Dr. Eban Alexander is an academic neurosurgeon whose credentials include 15 years teaching at Harvard Medical School. He did not believe in spiritual concepts such as the soul, the afterlife, and supernatural phenomena. As he writes in his best-selling book Proof of Heaven:
Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen.
Then, at age 54, Dr. Alexander suffered a virulent attack of bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis first attacks the brain’s cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, language, emotion, visual and auditory awareness, and logic. For seven days, Dr. Alexander lay in a coma, totally unresponsive. Then, just as his doctors (who were also his colleagues) were about to pull the plug, he regained consciousness, and gradually made a full recovery.
Recovered, he was eager to recount his vivid experiences of spiritual worlds while he was in the comatose state. Although he had previously heard of Near Death Experiences (NDE), Dr. Alexander, as a neuroscientist, dismissed those accounts as hallucinations generated by the brain, because most NDEs are experienced by patients during cardiac arrest, when the heart stops but the brain is still functioning. In his own case, however, he points out that his cortex, the only scientifically plausible source of such detailed, richly interactive perceptions, was not functioning at all.
Proof of Heaven has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the last 23 weeks. Last week it was #1. The book and its author have become a much-touted cultural phenomenon. He has been interviewed by Oprah, Joy Behar, “Good Morning, America,” and a host of other TV and radio shows.
Many prominent scientists have attacked the book, claiming that Dr. Alexander’s cerebral cortex was not in fact “shut down,” or that what he experienced came during the short interval when his cortex was waking up, or that his “hallucinations” came from chemicals produced by the meningitis itself, etc.
I am certainly not qualified to weigh the scientific evidence for or against Dr. Alexander’s claims. Yet, without giving credence to the veracity of his account, the subjects he raises—the persistence of consciousness after the death of the physical body, the existence of other realms that dwarf this physical world, and the place that evil and free will play in the cosmos—are subjects that Judaism has been elucidating for over 3,000 years.
With the world still reeling from the deaths of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, the massive explosion in Texas, and the earthquake in China, it’s an apt time to take a look at what Judaism says about life after death.
Will the Real World Please Stand Up
Dr. Alexander’s account describes three distinct realms. The third and “highest” of them is what he calls the “Core,” where he claims to have experienced the presence of the Divine:
I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch black as it was, it was also brimming over with light. …
Judaism explains that there are many worlds or dimensions. The world we know, referred to in Judaism as “This World,” is the lowest of all the worlds. The upper worlds are entirely spiritual. Only in This World has energy coalesced into dense physical matter. Time and space operate only in This World.
In the Talmud, there are numerous accounts of souls ascending to Olam Haba, the Next World. In one account [Pesachim 50a] Rabbi Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi died, and then came back to life. He described what he had seen there, and his father, a great sage, verified its accuracy. In other Talmudic accounts, a sage, through some kind of meditative process, was able to access higher worlds and return to his body, having nothing to do with death.
Dr. Alexander repeatedly uses the words “vast” and “infinite” to describe “the Core.” Judaism explains that the higher worlds are indeed infinite in scope. Compared to the Next World, This World is puny. As Ethics of the Fathers, going back two millennia, proclaimed, “This World is like a corridor leading to the Next World.”
“Corridor” has two implications. The first is size. The corridor that leads into a building is always much smaller than the building itself. To get some idea of the puniness of this world compared to the higher worlds, imagine a skyscraper 200 stories high. Now imagine that the lobby on the ground floor has marble flooring, a half-inch (1 cm.) thick. That marble flooring is comparable to the dimensions of This World, a thin, dense veneer on the underside of the cosmos.
“Corridor” also implies purpose. The corridor has one purpose: to lead a person into the actual building. This World, small as it is, has a crucial purpose: to lead human beings into the Next World. As Ethics of the Fathers continues the verse cited above: “Fix yourself up in the corridor, in order that you may enter the banquet hall.” Although the corridor is only an entranceway into the banquet hall, it is the only entranceway into the banquet hall. Only by rectifying oneself in This World by exercising one’s free will, can a human being enter the Next World, as will be explained below.
(Although the higher worlds include many dimensions, for our purposes we will discuss only “the Next World,” that realm where souls go after the death of the body.)
The defining characteristic of This World is that God is hidden here.
Judaism calls the Next World, “the World of Truth.” This World is the realm of falsehood and illusion, because God seems to be absent and Divine Unity is hidden behind a veil of multiplicity. The Hebrew word for “world,” – olam – shares a root with the Hebrew word for “hidden.” The defining characteristic of This World is that God is hidden here.
This World has one (and only one!) advantage over the other worlds: This is the only world where the soul can change, grow, and elevate itself. Life in this world is like winning the Supermarket Jackpot. You get 20 minutes and all you can grab. You run up and down the aisles, tossing into your cart all the premium items you can snatch. But when the bell rings, it’s over. Woe to the one who has only a half-full cart of day-old bread!
