Part 1: I Botched Yom Kippur
I’d intended to go to synagogue the evening of Yom Kippur. Really. I knew exactly where I was going and even planned to get there early so I could snag one of the seats I like, in a spot where I could see the stage despite my compromised height. Though I don’t belong to a synagogue, Harvard Hillel offers services right near my home, and I have an ID that gets me in. Often, I attend their Reform services, since I greatly prefer to hear a lot of English, and to be guided through the service. I like to understand every word of what’s going on. I don’t get much from sitting in an audience and dredging up my very rusty Hebrew decoding skills to read words that, for the most part, have little meaning to me. Conversation and communication drive everything for me. I want the ideas at hand to touch me without much barrier.
Friday afternoon before Yom Kippur, I was dealing with a pressing issue. I’ll be honest: it involved things, not people. Two computers, to be exact. But when you’re me and you spend half your life writing and completing projects on computers (not to mention hanging around on Facebook) these particular things begin to take on epic significance.
Once, many years ago, when I was moving on to a new computer, I felt that the old one had a soul, and would miss working with me. I intuited a sad energy coming from it, put my hand on it, and felt compelled to close my eyes and soak in the emotion. Crazy-sounding, I know. But it should offer a sense for why this situation with my current computers was serious business: why I was trying to handle it all as the hour of Yom Kippur, arguably Judaism’s most important holiday, drew near.
When I ended my phone call about the computers, Kol Nidre, the Yom Kippur evening service, was about to start at the place where I’d planned to go, and I was at home. I hadn’t eaten anything since a big lunch hours earlier. I ate a little bag of matzah crackers with cinnamon and sugar, and then Yom Kippur was upon me. I could have raced over to Harvard Yard and caught most of the service, but I felt like it just wasn’t meant to be.
I’ve never enjoyed getting places late: I often feel stressed and confused throughout the whole event when I don’t arrive on time. I’m stressed and confused enough as is; it feels like the whole human world was built for beings with radically different minds from mine. I figure at least I can get places on time, and, if I can’t, I usually avoid the trouble entirely and stay away.
Still, it was odd that I didn’t make an exception here. Someone could have told me what page we were on, and then I would have been all set. I realized this, and yet… I felt a strange inertia. I just didn’t want to take the 10-minute walk to the service.
Part 2: Miracle From A Short Hills, NJ Synagogue
Earlier that day, I’d caught an online discussion about synagogues that livestream their Yom Kippur services. One of the places mentioned is led by rabbis who write for The Wisdom Daily: this very publication. That synagogue was my first choice since I was curious about my fellow contributors, but they weren’t starting for quite a while. I livestreamed another service, from the Chicago area, and really enjoyed the experience. I almost felt like a spy, sneaking in on a whole different world where I’d never have “real life” access.
After seeing one entire service, including an inspiring sermon exhorting congregants to find a strategy to improve their world in a concrete way, you’d think I’d be done with Kol Nidre for the night. I don’t normally love formal religious services: I’m the type who keeps glancing at my watch, looking forward to my escape.
But somehow, when the first service ended, I decided to see if my original choice, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ — not far from my parents’ home in West Orange — was still going strong with their own service. They were. I sat back and watched: extremely strange for me since the basics were the same as the first service, and my usual self would be clamoring to take a walk or do something different, anything other than watching yet another Kol Nidre service. Yom Kippur services are solemn affairs reminding audience members of their sins and mistakes… and of various horrific possibilities that might befall them in the coming year. It’s not the sort of situation where I of all people would tend to seek seconds. But I did just that, spurred by intuitive desire.
I just wanted to. I felt drawn to it, like I was meant to experience it. And we’re talking about watching a synagogue service from my laptop, so, in theory, this was kind of irrational. How special could it be?
Eventually, I witnessed what some might call a minor miracle. Or even a major one. At the very least, I was fascinated, as were several friends and family members who don’t normally think in terms of mystical coincidences.
Both congregations whose services I watched are Reform: the most liberal of the major Jewish denominations. I’m guessing very few non-Reform synagogues could get behind using the kind of electronics involved with livestreaming: that would be banned on this holy, restriction-filled day in more traditional circles. Much as I love Reform Judaism’s flexibility with Jewish law, it often seems to go along with a highly rationalistic, non-spiritual approach to life.
What do I mean by non-spiritual? Many clearly would contest my word choice here. So I’ll explain and be blunt: until this past Yom Kippur, I’d never seen a Reform service where the rabbi discussed the soul as an entity separate from the body: one that could and would survive after death and move on to new experiences and adventures. So… I’m using “spiritual” in the sense of the spirit: the soul as something separate from the body.
