Near-death experiences? Past-life regression? Reincarnation?
Are these sorts of things Jewish?
With a blend of candor, personal questioning, and sharp-eyed scholarship, Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz relates his own observations and the firsthand accounts shared with him by others, experiences that helped propel his journey from skeptic to believer that there is life after life.
From near-death experiences to reincarnation, past-life memory to the work of mediums, Rabbi Spitz explores what we are really able to know about the afterlife, and draws on Jewish texts to share that belief in these concepts—so often approached with reluctance—is in fact true to Jewish tradition.
“The increasing interest and faith in survival of the soul may grow into a cultural wave that is as potentially transformative for society as the civil rights movement and feminism. A renewed faith in ‘the soul’s journeys’ will call for a reassessment of our priorities, and will enable traditional religions to renew and transform their adherents.”
—from the Introduction
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About the Author
Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz is the author of Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World and Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives&Living with Purpose (both Jewish Lights). A spiritual leader and scholar specializing in topics of spirituality and Judaism, he teaches, writes, and speaks to a wide range of audiences. He has served as the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, California, for more than a decade and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Law and Standards.
Read an Excerpt
Telepathy: A Window on
the Soul's Survival
In my own life I have ignored many experiences that would have provided evidence for survival of the soul. Although I was raised to value an open mind, like many in my generation I was blind to the supernatural, which was defined as anything that could not be scientifically proven or seen. On most levels I was a predictable product of middle-class, Jewish-American values, with the most unusual aspect of my upbringing being that I was the child of Holocaust survivors.
Allow me to digress to share with you my roots, which offer greater context for my story. When I was six years old my father, a businessman, saw the chance to make a good real estate investment, which led my parents to raise their four children on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. My parents were from Czechoslovakia, and the family business revolved around wigs. My father was the son of the wig maker with whom my mother had apprenticed, making wigs for religious Jewish women, who by tradition cover their hair after getting married.
Although my parents had minimal formal education, they strongly encouraged each of us to excel in school. As they said, "No one can ever take an education away from you." In college in the 1970s I majored in psychology and Jewish philosophy, completing most of my studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although I had a strong inclination toward the rabbinate, I chose not to pursue that course because I felt too young and ambivalent about key religious beliefs. Instead I opted for lawschool at Boston University. My legal training furthered my ability to look at problems dispassionately and analytically. I practiced law in Boston for several years, first in the criminal sector and later as legal counsel for Brigham and Women's Hospital, part of the collective of Harvard teaching hospitals. The task of writing medical-legal protocols allowed me to pursue my philosophic interests.
After three years of practice I became very ill with encephalitis, which in the throes of the illness left me delirious. My recovery was slow, and I was unable to continue my work. I had always loved to travel and decided to explore some new countries while recuperating. I sold my possessions and traveled backpack-style for close to a year to Hawaii, French Polynesia, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. At the end of my trip I needed to decide whether to resume my career in law. My college roommate invited me to join him on a trip to Los Angeles, where he had scheduled several medical residency interviews. In Los Angeles I decided to visit the University of Judaism. The dean of the rabbinical school agreed to meet me, so I borrowed my friend's blazer and told him that I would be back in a half hour. When the half hour was up he knocked on the door because he needed his blazer back to proceed to his own appointment. I returned the coat and continued my meeting with the dean, who invited me to begin studies in the winter session and to apply to rabbinical school in the spring.
From the day I began I loved rabbinical school. My passion had always been toward understanding people and the world, along with a desire to express my strong attachment to the Jewish people. I studied eagerly and received a superb rabbinical school education at the University of Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. My course of study enabled me to adeptly read sacred Jewish texts, skillfully perform traditional rituals, and describe Jewish history, values, and philosophy. Yet, in the course of my studies I never heard a discussion on survival of the soul. I did learn about Jewish concepts of messiah, resurrection, and the world to come, but they were never brought down to the level of the real world. The concepts were presented as traditional theoretical constructs rather than as communal "maps" that describe reality.
