What Comes Next? Conversations On The Afterlife
3:45 pm
Thu October 10, 2013

For Rabbi, A Just God Without An Afterlife Is 'Inconceivable'

Originally published on Thu October 10, 2013 6:33 pm

Millions of Americans believe in the afterlife, and author and scholar Joseph Telushkin is no exception. The Orthodox rabbi has written extensively about Judaism and says that the concept of God is incompatible with the idea that life ends at death.

He holds that conviction so strongly, he tells NPR's Robert Siegel, because he believes that God is just — and he has to assume that a just God would provide some reward to a person who has lived his or her life well, while imposing a different fate upon those who do evil.


Interview Highlights

On why he believes in an afterlife

[It] is to a large extent also an outgrowth of my belief in God. It seems unlikely and inconceivable to me to believe that there's a God and there's not an afterlife, for the simple reason that in the absence of an afterlife, it would mean that Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate, of dying and actually having nothing. And it would be impossible for me to imagine that that could coexist with a God who's just.

So in order to believe in a God who's just, which I do believe in, there has to be some existence beyond this world. Because it's more than obvious that justice does not always prevail in this lifetime. ...

You know, the bottom line, it's always going to be an issue of faith. We don't know. I know studies have repeatedly shown that the large majority of Americans assume they're going to heaven. And I would like to believe that most people do, as long as I know that there are some people who aren't, because there are people who have done profoundly evil things. And the worst is when they do bad things in God's name.

On the relative absence of mentions of the afterlife in the Torah

Interestingly, the first books of the Bible, what are known as the Torah, do not really speak a lot about afterlife, though it later on becomes a principle in Judaism to believe in an afterlife. And there's a lot of discussion as to why then the ... early books don't talk about it. ...

Judaism is always very "this worldly" oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world. Jewish tradition said that there's an afterlife — it believes that there's an afterlife — but it doesn't really encourage a lot of speculation on what it's like ... for the simple reason — basically, those who know aren't talking, and those who are talking, I don't think they know.

On his belief that there is some consciousness after death

I know it sounds hard for people who are rationalists to believe it, but I do believe that. I do believe that we will retain an awareness beyond this life of things that transpired in this life. ...

I think if there's some sort of unfinished business, we well might. But I definitely feel that there will remain subcognizance of this world. I don't know if it goes on for a long period of time, but my sense is that the answer is yes.

On the concepts of heaven and hell

Other than stating it in the most general manner that I trust that God's just and I trust that there is some redress and some sense of reward for a life well-lived, I have to assume that something else is the fate of those who lived a life not well-lived. ...

Maybe it could be as simple as ... that they have to then confront the enormity of the evil that they've done. I think there could be worse fates than that, but that's an important fate, too. Those who believe in reincarnation would maybe argue, maybe that's why we then have to go back and try and repair our souls. Or maybe people's punishment could be that they don't get another chance. You know, in other words, their soul can get extinguished.

On whether Jews are encouraged to connect with late loved ones

The Bible does not encourage that behavior. Now, interestingly, the Bible doesn't say it's fraudulent — it forbids it. ... We're not encouraged to try and do it. On the other hand, you do find that in the most traditional Jewish circles, people are encouraged to go to the graves of righteous people and to pray.

This is not characteristic of me, but when one of my children had to have an operation, I did go and pray at the grave of my father and grandfather, both of whom I regard as having been people on a very high ethical and spiritual level. And it somehow felt reassuring to me to do so. ... I somehow was hoping in some way to invoke their help, if it was within their capacity to do so. I suppose at my core, I do believe that.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we're hearing five people of different faiths talk about what they comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everybody now alive will die someday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We will retain an awareness beyond this life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Whatever the soul wishes for and desires, in paradise that will be there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There'll be no more suffering and tears.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We will finally learn to be reconciled with God and each other.

SIEGEL: Most Americans believe in the afterlife, and Joseph Telushkin is no exception. Telushkin is an Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively about Judaism, including his survey of the faith, "Jewish Literacy." Rabbi Telushkin says his belief in a just heaven, in the afterlife, flows from the persistence of injustice in this life.

RABBI JOSEPH TELUSHKIN: My belief in an afterlife is to a large extent also an outgrowth of my belief in God. It seems unlikely and inconceivable to me to believe that there is a God and there's not an afterlife, for the simple reason that in the absence of an afterlife, it would mean that Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate, of dying and actually having nothing. And it would be impossible for me to imagine that that could coexist with a God who's just.

So in order to believe in a God who's just, which I do believe in, there has to be some existence beyond this world. Because it's more than obvious that justice does not always prevail in this lifetime.

SIEGEL: So the injustice of our every day lives leads you to the conclusion that therefore there must another life after this.

TELUSHKIN: Right. Now interestingly, the first books of the Bible that are known as the Torah, do not really speak a lot about afterlife though it later on becomes a principle in Judaism to believe in an afterlife. And there's a lot of discussion as to why then the Bible - the Torah, the early books - don't talk about it. And Judaism is always very this-worldly oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world.