The Reform rabbis I’ve known have tended to downplay or even scoff at this notion of soul. Years ago, when I was with my parents at their Reform congregation in Westfield, NJ, the rabbi’s Kol Nidre service was about death, and he talked about the peace of knowing that people would remember you after you die. No soul, no continuation of consciousness for the deceased person. That wasn’t even mentioned: it just wasn’t in the realm. Conscious personality was only for the living. When I’d discussed the issue with another rabbi there, around the time of my Bat Mitzvah, he’d actually laughed at my question of what would happen to my consciousness after I died. “Don’t worry: you’ll get sick of your consciousness eventually,” he’d said.
And… years of exploring all kinds of synagogues of various stripes had suggested to me that most Jews were not interested in exploring the possibility of consciousness after death in a Jewish context. When I’d bring the topic up over rainbow cookies at the oneg Shabbat after services, people would look at me with weird expressions. “I don’t think Judaism really talks about an afterlife,” so many people would say. It’s not true: more mystical strains of Judaism explore the question intensively, and eventual resurrection of the dead is actually considered a fundamental principle of Orthodox Jewish faith. (Whether any particular practicing Orthodox Jew actually believes it will happen is another question entirely. In my experience, many don’t, though of course many others do… and, in typical Jewish fashion, many aren’t sure.)
Certainly in non-Orthodox Jewish circles (and only about 10% of American Jews are Orthodox), the question of afterlife is sidelined at best, and often outwardly scorned. When I’ve tried to bring the issue into class discussions in various Jewish communities, most have seemed uninterested in pursuing it… including the instructor, who will often kind of gloss over my question and return to something more concrete and tangible.
So, needless to say, I was not expecting the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform synagogue in the highly affluent enclave of Short Hills, NJ, to focus his Kol Nidre sermon on the soul and the afterlife: issues that have driven my life and work for many years, in a passionate quest for answers. But that’s just what happened. And this atypical audience member tuning in from a small apartment in Cambridge, MA was thrilled. And amazed. And even spiritually charged, both from the content of the talk, and from the seeming synchronicity.
Hearing a sermon from this particular synagogue would not ordinarily have been in the realm of possibility, let alone likelihood. I live in a different state and know no one who belongs there. I have never livestreamed a high holiday service before. In the past, I’d planned ahead and made time to eat something substantial before Yom Kippur set in, so I’d be prepared to fast if I wanted to (fasting is a central feature of Yom Kippur)… and still had plenty of time to make my way to services. The odds that I’d be sitting in my Cambridge, MA living room watching Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz give a sermon from Short Hills, NJ on Yom Kippur evening, 2017, were virtually nil. Yet there I was, and there he was, and I heard every word.
I didn’t take notes on the sermon. It all happened too fast and unexpectedly for that… and, anyhow, I wanted to enjoy what I was hearing, and assimilate it into my overall mood and thought process. So… I can’t give a complete recap of the talk. I can share some of the highlights I remember. The rabbi told a few powerful stories involving deceased people he had been close to. The first was a very good friend of his, who had been active in B’nai Jeshurun and knew many of the people in the audience. At one point, not long after this man had died, Rabbi Gewirtz saw his face in the sky. This close friend was talking to the rabbi in a very upbeat tone, telling him he was doing well in his new afterlife state. He said he knew his death was very hard on his friends and family, but he wanted them to know that he was OK. His playful personality came through, and Rabbi Gewirtz felt sure that this particular friend was, in fact, speaking with him, busting through the barrier that seems to separate the living and the deceased.
At another point, the rabbi felt his deceased father’s presence while watching Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. His father had loved Broadway shows and had taken his family to see them regularly when Rabbi Gewirtz was growing up. Though his father’s financial situation fluctuated, he always made sure to apportion enough for these shows, because they felt key to his personal essence.
His father is now deceased, but Rabbi Gewirtz still enjoys these shows, and recently brought his family and his colleague Rabbi Karen Perolman (the other rabbi from that synagogue who writes for The Wisdom Daily) to see Hello, Dolly! At the end of the show, Rabbi Gewirtz started clapping very enthusiastically: the whole production had captivated and thrilled him. His daughter was looking at him, and he realized she was seeing him the same way he had seen his own father when the older Gewirtz would clap with joyful enthusiasm after a performance he’d loved.