In my work as a rabbi my concerns regarding the soul grew less abstract and more practical. I had to help people make decisions about shutting off ventilators and discontinuing dialysis. When people died I needed to offer solace and meaning. These dilemmas challenged me to contemplate the nature of life and death. At the outset my speculation remained largely legal and psychological, which matched my training. My first dramatic encounter with the paranormal shifted my attention to what happens after we die, a topic I had never really addressed in my years of education.
One Sunday morning, Ching-Lan, the wife of a congregant, called to tell me that her husband, Al, had died the previous day. I arranged to meet with her on Monday. They had been married nearly twenty-five years when he died of a chronic wasting illness. They had met when he worked for an athletic club and she was the beautiful, gentle rebel of a formerly aristocratic Chinese family, and had fallen in love and eloped. Now they had two nearly grown children.
Soon after Ching-Lan welcomed me to her apartment on Monday I encountered the first twist to this story when Ching-Lan shared the following experience:
Rabbi, something amazing occurred yesterday. I received a phone call from my son's former karate teacher with whom I had not spoken in about two years. He's an older Japanese man whom we call Sensei.
"Sensei," I said. "I was thinking of you because I wanted to let you know that Al died yesterday."
"That's precisely why I am calling," he replied. "During the night I awoke and I saw a lit figure in the corner of the room. It was Al. He seemed to indicate a concern for Kubbi [their son]. I reassured him that I would serve as a father figure for your son. And I want you to know that I will do so."
When she told me this story I listened respectfully, but I didn't know what to make of it. I had no mental category in which to place stories of the supernatural and instead proceeded to my "standard intake" to prepare for the eulogy. The family made only one request. Al suffered from a progressive kyphosis, a curvature of the spine. It gave him the appearance of a deformed, clumsy person. He said that when he returned in another life he hoped to come back as something more beautiful. He said he would like to return as a butterfly. His daughter asked that I conclude the eulogy with that image.
The second twist happened at graveside. Many congregants were present to support the bereaved widow, who was a much beloved part of the community and active as a volunteer at the synagogue. I was very fond of her, too. In the course of my eulogy I verbally slipped and called Ching-Lan "Lingchau" I had no clue where this Chineselike word had come from.
As soon as I pronounced the wrong name I realized my mistake. Although Ching-Lan just smiled, I was struck by the enormity of my error, calling a family member at graveside by the wrong name! I paused briefly to regain my focus and then concluded with how Al imagined himself returning as a butterfly. As I shared the image I noticed that many of the people were distracted, seemingly looking past me.
After the eulogy I immediately approached Ching-Lan and begged her forgiveness for having called her by the wrong name. "Don't worry," she said with a smile. "It's okay. That was Al's private pet name for me."
Twist three followed immediately after Ching-Lan's words. Congregants approached me and several remarked, "Rabbi, did you know that just as you were talking about Al wanting to become a butterfly, a white butterfly passed over your right shoulder and hovered there?"
These three incidents were not immediately transformative for me. Although they seemed dramatic, I still lacked a way to integrate them into my experience or even to acknowledge them. However, soon after I was drawn to consider the possibility of survival of the soul by an incident that occurred closer to home.
My wife, Linda, is a professor of neurology. Hers is a world of intellectual analysis and empirical data. By nature and training she is quite skeptical of supernatural phenomena. One Friday afternoon Linda was driving on a California freeway, merging into traffic. She was preoccupied with the mundane details of her day: picking up the kids from school, making final preparations for Shabbat, ticking off her shopping list, figuring out how to get all the errands and cooking done before Shabbat candlelighting, when all work must cease. In the midst of all these considerations and the resultant stress as another driver cut her off, she suddenly experienced the powerful sensation of her Uncle Shaika's presence.
The episode happened very fast. Linda felt as if her awareness was drawn to her Israeli uncle's presence in the upper right corner of her field of vision. She perceived her uncle somehow present, expressing his love for her. It was a riveting and unusual experience. Because Linda was running late to prepare for Shabbat, she did not have a chance to call Israel before sundown that Friday, so she called the next day as soon as Shabbat ended.
