Wisdom wherever you find it
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Can you look in the eyes of someone you love and think that’s all synapse and no soul? David Wolpe
In the debate between those who believe in an afterlife and those who do not, there are so many unresolvable variables that any conversation more resembles a Middle Eastern market than a courtroom drama. For those who affirm, the questions range from the very practical (e.g., how old will I be?) to the philosophical (e.g., will I answer for my misdeeds?). For those who deny, the questions still demand tremendous gradations (e.g., why be moral in this life?) and complicated definitions (e.g., when exactly does life begin and end?). As you read this, you are already thinking of many other questions and deciding what is false about other people’s answers.
In the European Jewish tradition, memorial services for, as they say, “beloved departed” are held four times a year in synagogue. It is usual in most synagogues for the rabbi to deliver some kind of message, sermonic or otherwise, on the value of remembering and the disposition of the force that animated the dead in their lifetime. The very long history of Judaism has always affirmed life after death. It begins with the very first death recorded in the Bible (see Cain and Abel: the blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground) and diversifies into metaphor and literalness as human speculation considered an increasing number of possibilities. Those rabbinic messages vary along the continuum of scholarly to speculative, but most of them, in my humble opinion, address the wrong question.
I think that what we wonder is not about life after death. Of course there is life after death. Nothing in our physical universe evaporates into non-existence. The stardust from which we were formed came from somewhere, whether the Big Bang or what was gathered from the four corners of the earth. And though no longer combined and energized into human form, every quark of us will remain unfrustrated by its time in our bodies. I cannot represent with such certainty the entity of life-force that I and others call the soul, but I cannot imagine the universe had made a solitary exception for it. And how much the more so if I am willing to attribute all of this to God.
So stop wondering about life after death. In tiny pieces, you are immortal. What we wonder about is consciousness after death. Will I know I am me? Will others, by whatever means, recognize me, and I them? Will the feelings and inspirations, be they love or disdain, positive or cautionary, we who walk the earth insist survive death continue to be perceptible once we have succumbed to our end?
Ah, that’s where speculation, be it theological or scientific, is nothing more than opinion. If the thoughts and emotions we generate have the same permanence as our atomic particles, then we do not get to choose which survive. It is ego that insists that self-awareness generated in my lifetime has the power to override the universe(s).
Rabbi David Wolpe is a friend and a teacher, and he is smarter than I am in almost every way. If I am going to be honest, then I have to accept his challenge and give an answer to his question, posed to his congregation at the sacred moment of that memorial service on the holiest day of the year for Jews. My answer is no, I cannot look in the eyes of someone I love – or even someone about whom I am essentially indifferent – and think it is all synapse and no soul. While there is no part of anyone that is unique, there are no two people who combine those common elements in the same way. I will call that uniqueness the soul, and it is more than the sum of electrical sparks in a human machine.
That’s why atheists prefer a favorite flavor of ice cream, root for different teams and fall in love.
But I am not an atheist. And all of my life I have desired to return to the source of my life. The collective wisdom of our tradition is summed up in this claim: God is one. “One” in every sense. “One” as in only. “One” as in primary. “One” as in everything. Every thing, every place, every atom, every song, every word, every life. It is all one. And, really, that’s all I want -- to be one with…the One. That’s the promise of eternal life. We will no longer be separate from the One. We will be one with the One.
In the end, we relinquish what separates us from God, and we are whole with the Everything of the universe. Consciousness, self-awareness, makes me separate. Death removes that barrier.
My conclusion might have made me profoundly sad at one time, but now it inspires me. With the limited time I enjoy my unique consciousness in the world, I can experience something that was and will be unavailable to me. It is my contribution to others; it is my contribution to the One. That’s more than synapses.
Rabbi Jack Moline spent 40 years in the pulpit, another 7 at an interfaith non-profit, and all of them gleaning wisdom where he found it.