And then he realized something else: that he felt his father’s spirit, his soul, his self. Right there in the midst of his family and colleague at the show. Others in his group sensed him too. It seemed obvious, and he believed it easily. His father, like his friend, was still around; they maintained personalities that survived their deaths. Or at least that was Rabbi Gewirtz’s clear takeaway from these experiences.
This was a sermon on what is arguably the holiest night in the Jewish calendar, so you might expect the rabbi to relate these experiences to Judaism. And he did just that. He mentioned that many Jews, particularly Reform Jews, do not think Judaism supports any interest or belief in an afterlife or a soul that survives the body’s death. He brought up the classic Reform Jewish stance: that people live on in the minds of those who remember them, but their souls/spirits/consciousness do not survive their bodies’ death.
But he didn’t leave it there. He also discussed some other crucial strains of thought within the Jewish tradition. One is that, after the body’s death, the soul separates from it and continues to exist in a disembodied state, free of its former bodily casing. Another involves reincarnation: that souls might end a journey in one body and then enter another at the very beginning of that new life. Yet another take (the classic belief among traditional Orthodox Jews) is that, one day, resurrection of our bodies will happen, including immortality with our souls and bodies reuniting.
Though Rabbi Gewirtz didn’t mention this, these different notions are not mutually exclusive. Some Orthodox Jews believe that resurrection will happen, and then, after a super-long life in the resurrected body, death will happen again, and the soul will continue to exist in its final, disembodied state. Some believe in reincarnation and also in resurrection, claiming that each body your soul has inhabited will return to life, along with its soul. Each life experience hones a different personality, so, even if your soul has animated more than one body, each body will present a somewhat different personality. Also, sometimes only parts of a previous soul are reincarnated, creating a personality that is intimately linked to but not the same as the previous soul. All of these various bodies will come back, with their associated souls. There are many combinations and permutations of these different concepts, and a sincere Jew might accept all kinds of variations on these general themes.
Sadly, my vantage point in Cambridge, MA did not allow me to gauge reactions among the audience members in Short Hills. I’m guessing the congregation includes many highly successful, well-organized, feet-on-the ground sorts whose focus is squarely on the practical concerns of this life, but, for all I know, I’m completely off-base. The rabbi’s approach at this point did suggest that he wasn’t sure whether his sermon would resonate easily with the congregation. And he wanted to push them to think, and maybe reconsider.
From what I remember, he left the podium and began walking in the midst of the audience. He kept asking them: Were they open? Were they willing to consider the possibility that the soul exists, and that immortality is a reality? If they’d had experiences along these lines, could they see themselves sharing them like he did, even if other people might think they’re crazy? He told them that he believes in the soul. Clearly, he was wondering whether they might say the same… or whether they might at least entertain the possibility.
I’d love to know how congregants reacted afterwards. Maybe Rabbi Gewirtz was showered with notes from people telling him that they, too, believe that humans are endowed with immortal souls, and they were so happy he paved the way for them to share this with him. Maybe some wanted to meet with him so they could tell him their own tales of communing with deceased friends and relatives. Maybe some are like me — unsure what they believe but with a deep-seated desire for proof that the soul is immortal — and the rabbi’s sermon gave them hope. Then again, maybe some were angry that he’d bring up such bizarre ideas in a setting filled with Reform Jewish CEOs, physicians, corporate attorneys, ultra-efficient homemakers, and other practical souls who want their Judaism squarely focused on this reality, this life, the real-world questions that feel relevant to them as they go about their days.
Perhaps he received all of these reactions: this is a large congregation which surely includes many different preferences and personalities. It’s also quite possible that few cared very much one way or the other. The rabbi was friendly, well-spoken, and pleasant to watch, and, beyond that, maybe the overwhelming majority aren’t so concerned with specifics. I’ll probably never know the details, but I’d love to. How might real people who aren’t expecting to hear about anything remotely related to this topic respond to this kind of sermon?
Rabbi Gewirtz picked one of the most heavily attended services of the year to share these ideas: he didn’t save them for a small, select group. He went big; he must have felt that these were essential tidings to spread, relevant to everyone. Anyone who knows me at all realizes that I agree with heart and gusto. This is it; this is the ultimate. One day, it will be the only key to any kind of future. Life only lasts so long, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, how much or how well you’ve loved, or who you’ve touched. This life is profoundly important, but the question of what comes next is essential and should not be shunted aside.