Her Aunt Sarah answered and said, "Linda, I am glad you are calling. Your Uncle Shaika died yesterday." When Linda asked when he died, she learned that it was almost the exact moment when she had experienced the powerful impression of his presence in the car. She had not spoken with her aunt or uncle in several weeks. Years before, when Linda was in college, she had spent a summer in Israel getting to know her Uncle Shaika. Ever since then, she regularly wrote to her aunt and uncle and visited them whenever she was in Israel. Uncle Shaika considered Linda as a daughter. When she told me the story, I thought back to Ching-Lan and to the surprising knowledge of Sensei that Al had died.
Prompted by Linda's experience, I began to recall similar stories people had shared with me as their rabbi, which I had failed to consider seriously. I was surprised by how many comparable experiences I had stashed away in my mental miscellaneous file, the place in which I put stories I did not know what to do with and that left me feeling uncomfortable. Viewed collectively, they suggested a pattern of "knowing," a demonstration of the power of telepathy, the ability of minds to communicate. As a rabbi I assume that people tell me these stories because they identify me with the realm of the spirit and seek an outlet of understanding when remarkable, mysterious experiences occur. The following are some of those stories:
A woman in her fifties working on her doctorate in a literary field called to make an appointment to discuss her studies. She is a serious student, a particularly organized woman who is self-described as very rational. In the course of our conversation she said, "Rabbi, I had an experience that I want to tell you about. One night I had a very vivid dream in which my brother, who died several years before, appeared to me and said that something important was going to happen. I was so startled by the intensity and vividness of the dream and the message that I awoke and sat on the edge of my bed. Soon the phone rang. It was my family thousands of miles of away. They told me that my father had just died of a sudden heart attack. Neither I nor they had any indication that he had even been sick."
Another woman, a principal of a neighboring Jewish school, attended a presentation on Jewish mourning given by a nationally acclaimed author at my synagogue. I mentioned to the author over lunch that I had become aware of the importance of the supernatural in and around death, a topic he had excluded from his book. The principal overheard me and said, "I have a great story to tell you in that regard. My husband and I were beginning to drive the hour and a half from Palm Springs to our home when my otherwise healthy husband suddenly felt a severe pain over his heart. The pain was so severe that I had to take over at the wheel. When we listened to the messages on the answering machine at home, we learned that his father had had a sudden heart attack at almost the precise moment that my husband had that pain."
A female physician told my wife that while in medical school her roommate awakened her one night at 3:00 A.M., saying, "You are shouting 'Daddy, Daddy' and something about drooping eyelids." The next day the roommate learned that her father had suddenly been hospitalized thousands of miles away with a severe muscle disease that affected his breathing and was difficult to diagnose. When she asked about his eyelids, which were indeed drooping, the doctors were able to make the diagnosis and save his life.
Years later, when this same man was in a coma, the daughter flew cross-country, repeating over and over to herself in her mind, "Dad, wait for me, I'm coming. Don't die." When she reached his hospital room he suddenly opened his eyes and awoke from the coma. He said, "I heard you say 'Wait for me, I'm coming. Don't die,' and I waited." Soon after, he died.
I had read similar stories of telepathy, particularly surrounding death, in Jewish sources. But I had previously relegated the phenomena to the exaggeration of folklore. The following tales are examples from the world of Hasidism (the Jewish folk piety movement begun in the early eighteenth century) of the telepathic awareness of a loved one's death.
On a day of the Festival of Simchat Torah [when the annual cycle of reading from the Five Books of Moses begins anew], the Ropshitzer [Rabbi Naftali Zevi, Galicia, 1760-1827] stood at the window, and saw how the Hasidim celebrated and danced in the courtyard. He was in an exalted mood and his countenance was illumined with great joy. Suddenly he moved his hand as a signal that they should cease. They saw that his face had become pale and they were stricken with great fright. Gradually he recovered himself and cried out with great enthusiasm: "And, if a commanding officer of the army falls, is the battle broken off? Friends, continue your dance."
