Is Heaven for Real? by Rabbi Stephen Karol

One of the questions I am asked the most by Christians is whether or not Jews believe in Heaven and Hell. I tell them that Jewish tradition believes in life after death, but does not really use the words “heaven” and “hell” these days to describe places of reward and punishment. Instead, the phrase “The World-To-Come” (“Ha Olam HaBa”) in Hebrew is the one that appears most frequently. One of the questions I am asked most by Jews, too, is whether or not we believe in Heaven and Hell. When I give them the same answer that I give to Christians, the conversation doesn’t necessarily end there. There might be follow-up questions, like “so we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell?”, or “so what does it mean to be in the Olam HaBa?”, or “are my parents/my brother/my sister/my child aware of me here on Earth?”, or “will I be reunited in the World-To-Come with the people I love?” You shouldn’t be surprised that we Jews ask questions and want answers; I’m certainly not. And the way that those questions are asked gives me the feeling that those who are asking have hope that death is not the end, that the uncertainty about life after death will be replaced with certainty, and that they can have the faith that everything will be fine. But, if we only had proof, now that would be great!

According to a former New York Times #1 bestseller, called Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, there is proof, and it is good news for those who want to believe. Written by Todd Burpo – pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, wrestling coach for junior high school and high school students, member of the Chase County Public School Board, volunteer fireman for the town of Imperial, and owner of Overhead Door Specialists – the book was published in 2010. I found out about it at the time when I happened to be watching the Today Show, and Todd was on with his wife Sonja and their twelve-year-old son Colton.

At the age of four, Colton had to undergo emergency surgery and was clinically dead for three minutes. He survived, and gradually began revealing to his parents in a matter-of-fact way that he entered Heaven. He was able to look down and see the doctor operating on him, see and hear his father praying by himself in a waiting room, and hear his mother talking to someone on the phone. In addition, Colton’s parents suffered through a miscarriage the year before he was born after already having a daughter born several years before him. During one of his instances of recalling his experience in Heaven, he said that he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great-grandfather who had died thirty years before Colton was born, and then shared impossible-to-know details about each one of them. He saw Jesus riding on a horse and described the Son of God as being very nice and loving children, talked about having met God Who is really big with a really big chair to sit in, and how the Holy Spirit conveys power from Heaven to help us. He remembered people with wings and that his great-grandfather had really big wings and that Jesus wore a white robe with a blue sash. In addition, Colton related to his parents the message from God that there would be a big war on Earth and that the people who believed in Him and Jesus would be OK.  The fact that I found this book in a local bookstore in the Christian section under a sign marked “Christian reading for Easter” was not a surprise to me. This book clearly affirms Christian beliefs about the afterlife, God, Jesus, and Judgment Day.

But what does Judaism believe? And how can I answer that question, which is worth an entire course or at least an hour-long lesson in my Tenth Grade and Adult Confirmation classes, in just a few minutes?  I can answer it briefly. The Bible mentions Sheol, a place located beneath the Earth at the base of high mountains. It was thought to be dark and silent, the dead could not reach out to God, but there was no punishment connected with it. That belief existed for at least seven centuries, and when the Bible was canonized in the First Century C.E., rabbinic writings began to speak about the resurrection of the body and the soul. The Pharisees believed in resurrection and the Sadducees did not, and it was the Pharisaic doctrine that survived and thrived. Sheol was a vestige of the past, and new terminology came into being. The Olam HaBa was where and when the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished, although there was an extremely broad definition of who could be called “righteous.”