Everyone in that synagogue on that Yom Kippur evening has been — or will be — touched by death in some deep way at some point throughout their lives. The service they were immersed in reminded them of that in very stark ways. To me, a message from their rabbi that death may well not bring the end of awareness was the best possible thing that could have come out of that service. But, of course, I am unusual. Most people don’t think very much about death until it jumps in front of them, poking them in the eye or dragging them to the ground. A religious service wouldn’t quite do it: it would have to be a real-life event.
Of course, anyone who follows the news is well aware that real-life events threatening death are constant. Even if you can banish the possibility of illness from your mind, disasters of nature and human anger seem widespread and unrelenting. Most focus on relevant this-worldly issues: helping survivors, figuring out why problems happened, etc. But the underlying theme of death always lurks. Will these times push some to wonder what might happen next?
Part 3: A Similar Rabbi And His Sermon
Though I don’t know how the B’nai Jeshurun congregants reacted to Rabbi Gewirtz’s talk, I’ve read an account of a very similar experience in Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz’s book Does The Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose. One Rosh Hashanah many years ago, Rabbi Spitz delivered a sermon he called “Survival of the Soul” to his Orange County, California congregants: a group he described as being “mostly conventional professionals.” He was terrified, but he felt compelled to do it.
Spitz is a Conservative rabbi. Conservative Judaism is much more focused on Jewish law and ritual than Reform, though much more relaxed along these lines than Orthodoxy. In my experience, members of Conservative congregations are no more likely than Reform congregants to focus on questions of the soul. They might choose a Conservative synagogue because they enjoy a service with more Hebrew than Reform services offer. Some (though far from all) Conservative congregants observe key aspects of Jewish law to a degree: they’re considerably more likely to do this than Reform congregants. But this doesn’t seem to equate with boosted interest in questions of the soul or the afterlife in most cases I’ve seen. Most people I’ve known who are active in Conservative congregations are practical, this-worldly sorts whose religious practice stems largely from family tradition or an aesthetic enjoyment of ritual.
But maybe their interests would expand if the right situation gave them a chance to explore deeper questions. Despite Rabbi Spitz’s fear that his congregants would hate his sermon, he delivered it on the key holiday of Rosh Hashanah, when he surely had a packed room full of listeners. And many of them loved it. When he finished, a group gathered around the podium to tell him how much it meant to them.
It may seem ironic that a sermon on the immortal soul would be so unexpected at a crucial religious service, but Jews beyond certain small pockets with specific interest in mysticism tend to shy away from these questions. A key anecdote along these lines: shortly before delivering his sermon to his congregants, Rabbi Spitz shared similar ideas with a diverse group of rabbis, and an Orthodox rabbi told him that he had never before heard rabbis discuss the supernatural in a public way. In theory, this would astound me. How could Orthodox rabbis not discuss the supernatural in public? What other topic could possibly be more important? In practice, I know how it goes. Despite Judaism’s rich mystical tradition, relatively few Jews focus on these questions… and most have no idea that Judaism has anything substantial to say about them.
Part 4: Concluding Thoughts And Possible Lessons
As I think back over my experience this past Yom Kippur evening, I realize that my lucking into that sermon fits within some larger life themes I’ve been considering. It was completely unplanned. In fact, it only happened because I goofed with the plans I did have. I found myself strapped for time — my own fault for not organizing my time better — and thus wound up home alone, watching a service on my computer.
Some might say that sounds dreadful, but by now you know that it was glorious. I might have happened on the one and only Kol Nidre service on the soul and the afterlife in the entire United States! All because I was so disorganized, I couldn’t manage to get myself together for the holiest night on the Jewish calendar. Sometimes, laxness might just result in wonders. Sometimes, being responsible might not lead to the best place.
And why might that be? Is it possible that some kind of order or transcendent power underlies our world, and leaving ourselves flexible and open might just allow us to tap into the best potential rewards? I’m thinking there might be something to that theory. Of course, it’s also possible that I was absolutely meant to hear that sermon, and would have, regardless of what I had done. Maybe, if I had left for services in Cambridge on time, I would have suddenly felt nauseous and decided to head back.
Regardless, in its own small yet huge way, this experience felt like evidence that something divine or mystical or transcendent might be at work in this world, and in my life. I want to believe that so badly my bones ache when I think about it. This world often makes that possibility feel improbable and ludicrous. But then something peeks into my life, making me wonder or even cautiously exult. Do you know what I mean? If not, can you imagine knowing? To get evidence like this on Yom Kippur felt magical: the kind of magic that’s actually real.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.