In Jewish thought, I believe, we are granted two significant notions of afterlife. The first is “personal immortality” or the conventional notion of the individual in some form persisting in an existence after the body ceases to function. The second which I will explore here mostly is a kind of transmission of memories and values to future generations and considered somewhat metaphorical, but actually much more, is something I will call “created world immortality.” I believe, however, that “created world immortality,” is far more powerful than commonly believed which can be seen upon some probing. It is capable I believe of well-grounded emotional gratification that is justified by a certain kind of awareness that the Torah itself appears to urge.
The rabbis promoted both forms but only “created world immortality” can be clearly demonstrated while “personal immortality” relies upon faith or at best only suggested by some arguments. However although created world immortality is sometimes seen as purely metaphorical and thereby not providing the comfort we seek in an afterlife, it may be shown upon a closer look to be something significantly more and also capable of delivering some pillar of comfort. There are two central factors that may be seen to be at the core of identity in individuals, namely, memory and value. These factors however, are not static but rather dynamic realities that yield a universe of meaning. Moreover with regard to memory there is both a short term and long term version here, where the first deals with what is centrally cultural while the second what is more permanent or essentially eternal.
The Torah specifically deals with “created world immortality” disclosing its factors particularly in the story of Joseph. The saga of Joseph is a saga concerning the rediscovery of identity and embodies its central components: memory and value. It is significant that Joseph names his sons Manasseh (meaning God made me forget completely my hardship and parental home) and Ephraim (meaning God made me fertile in the land of my affliction). The first name “Manasseh” connotes forgetfulness which although alluding to the trauma he suffered by the jealous actions of his brothers also connotes his severe disconnect with the past in light of his subsequent assimilation into Egyptian culture. The second name “Ephraim” suggests moral values and God’s ultimate goodness.
We also witness elements of this forgetfulness in the narrative of Joseph’s imprisonment when the steward is asked to remember him upon being freed but then forgets him in the course of his elevation into his respectable Egyptian role. Later when Joseph reconnects with his earlier and true identity he achieves recollection stimulated through Judah’s undertakings in reminding him of lost forgotten vital contents of his past in relation to his father. The British philosopher John Locke over 4000 years later recognized that memory was essential to personal identity. The fact that one can recall facts or aspects of one’s life marks his/her identity. I can recall the days I spent in my youth in a particular environment which essentially contributes to my specific identity as Howard Zik. This may be confirmed empirically by checking locations, pictures as well as the reports of others.
Firstly, with regard to memory, there is a short term version and long term version with the short term dealing with what is immediately and more narrowly cultural while the long term with what is more permanent or essentially eternal. The short term can be related to family experiences involving one’s parents or grandparents and sometimes encompasses the tastes and smells conveyed through foods whose recipes are often preserved for future generations. Photos are invaluable and with the descriptions serve as a kind of spectator’s time machine triggering graphic recall. The matter of ancient memories utilizes some different vehicles in the form of story retellings which coupled with ritual provide an even wider memory access and identity is acquired. The experiences in synagogues conveyed during the high holidays and the exodus experiences related during Passover Seders deal with the long term and short term memories and establish this more extensive reach in identity. Interestingly taste is linked with the sense of smell and is triggered by the amygdala section of the brain which also deals with emotion and memories in the case of their short term version. Memories are also activated through structured forms such as religious services as well as study having a prominent role and providing social interaction. Often this may be kept fresh through introducing some new melodies or supported by techniques such as psychodrama in my own synagogue for parshat discussion The encouragement of introspection is a common factor that runs through all of these activities, and it is institutionalized and thereby strengthened through gatherings including holidays where we can both reminisce concerning existing memories as well provide enlivening dialogue as well as create new ones. It may be noted that physical continuity of the body as a requirement of identity does not entail the sameness that we first suspect. The factor of physical continuity of the body allows that cells are replaced as well as undergoing transformation in appearance which in the end bears little resemblance to the original. Further and revealingly energy which is not physical in any form represents a reality that shares a certain resemblance to the intangibles of values in our lives. In the personal form of immortality in Judaism resurrection and thereby body plays a role (whether it be the same or different body). Although this does not apply to created world immortality there is a role that applies to body here as well; this may be related to Neil Gilman’s extended sense of body in his development of the notion of afterlife and resurrection (may be found in his book Death of Death). However unlike Gilman’s notion there is no role for a messianic theme here. Values affect what happens in the physical universe but they cannot be directly observed; they are rather discerned through the impact they have on persons in the physical form which comprises a parallel with energy here. In like manner values have this indirect confirmation in that for example empathy may be confirmed by the preservation of life which is evident through physical continuity.
Moreover when one passes some value or values onto other persons it also is confirmed through physical observances. In this connection it becomes most central that the value links to a universal. It is this kind of connection between the particular and universal which has an eternal quality and provides a form of immortality that may be regarded as creative world immortality. The individual who receives this value also connects it with the particular person thereby providing an enhanced continuity which we identify with create world immortality. When we teach a child by example the value of empathy this happens Spinoza in this regard spoke of immortality residing in the Mind of God which this connection with the universal may be construed as implying. The Mind by its far reach into the future and its resulting eternal character ensures the immortal nature of this continuity. Further by acting upon these values and creating a physical model the groundwork is laid for further continuation. Here again the similarities with personal immortality appear so strong that they are within the threshold of speaking about a literal kind of immortality.
The question arises as to whether spirit or soul is needed for identity. In Kabbalistic thought such distinctions are made with three levels of the soul, namely, nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. The soul here almost becomes a form of body since it is imagined in some way as having a claim upon space. Moreover there is a closer connection to the physical reflected in ru-ach which is also synonymous with “wind.” as well as “neshamah” synonymous with “breath”. Nefesh is the lowest level which is a kind of elemental life force Ru-ach is a kind of spiritual level where there is some communion with God. Neshamah is the highest level of the soul. Gilman points out that immortality without a body is impossible since bodies are necessary for history, and without history there can be no immortality. The soul on his view also becomes a marker for value. Most central however in the pivotal point that without the body there can be no history hence in a basic sense the body is needed for any kind of immortality. The doctrine of resurrection, however, if taken literally leads to personal immortality without relinquishing the body. However Neil Gilman takes what we call created world immortality as basically metaphorical since he denies a literal resurrection. Body is used in an extended sense here and does not enter into an active role. The comfort we seek therefore falls short of achievement. However the memory and value do not require recourse to soul for comfort since these as John Locke points out both are needed for immortality in an identity sense.
There is one particular historical statement that movingly conveys the arc for enriched satisfaction that may be rooted in “created world immortality”. This is within the declaration by the great Rabbi Tarfon, the second century sage when he said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” In short he appears to be telling us we are obligated to leave our mark upon the generations. He is, moreover, reminding us “you are not obligated to complete it.” These wise words appear to generate sparks of “created world immortality” that are most inspiring.