A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that human beings have free choice in the moral sphere. While our preferences and proclivities are determined by heredity and environment, the choice between right and wrong, good and evil is ours. Every time we chose honesty over cheating, generosity over selfishness, or faithfulness over betrayal, we refine ourselves. By consistently choosing good over evil, we make ourselves into the refined beings who can enjoy the Light of the Divine Presence in the World of Truth.
The Next World is wholly spiritual. It is not an all-you-can-eat brunch.
The Next World is wholly spiritual with no trace of physicality. It is not an all-you-can-eat brunch. This is a crucial point. If a person devotes this life to acquiring material and sensory pleasures, will he consider an eternity spent in the Next World, devoid of IPads, movies, luxury cars, gourmet food, vintage wines, and sensory stimulation, as heaven or hell? Imagine a person whose musical appreciation is limited to hard rock being “treated” to a four-hour concert of classical music, and you will understand why one’s choices in This World determine one’s ability to enjoy the Next World. Your moral choices in This World determine how you will experience the World to Come.
Free will can exist in This World only if God masks His presence. If the teacher is standing over you throughout the exam, you do not have free choice whether to cheat or be honest. Only when the teacher leaves the room, does your free will kick in. This World is nothing but an examination hall. That is why God must seem to be absent.
Dr. Alexander describes it this way:
I saw the earth as a pale blue dot in the immense blackness of physical space. I could see that earth was a place where good and evil mixed, and that this constituted one of its unique features. Even on earth there is much more good than evil, but earth is a place where evil is allowed to gain influence in a way that would be entirely impossible at higher levels of existence. That evil could occasionally have the upper hand was known and allowed by the Creator as a necessary consequence of giving the gift of free will to beings like us.
…Free will is of central importance for our function in the earthly realm: a function that, we will all one day discover, serves the much higher role of allowing our ascendance in the timeless alternate dimension.
The moment after death, we have nothing but who we made ourselves into by our choices. Jewish lore is full of stories of the “heavenly tribunal.” This refers to the accounting that every soul undergoes as it reviews all of its choices during its lifetime. The “fires of Hell” are the burning regrets that the soul feels when, from its supernal vantage point in the World of Truth, it recognizes the growth opportunities it failed to grasp and the wrong choices it made. After leaving the body, it is too late to change.
The Boston Marathon Bombing
These spiritual truths are not mere theological constructs. They are a framework for understanding some aspects of the tragedy of the Boston Marathon.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the terrorists who killed and maimed dozens of innocent civilians, are accountable for their choices. Law enforcement authorities, based on preliminary investigations, are calling the brothers “self-radicalized jihadists.” The term is apt; the choice to move toward evil, to digest hate literature, to expose oneself to a despotic ideology, to apostle oneself to hate-mongers, to adopt a creed of cruelty, and to inflict injury on others, comes from the self. Animals kill by instinct. Only human beings can choose cruelty.
Many people are perplexed by the younger brother Dzhokhar. The older terrorist Tamerlan fits our stereotype of a potential terrorist; he purportedly had no friends and was once arrested for beating up his girlfriend. He is now suspected of having slit the throats of his former roommate and two other Jewish men in 2011. Dzhokhar, on the other hand, had many friends, who described him as a typical, nice college kid. One photo of him looks angelic. It’s hard to reconcile his evil deeds with his “nice guy” persona.
Ordinary human beings, like you or me, can choose between heroic good and despicable evil.
This recalls Hannah Arendt’s treatise on The Banality of Evil. Ms. Arendt was a journalist who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. She expected to see a fiend spouting nefarious, hated-filled invectives. To her emotional discomfort, she found in Eichmann a bland bureaucrat, more banal than bestial.
This is the point of Judaism’s teaching of “free choice.” Ordinary human beings, like you or me, can choose between heroic good and despicable evil. Of course, extreme choices are not made in a single leap. Every time you give up your own pleasure to help someone or admit the truth at the cost of your ego, you move toward good. Every time you justify hurting someone or tell self-protective lies, you move toward evil. You create yourself by your daily small choices. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could have chosen to reject his older brother’s evil rather than embrace it.
This brings us to perhaps the most wrenching loss of the Boston bombings, the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard. By all accounts, he was a child with outstanding personal attributes. He emblazoned his values on a sign: “NO MORE HURTING PEOPLE.” Our hearts go out to Martin’s family and friends in their acute suffering.
At the same time, if we understand the reality of the higher worlds, we know that the soul of Martin Richard is alive and well there, enjoying the bliss of God’s manifest presence. Judaism mourns death because it cuts short the opportunity to fix oneself in This World. Some souls, however, have very little to fix. There is no need for them to dally in the corridor.