At that very moment his friend, Rabbi Abraham, had breathed forth his soul in Ulanov.
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz [Ukraine, 1726-1791] passed away suddenly while in Spitovka on a journey to the Holy Land. On the same day, the 10th of Elul 5551 , Rabbi Jacob Samson of Spitovka, who already resided in the Holy Land, saw a vision: The Shekhina, God's Majesty, appeared to him in the form of a woman in lamentation; he perceived that her lamentation was for a friend of her youth who had died. Thereupon he awoke and cried with grief: "Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz has died!"
He was asked how he knew this.
"Outside of him," he replied, "there exists in this day no tzaddik [saintly person] for whom the Shekhina would lament." He stood up, made the rent in his garment according to tradition as a sign of his grief, and spoke the blessing of God's righteousness. For many days he mourned his passing.
After a long time the news came to the Holy Land: Rabbi Pinchas is no more.
Since my transformation from skeptic to believer I have learned how many people have similar tales. You don't need to be a rabbinic master, I learned, to mysteriously perceive a friend's death many miles away. Most people, on a less dramatic level, have experienced thinking about an old friend only to have that friend call, send a letter, or arrive in town. Our minds are potential receptors for information in ways we can't always analytically explain. A German-Jewish psychiatrist told me that although he remained unsure about survival of the soul, he was convinced of the human capacity for telepathic communication. He could consistently think of a song, he said, which his wife would then spontaneously begin to sing, or he and his wife could intuit what the other was thinking.
An awareness of telepathic communication may also have a great influence on a person's life. The following is a story of Hans Berger, the discoverer of the electroencephalogram (the EEG):
As a nineteen-year-old [German] student, I had a serious accident during a military exercise near Wurzburg and barely escaped certain death. Riding on the narrow edge of a steep ravine through which a road led, I fell with my rearing and tumbling horse down into the path of a mounted battery and came to lie almost beneath the wheel of one of the guns. The latter, pulled by six horses, came to a stop just in time and I escaped, having suffered no more than fright. This accident happened in the morning hours of a beautiful spring day. In the evening of the same day, I received a telegram from my father who enquired about my well-being. It was the first and only time in my life that I received such a query. My oldest sister, to whom I had always been particularly close, had occasioned this telegraphic enquiry, because she had suddenly told my parents that she knew with certainty that I had suffered an accident. My family lived in Cologne at the time. This is a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger, and as I contemplated certain death, I transmitted my thoughts, while my sister, who was particularly close to me, acted as the receiver.
The experience so deeply affected Berger that he left his study of astronomy to devote his life to inquiry of the mind's relationship to the physical world. His achievement, the invention of the electroencephalogram, endures as a key tool in the exploration and diagnosis of brain activity.
Not all stories of soul survival demonstrate telepathy or are to be taken at face value. Hope and expectation may explain many cases in which a widow, widower, or loved one believes that he or she has seen an apparition or has received a message. There is the possibility of coincidence, too. Yet, among the large number of telepathic stories there is a consistent pattern of love, death, and knowledge that transcends the five senses. The apparent ability of a person who has died or is dying to send a message demonstrates that there are means of communication that we cannot explain scientifically. Moreover, telepathy makes more plausible the existence of a part of usa soulthat transcends our physical body and survives death.
My curiosity about survival of the soul was reinforced by a near-death experience account I recalled having heard toward the beginning of my rabbinate. In 1989 an out-of-town visitor to my synagogue approached me on a Friday night after services. "Rabbi," he said. "Do you have a moment? I'd like to tell you of something that changed my life." We moved to a corner away from other people so we could speak privately. He related the following incident:
A few years ago I was in a very serious car accident. My car was totaled, and I was lying unconscious on the side of the road. It was as if I was no longer in my body. I looked down and could see myself bleeding. Paramedics gathered around me, and I was drawn toward a light along with a feeling of great calm. At a certain point I was given a choice to return to my body and did so. All of a sudden I became aware of my bodily pain, but my life was changed. Somehow in that moment I both lost the fear of death and began to appreciate that each day is a gift.
