikhem (greeting), the two men made their way into a big, wood- paneled room that resembled a medieval hall. As my father’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, he noticed rows of men and women sitting on benches, learning. Long tables were set with bottles of schnapps, trays of kichel (cookies), and herring.
“Actually,” my father corrected himself, “It was shmaltz herring.”
This was the yeshiva shel ma’alah, the rabbinic academy on high. Looking around, my father recognized a few people, including Moshe Rabeinu (Moses), Akiba Eger (another ancestor my father loved to talk about), and Coco Chanel.
When my father mentioned that men and women were learning together, I was intrigued, since this would never happen in an Orthodox yeshiva like the one my father had attended here on earth. I asked whether I had heard him correctly, and with a knowing smile he said, “Yes, men and women.”
But it was one thing for my father to see pious Jewish women learning alongside their male counterparts in the yene velt; it was quite another for him to see Coco Chanel, a French fashion designer whose lovers had included a Nazi officer during World War II. I found it hard to believe that Coco Chanel was spending all of eternity learning Talmud and eating shmaltz herring.
“Umm, are you sure it was Coco Chanel?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“She wasn’t even Jewish,” I objected, but he waved me off impatiently.
“I know, I know,” he said. “But she was from the working class. I think her father was a butcher.”
In fact, Coco Chanel’s father wasn’t a butcher — he was a traveling salesman — but she did grow up in poverty after literally being born in the poorhouse where her mother worked. And, now, apparently, she had somehow ended up in my father’s distinctly rabbinic vision of the afterlife. Her presence, I have to admit, made me wonder whether the heavy medication he was taking had inspired my father’s vision rather than a real visit to the yene velt.
“Someone else was there,” my father added matter-of-factly. “Sitting in the corner with his face turned away.”
“Who was it?” I asked.
“The Eybeshter.” My father answered, using the Yiddish name for God.
“How did you know it was him?” I asked.
“I just did,” my father said and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Then he opened them and continued. “The Hasam Sofer invited me to stay. He told me that ‘an honored place’ was prepared for me in the yeshiva. But I knew it wasn’t time. So here I am.”
My father was a very pious person, but he was also an iconoclast with a sardonic sense of humor. Once, when I asked him what he had learned in yeshiva, he responded with a pun: “Baba Metziyah, Baba Kama, Bubbe Meise.” The first two phrases refer to tractates of the Talmud; the third is Yiddish for “old wives’ tale.” More of an artist than a scholar at heart, my father would have gotten bored learning all the time in the yene velt, although I’m sure he would have enjoyed schmoozing with Coco Chanel about Paris, haute couture, and other decidedly non-Talmudic subjects.
Given his complicated sense of self, it’s not surprising that my father’s heavenly vision was both idiosyncratic and anchored in centuries of Jewish traditions about the afterlife. For my father and other religious Jews of his generation, death did not mark the end of existence but a new beginning in the “world to come.”
These days, most Jews know very little about these traditions concerning the afterlife or, even, that they exist. Asked about Christianity, they might say something about pearly gates or fire and brimstone; asked about Islam, they might conjure up the phrase “black-eyed virgins”; asked about Hinduism, an entire generation of Jewish yoga students would unhesitatingly mention reincarnation. But ask the same Jews about Judaism, and many would draw a blank.
It’s true that if you only had to look forward to the Hebrew Bible’s anticlimactic version of the afterlife, you’d be better off eating right, exercising, and trying to live as long as possible. Basically, the biblical view is that the dead return to dust and then end up in a gloomy, subterranean place called Sheol, where they mope around for eternity. Luckily, being dead improved — or, at least, became more interesting — in the Rabbinic period. For one thing, instead of wasting away in Sheol, you could now look forward to being physically resurrected during the Messianic Age — as long as you lived in the Land of Israel. If not, when the Messiah came, your bones would roll through underground tunnels — a pretty painful form of travel, according to the rabbis — until they arrived in Israel, where you would then join the ranks of the resurrected.
Besides fleshing out the idea of resurrection — known as techiat hametim in Hebrew — the rabbis also developed the concept of the “world to come,” or olam ha-ba. After spending a lifetime in “this world” (olam ha-ze), the rabbis believed that people made their way to the world to come, where the righteous ended up in the heavenly Garden of Eden (Gan Eden) and the wicked in Geihinnom, a kind of Jewish purgatory. In general, the maximum term in Geihinnom was twelve months, although the Talmud mentions that some particularly bad offenders will remain there forever, suffering such unpleasant punishments as stewing in boiling semen or excrement. Ouch.
By contrast, the righteous will enjoy the pleasures of Gan Eden. Some rabbinic sources liken this experience to the joys of sexual intercourse or to a warm sunny day, but most invoke the image of the yeshiva shel ma’alah, where the dead will learn Torah with God, nibble at the heavenly banquet, and, in my father’s case, chat with Coco Chanel.
During the Middle Ages, the belief in re-incarnation, called gilgul ha neshamot in Hebrew, entered Judaism, although it really took off in the sixteenth century under the influence of the great kabbalist Isaac Luria. While retaining a belief in the world to come, Luria and his disciples posited that under certain conditions, the souls of the deceased could return to this world in a different body. Typically, a soul transmigrated in order to rectify sins committed in a previous incarnation, a process known as tikkun. Depending on the gravity of these sins, a soul could be reincarnated into the body of an animal or even into an inanimate object, such as a rock.
While reincarnation took place at birth, the soul of a dead tzadik (pious individual) could also temporarily enter the body of a living person, usually in order to perform a commandment that it was unable to fulfill while alive. This positive phenomenon, known as ibbur or “pregnancy,” also has a negative flipside, in which the disembodied soul of a sinner took possession of an unwitting victim. The malevolent soul or dybbuk — from a Hebrew root meaning “to cleave” — would cause the victim to act in bizarre ways until it was exorcised, ideally via the big toe. Why the big toe? Let’s just say it was a lot less messy than exiting via the eye or ear.
Ironically, for a religion stereotyped as completely “this worldly” in its orientation, Judaism has so many beliefs about the afterlife that it would take an encyclopedia to catalogue them. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned the Eastern European Jewish belief that the souls of the dead like to congregate at night in synagogues and hold their own services, or the rabbinic belief that the malakh ha-mavet (Angel of Death) has no power over someone who is studying Torah, or that after you die, two angels supposedly stand at opposite ends of the world and sling your soul back and forth in a catapult called kaf ha-kela. Like so much in Judaism, these beliefs are not organized systematically, and they’ve changed over time, so it’s impossible to offer a definitive Jewish account of what to expect in the afterlife.
My father never had another vision of the yene velt. But the one he experienced during open-heart surgery gave him a great sense of peace for the rest of his life. A year ago, after a long and valiant struggle against illnesses too numerous to list here, the birth of three more grandchildren, and the performance of many mitzvot both big and small, my father died once more.
This time he hasn’t come back. &