Dr. Simcha Raphael, a psychotherapist, bereavement counselor and scholar, is constantly asked whether Jews believe in life after death — and most assume the answer is no.
“I’ve discovered that’s not the case,” he says. “In Jewish mysticism and elsewhere, there are all kinds of stories and teachings about souls surviving death.”
Raphael is Beth Evergreen’s scholar-in-residence March 1-2.
He also will discuss “Twilight Between the Worlds: Tales of Ghosts, Wandering Spirits and Reincarnating Souls” on March 3, 11 a.m., at Feldman Mortuary.
Despite the provocative title, which is generating a lot of buzz, his underlying message is based on 25 years of scholarship and groundbreaking books on the subject.
“I’m interested not only in the woo-woo aspect — ‘tell me about ghosts’ — but the harder topic of what happens to loved ones, and us, after death.”
Raphael says his talks are not slideshows of ghosts and goblins. “It’s not about going out on an overnighter at Jewish summer camp and having a counselor tell you scary stories by flashlight.”
His priority is helping Jews understand that they have access to a rich legacy of traditional Jewish teachings about souls surviving death.
“The main point of all these stories is that between this world and the world beyond is a window, not a wall,” he says, which contrasts with secular intimations of mortality as nothingness.
“In the traditions of Jewish folklore and mysticism — Kabbalah and Chasidism in particular — there’s a window of time where these spirits become accessible to us,” Raphael says.
For example, lighting a yarzheit candle after a loved one passes enables his or her soul to advance. The deceased is available as an intercessor.
“When you light a yarzheit candle, it’s traditional to say, ‘The soul should ascend higher and higher.’ In that moment, the candle opens the window of connection.”
The objective of Raphael’s teaching-via-storytelling is to drive home the lesson that Jews don’t require Buddhists or Shirley MacLaine for insights into the afterlife.
Wisdom already flourishes in Judaism’s backyard.
“The people I speak to are mostly younger or older baby boomers,” he says. “They’re dealing with their own parents aging and dying; their own mortality or declining health.
“They want to know that some thread of connection persists after the moment of death.”
Raphael, founder of the DA’AT (Death Awareness, Advocacy and Teaching) Institute in Philadelphia, is the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife; The Grief Journey and the Afterlife: Jewish Pastoral Care for Bereavement; and May the Angels Carry You: Jewish Prayers and Meditations for the Deathbed.
But what about those ghosts and wandering spirits?
Jewish folklore, mysticism and the Talmud provide excellent and often detailed glimpses into the otherworldly realm of ancestor guides, demons, creatures and lost spirits.
Raphael’s apparitional litany commences with folk stories of ancient ancestors that Jews recite in their daily prayers.
“We say in our prayers, ‘Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’; we remember King David,” he says. “These beings are alive in some way, guiding and watching over us — not simply characters out of the Bible.
“They are wise beings that can influence our lives and be present for us. Elijah the Prophet shows up in one story; King David in another.”
Several narratives contain beautiful passages of souls departing this world and ascending to the highest heavenly realm.
Yet countless tales are populated by malcontented spirits that are trapped in the enigmatic sphere between worlds.
This is the post-mortal rub.
Raphael points to stories of chasidic “wonder-workers” who free the imprisoned souls “through almost magical interference” and assist them in elevating to the highest realm.
Dybbuks, popularized in S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” (1920) and cinematic portrayals like 2012’s “The Possession,” are unable to migrate, transmigrate or reincarnate.
Raphael says dybbuks attach themselves to and possess human beings, wreak havoc and often requiring ritual intervention.
Other Jewish sources and texts recount what happens at the moment of death and beyond — when the soul departs and emerges on the other side that window.
“Similar to the near death experience, they see a panoramic vision of their deeds before standing in front of the heavily tribunal, where they will be judged,” he says.
Although Judaism lacks a hell, it does have a purgatory.
“There are narratives about souls being forced to come back in order to finish one task with another person,” Raphael says.
Finally, do ghosts exist in Jewish tradition?
“Yes — but not in the Halloween sense,” he clarifies.
Although ghosts in Jewish stories don’t emit blood-curdling moans beneath white flowing sheets, they share the universal predicament found in other faith and cultural traditions: trapped between life and death; unable to find peace.
“Ghosts are apparitions of beings that have died but are still hanging around,” he says. “They are not visual. In the stories they may appear real, but in the end it turns out they’re not.
“I use Jewish ghost stories as fancy titling, but I’m really teaching Jewish tales of the afterlife through storytelling.”
Raphael’s maternal grandmother died when he was four. “Bubby’s in Heaven,” he was told. One day she was alive and the next day she vanished, without a goodbye.
Her abrupt end marked the beginning of Raphael’s search for the afterlife.
As time passed, it brought more deaths and more unanswered questions.
“When I was 21, my closest friend was killed in a car accident,” Raphael says. “Here I was, a smart, 21-year-old Jewish kid who read lots of books. My family was Jewish. I was educated Jewishly. Judaism was very important to me at a young age.”
But the book he hungered for, which might explain where his friend went once his heart stopped beating, had not yet been written.
“In the 1970s, very little was available on the Jewish perspective of life after death,” he says.
Raphael’s academic career has remained faithful to this spiritual quest.
He earned a PhD in psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, writing his dissertation on life after death in Judaism.
Spiritual director at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 1999-2009, Raphael was an associate professor in the department of Jewish studies at Temple University, 2007-2014.
Five years ago he founded DA’AT, which offers transpersonal psychotherapy, individual and group bereavement counseling, spiritual direction, marriage preparation, pastoral care and hospice support.
“I see myself as companioning people as they walk through the valley of death,” Raphael says of his work with clients.
“The process involves the will to be with people in their grief and help them understand that their reactions — the tears, fear, anger, despair and loss — are normal.”
He integrates his understanding of Jewish teachings on the afterlife journey of the soul in the hopes of making them relevant to healing.
Raphael, who was ordained as a rabbinic pastor by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, writes on his website that he “humbly recognizes that ultimately there are no final answers to the mystery of life and death.”
Exactly, he says.
“I read a lot, I teach a lot, I talk a lot, I think a lot. But eventually we all have to face our mortality. As a scholar I try to make sense of it. As a pastoral counselor, I try to make it relevant.
“But as a human being, a 68-year-old man who’s buried both parents, who has two children I worry about when they go out at night, as someone who’s dealing with my own aging, I realize that death is inevitable.
“And I live with that reality.”
Raphael says the overwhelming compulsion to “come to grips with our concerns, fears and issues of our mortality seems to be hardwired into the human condition.
“We’re here, we’re given an amount of time, and we’re going to live until the day we die.
“That’s the reality of life. But whatwhat do you do?”
Raphael is definitely on the side of continuance. Stories of the afterlife in Jewish tradition have eradicated any fears of falling into nothingness.
“I strongly believe that there’s a whole other journey that souls experience following death,” he says. “And hopefully I’ve done some preparation for it.”
How can Jews who believe in an ethereal realm beyond the grave escape the fate of ghosts and kindred, chaotic spirits?
Raphael says that ideally people heal their wounded places and learn to accept lingering losses and regrets during their lifetime.
“It may be — and this is just conjecture — that in death we are given a certain period of time to resolve incomplete issues. I’m not a psychic.
“I think the bottom line is that if we live our lives morally, ethically and meaningfully, we have a much better chance for a gentler journey.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News