Monday, April 13, 2009

Do Believers in the Afterlife Believe in After-Life?

I don’t remember how the discussion started, but somehow I found myself talking to the Rebbi about how nasty life could be. The class of bochurim in their late teens and low twenties listened as I listed potential horrors.

“So why don’t you end it?” the Rebbi asked.


“If life is so awful why don’t you kill yourself and end it?”

“Well,” I replied, “My life isn’t so bad. Besides, even if it was, killing myself wouldn’t help. It would just make me dead, and in big trouble.” I firmly believed in Olam Habo, and had learned that a special torment was reserved for those who chose to kill themselves. These unfortunates were condemned to float forever in limbo, adrift in a spiritual void.

The class laughed.

“No, no,” the Rebbi admonished. “Let him share his thoughts.”

I turned to one of the guys near me who had laughed.

“Don’t you see, killing yourself doesn’t help. It just makes more bad stuff happen to you.”
He smiled and shook his head.

I don’t remember how this ended, but the incident and its implications has stayed with me. Here was a class of twenty or so young men from a fairly wide spectrum within the frum community. Asked individually whether they believed in Olam Habo, I’m certain that nearly all or all would have said yes. Yet when I brought up the practical implications of the belief in a context that wasn’t focused directly on the belief, their first impulse was to laugh. While they intellectually held a belief in the afterlife, this belief didn’t practically inform their attitude towards death.

They found it funny when I implied that someone could be in trouble after death. I believed that “I” with all that implies was going to stand in some sort of physically perceptible courtroom and be judged after I died. I would have to account for every sin, and suicide would have been a big one. That was more trouble than I had ever been in.

I can only conclude that this class of young men had never given their belief in the afterlife much thought, and when confronted with the implications of what it would mean for the consciousness to survive death, they intuitively found it ridiculous.

Later I would notice how the Chumash never refers to an afterlife, and how the most stringent punishment is “mais yamus.” Later yet I would learn that belief in Olam Habo was not universal until after the Churban Bayis Shayni. But all of that is beside the point.

A class of frum guys with sincerely held beliefs thought those beliefs were ridiculous when hearing their implications instead of their assertions.

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