Gan Eden, or the Garden of Eden, also identified as Paradise, was set against Gehinnom, named after the valley in Jerusalem where the Canaanites sacrificed their first-born children within the earshot of our shocked ancestors. The term “techiyat hamaytim,” the resurrection of the dead, grew as a belief that the souls of the dead would be revived when the Messiah came. And what did those souls do until the arrival of the Messiah? In a book called The Wisdom of Solomon, it says: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish, they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.”[1]

And, that is what we would like to believe – that our family members and friends who have died are at peace. Growing up in a Reform congregation, I was not attuned to the traditional Jewish belief about the resurrection of the dead at some future time. In our version of the G’vurot prayer – as it is now in our prayer book Mishkan T’filah –we praise God Who gives life to everything, not Who resurrects the dead. I learned about the immortality of the soul, reflected in the ability of loved ones and friends to remember the person who died, in our realizing that he or she had bequeathed a moral legacy to us, and in our believing that they were with us in spirit when we celebrated happy occasions in our lives. If you think that such a Reform belief was beyond the normative Jewish beliefs, consider that the great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote: “In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies – like the ministering angels. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”[2]

I as a Jew would like to believe that the Olam HaBa is for real – that there are souls attaining knowledge, being close to God, feeling no pain, aware of what is happening on Earth, and communicating somehow with those who are living. Wouldn’t you like to believe the same? I am fascinated by this boy’s story and I find it interesting and somewhat refreshing that the book wasn’t written until seven years after his experience with death and Heaven. I cannot logically explain how he knew about his sister who died, or how he could describe his great-grandfather in such vivid detail to his parents, having never heard about his sister and having never seen a picture of his grandfather. I can’t figure it out any better than I can in regard to people saying that they had past lives. But I do know this: having hope about life after death doesn’t have to come from a just-right-for-Easter book in the Christian section of Barnes and Noble. That hope can come from the prayers of Yizkor, from the Shabbat prayers that we read when you are at your Temple to observe a yahrzeit, and from the prayers of the funeral and burial services of Judaism. They speak of good and love, hope and faith, compassion and peace, life and afterlife. Heaven is very real for Colton Burpo, his family, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have read the book. The Olam HaBa can be real for you, too, if you choose to believe.

Rabbi Stephen Karol
Rabbi Stephen Karol

Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.

 

[1] Sonsino and Syme, What Happens After I Die?, 40.

[2] Ibid., 41.

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Upcoming Gamliel Institute Courses

The next course scheduled for the Gamliel Institute is Course 3 – Chevrah Kadisha Education, Organization, and Leadership (EOL). It focuses on leadership, communal education, and organizational skills for creating and maintaining a Chevrah Kadisha. It will run September 3rd through December 17th 2019. Registration is $500. with a volume and clergy discount available.

 

Gamliel Continuing Education provides advanced programs in three 90 minute to 2 hour sessions on consecutive Wednesdays in the Spring and Fall each year. The next series will be September 4th, 11, and 18th, 2019, taught by Rabbi En Leader. The topic will be Taharah Liturgy. Tuition is $72.00.

 

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If you are interested in submitting a blog entry, please be in touch with us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or 304-989-4014. We welcome articles from 750 to 3000 words that relate to Jewish matters around living Jewishly, the end of life, dying, death, chevrah kadisha, Taharah, Shmirah, comforting the ill and mourners, and other related issues.

 

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About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.

SUBJECTS WE WILL COVER

Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.

 

We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.

KAVOD v’NICHUM

Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide (http://www.slingshotfund.org/overview/). Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/about-kavod-vnichum) offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (http://jewish-funerals.org/north-american-chevra-kadisha-and-jewish-cemetery-conferences).

THE GAMLIEL INSTITUTE

The Gamliel Institute (http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute) is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.

 

The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.

OUR AUTHORS

We have invited those who are involved in this sacred work to submit items for this blog. Among those who have joined us are some the officers, staff, and members of Kavod v’Nichum, Administrators, Instructors, and students in the Gamliel Institute, and others who wish to participate. We welcome original submissions by the author, but reserve the right to accept or reject, publish as is, edit, or modify the submission. The author retains the copyright to the work in regard to any other publishing of that material so long as they include a notice that the work originally appeared in the Kavod vNichum blog Expired and Inspired, but Kavod v’Nichum has full rights to reproduce and use with attribution any item that it publishes as part of this blog, for the purposes of instruction, inclusion and display on our website, or as part of training materials, newsletters, or other publications we produce and distribute.