The visitor told me his story a few years before Linda's experience with telepathy; as such it was toward the bottom of my mental miscellaneous file. In the months leading up to my 1996 Rosh Hashanah sermon, as my curiosity grew about survival of the soul, I asked myself: How do these kinds of telepathic communications occur? In what sense is the ability of a person to communicate upon death related to survival of the soul? These stories and questions drew me deeper into the literature of near-death experiences.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Brian L. Weiss, M.D. Acknowledgments Introduction Telepathy: A Window on the Soul's Survival Near-Death Experiences (NDEs): The Literature What Is Soul? Survival of the Soul: Judaism's Views What Happens After I Die? Traditional Judaism on Resurrection of the Dead Past-Life Regression: An Introduction Training with Dr. Brian Weiss Reincarnation: Judaism’s Views Tales of Reincarnation: The Role of the Rebbe Mediums: Judaism’s Position Psychic Gifts of a Medium: James Van Praagh Weighing the Evidence Discrepancies in Afterlife and Reincarnation Accounts The Impact of Affirming the Soul’s Survival Cultivating the Soul Conclusion: Live Now Gratefully and Responsibly Appendix: Torah and Immortality of the Soul: A Hot Debate Notes Glossary Selected Bibliography Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Oh, dear God, that was fantabulous.
Rabbi Elie Spitz is truely a scholar. He made the subject interesting and an enjoyable read.This text is user friendly for both the common reader and the scholar alike. A true treasure to read. He has taken the time honored tradition of Judaism to search all of Jewish teaching and learning. His analytical research into jewish sources with in Torah, Talmud, Zohar and other Jewish texts and traditions is clear and coherent. His practicum research into the subject and modern source was impeccible. There is no doubt that this book was well researched and the subject matter and conclusion fall within Jewish theology and philosophy. Rabbi Spitz' book could easily be considered rabbinic treatise. It is one of the of the greatest works in American Jewry and definatly a text with halachic authority.
What Rabbi Spitz has done is to write a book in which he is not only our teacher and guide; he is also a friend and fellow traveler on the way. Moreover he has written from a place of authenticity and integrity in that the story he tells us is ultimately his story. Rabbi Spitz, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a lover of the Jewish people, a compassionate pastor and a dedicated teacher. Two forces moved him to re-explore issues of immortality, afterlife, and contact with the dead. The first was a meeting with non-Jewish sources that Elie understood as a calling to re-encounter Jewish texts, too. The second was a deep listening to the needs and stories of his congregants. Listening to their stories and hearing their needs, Rabbi Spitz is moved to engage a new Jewish theology not merely as an individual seeker but as the representative and leader of his community. Once he sets himself to his task Rabbi Spitz proceeds with grace, sensitivity, courage and scholarship. Since his goal is to address the intelligent skeptic and to effectively dent the dogmas of materialism that subtly under gird the world view of so many Westerners, he begins by sharing with his reader his own uncertainty, an act of courage to be sure. He then guides the reader through the meetings and encounters that opened his heart and mind to new possibilities and in doing so invites the reader to open along with him. Importantly he understands that without providing an intensive perusal of the relevant texts his guidance would be sensitive yet profoundly lacking. He thus proceeds to share with the reader much of the wisdom and nuance of the tradition as he unfolds key aspects of the Jewish and particularly Kabbalistic reality maps as they related to issues of afterlife, reincarnation and the like. Indeed many thousands of seekers have found the wisdom and gentle guidance of Reb Elie¿s book to be both challenging and ultimately transformative. This reviewer can only conclude with two prayers. One, that we learn to engage in sacred conversation with passion and even sharp disagreement but without triumphalism and virulence. And that contemporary skeptic teachers like Reb Elie continue to serve as a model for the willingness to explore and redraw old reality maps, particularly when those maps no longer quench the deepest yearnings of the soul