Jewish tradition said that there's an afterlife, it believes that there's an afterlife. But it doesn't really encourage a lot of speculation on what it's like. You know, for the simple reason, basically, those who know aren't talking, and those who are talking, I don't think they know.

SIEGEL: Does your belief extend to believing that your consciousness, your sense of your own brain and soul, is something that you might still have and still be in contact with after death?

TELUSHKIN: I know it sounds hard for people who are rationalists to believe it, but I do believe that. I do believe that we will retain an awareness beyond this life of things that transpire in this life.

SIEGEL: Do you think we connect up with our parents, our grandparents that there's a kind of communicating...

TELUSHKIN: I think if there's some sort of unfinished business, we well might. But I definitely feel that there will remain some cognizance of this world. I don't know if it goes on for a long period of time, but my sense is that the answer is yes.

SIEGEL: As you said, one of the reasons perhaps that Jewish tradition pay so little attention to the afterlife is that it might distract one from living a right life now, of making best use of this one.

TELUSHKIN: That's correct. I think it could distract people from making the best use of this. But there also, you want to have a sense of an awareness that there is some thing beyond this life. You know, the bottom-line, it's always going to be an issue of faith. We don't know.

I know studies have repeatedly shown that the large majority of Americans assume they're going to heaven.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

TELUSHKIN: And I would like to believe that most people do, as long as I know that there are some people who aren't. Because there are people who have done profoundly evil things and the worst is when they do bad things in God's name.

SIEGEL: Do you believe in different fates and that there is some afterlife condition that's a heaven and that there is a hell?

TELUSHKIN: You see, once we go into the issue of heaven and hell, you know, other than stating it in the general manner that I trust that God is just and I trust that there is some redress, and some sense of reward for a life well-lived, I have to assume that something else is the fate of those who lived a life not well-lived.

You know, maybe it could be as simple as, a friend of mine once put it, that they have to then confront the enormity of the evil that they've done. I think there could be worse fates than that, but that's an important fate, too. Those who believe in reincarnation would maybe argue, maybe that's why we then have to go back and try and repair our souls.

Or, you know, maybe people's punishment could be that they don't get another chance. You know, in other words, their soul can get extinguished.

SIEGEL: Is that actually a Jewish principle of reincarnation? I mean is it...

TELUSHKIN: It's a very interesting thing. In traditional Jewish, early Jewish sources, you don't find it. It normally becomes associated with mystical Jewish teachings, Kabala. One of the prayers Jews are supposed to make before they go to sleep at night is a prayer called the Sh'ma. The Sh'ma is sort of the credo statement of Judaism: Sh'ma Israel, hear O Israel. (Foreign language spoken), the Lord is our God. (Foreign language spoken), the Lord is one.

But one of the prayers that starts at night, you're supposed to say: I hereby forgive those who did this and this. The idea being, you're supposed to go to sleep forgiving people at night. And then there's a line in that prayer, which obviously indicates to have been a mystical prayer. It says: And those who have hurt me (foreign language spoken) whether in this carnation or in a previous incarnation.

SIEGEL: You don't believe in an intricate architecture of the afterlife, of chambers and circles and the like.

TELUSHKIN: No, I don't believe in that. You know, and historically, when - if you look at the depictions of heaven and hell and other things, they're usually a reflection of good and bad things - hell, in particular, of bad things that people could do to people. And I'm not interested in seeing that. Because, I think, for sort people who have vivid depictions of hell in their mind, often ended up making life hell for people down here.

You know, I believe again that God is an essentially loving God. You know, so that for me is the bottom-line issue, which is the sense of love and compassion for people and a belief, therefore, that we survive.

SIEGEL: Are Jews encouraged to try to connect with their late loved ones, to engage in seances...

TELUSHKIN: The Bible does not encourage that behavior. The bible doesn't - now, interestingly, the Bible doesn't say it's fraudulent, it forbids it. So there's really, you know, we're not encouraged to try and do it. On the other hand, you do find that in the most traditional Jewish circles, people are encouraged to go to the graves of righteous people and to pray. And the idea being, you could say, it's just a symbolic act.

This is not characteristic of me, but when one of my children had to have an operation, I did go and pray at the grave of my father and grandfather, both of whom I regard as having been people on a very high ethical and spiritual level. And it somehow felt reassuring to me to do so.

SIEGEL: Of course, one can say you were summoning the memory of people whose lives were exemplary. And that in itself has meaning and has substance.

TELUSHKIN: It does. But if I'm honest to what I was feeling is it was meaningful to me on a level that goes even beyond what you just said. I somehow was hoping in some way to invoke their help, if it was within their capacity to do so. I suppose at my core, I do believe that.

SIEGEL: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, thank you very much for talking with us.

TELUSHKIN: I am very grateful to have been given this opportunity.

SIEGEL: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of among many other books, "Jewish Literacy."

Tomorrow, a Catholic theologian tries to reconcile faith and reason in her thoughts about what comes next. You can offer your thoughts on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram. The hashtag is #nprafterlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.