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In That Sleep of Death

Rabbi Elie Spitz Talks About His Investigation of the Afterlife

November 04, 2000

Seven years ago, Rabbi Elie Spitz conducted a funeral service for a respected member of his Tustin-based Congregation B'Nai Israel. During the eulogy, the rabbi called the deceased man's wife, Ching-Lan, by the wrong name.

He called her "Lingchau," and couldn't figure out where the Chinese-like word had come from. Embarrassed, he went up to her after the service to apologize. "Don't worry," she said. "It's OK. That was my Al's private pet name for me."

Being a rabbi, Spitz has seen a lot of death and, along with it, a lot of strange coincidences. He's had congregants tell him about out-of-body experiences, telepathic communication sparked by near-death traumas, and visions of loved ones at the moment of their death, despite being half a world away.

Spitz called them Twilight Zone stories, and he kept hearing more and more of them. So the soft-spoken rabbi decided to investigate this business about a soul.

He began by researching Hebrew Scripture, the Talmud, and Jewish mystical writings for evidence on the soul. He pored over university studies on near-death experiences. He also contacted experts in past-life regression and in communicating with the dead.

The result of his seven-year search is his first book, "Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives and Living With Purpose" (Jewish Lights Publishing). Spitz writes that the work is a "personal memoir of how I have moved from skeptic to believer in the reality of the soul."

Times staff writer William Lobdell talked with Spitz about what he found.

Is life after death a relatively untouched topic of discussion within Judaism?

Survival of the soul was not discussed in an earlier generation. It was seen as supernatural, not that people denied it. They just didn't go there, at least not in polite company, which included the pulpit.

Why does it matter for us today if our soul survives?

It means that how we live matters in terms of accountability, in terms of purposefulness if there's a longer trajectory of our lives. [I believe] that indeed when the soul does survive, there's a judgment of our lives. And the quality of the experience after this life for our soul is shaped by how we cultivated our soul in this life.

Talk about why you believe in a judgment.

I believe in a judgment for the soul based largely on near-death experience accounts, and there's vast literature in that regard. The image of judgment is also present in Rabbinic writings from the 1st century of the common era in the Talmud into the medieval period in the mystical writings.

What's the point of judgment?

There I rely more on Jewish tradition. If the soul is judged poorly, the implication is that the person is further from God's presence. The soul life--the longer life--is enfeebled. There's no greater torment than inner psychological torment, so my sense is that's the price one pays. But Jewish tradition also teaches that, even in the other world, there are processes of purification in which one can let go and redeem one's sinfulness.

You also believe in reincarnation.

Reincarnation is a possibility of what happens with the soul. That's a category I didn't learn much about as a Jew growing up. So I went back to Jewish literature, mystical writing in particular. And there it's mainstream that we come back when we have fallen short in order to repair our souls. This life is the crucible in which we fashion and elevate ourselves. And when we fall short, we come back and do it again.

Why doesn't Hebrew Scripture better spell out what happens after death?

Hebrew Scripture is reticent, almost appears to be silent, on what happens after we die. I'd surmise it's because the goal of Scripture is to craft a community of faith in this world, and that's its emphasis. Therefore there are many important topics that aren't dealt with simply because they were assumed. Another possibility, at least in the five books of Moses: People were emerging from the Egyptian culture where death and the afterlife were glorified. Almost in reaction to that, death gets minimized in the Bible.

Are there any clues there?

To a careful reader, there are small windows into survival of the soul. The clearest window is a recurring phrase that occurs 10 times in the five books of Moses. In describing key biblical personalities, it says: He died, he was gathered to his father and he was buried. Contemporary biblical scholars, coupled with medieval Jewish commentators, agree that the phrase "gather to his father" means that part of them, that thing we call soul, survives the physical plane. It's there [in the Bible], but it's in the back of the showcase.

How far out on a limb are you going with this book?

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