The Kabbalistic Afterlife
The mystery of the afterlife has fascinated and terrified the human race for thousands of years. Ancient cultures and their religions have all tried to explain what happens when we cross over to the other side. Ancient peoples like the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Chinese, Tibetans, and others have believed in different versions of what happens to the soul and body after death. Today’s religions have various ideas on what happens to us after death, these theories are a mixture of the ancient and the New Age. But most belief systems, whether ancient or New Age, believe that death is not the end of life. Common theories of the afterlife are reincarnation, resurrection, the spiritual realms of Heaven and Hell, transmigration, and ghost and poltergeist activity. Each coming with its own assumption on what the soul and sometimes the body must go through to experience life on earth. Like all cultures Jews have questioned for thousands of years what happens when earthly life burns out.
The Kabbalistic Soul
The afterlife is a mystery, but the faith in it and its many forms is very real to those who believe. Jews throughout history have had many thoughts of what the soul and body are. Some viewed the body and soul in a more physical scientific bases, believing that the soul and body were one, not separate entities. When a person died the life energy burned out and the body decomposed. Others believed that the after life was there but could not be explained and should not be talked about. That the experience of the physical world was important because it was here and it was now.
Jewish Kabbalistic mystics and philosophers were more open to theorizing on what happens when we cross over to the other mysterious side. Kabbalistic Judaism embraces the belief in the souls existence after death. Kabbalists have various viewpoints of what happens to the soul and body; including reincarnation, resurrection, the spiritual realms of Heaven and Hell, transmigration, and ghost and poltergeist activity. In Judaism and Kabbalah the soul and body are separate entities, having important roles in the spiritual experience. Rabbi Gershon Winkler explains this in The Soul of The Matter:
“Judaism does not view the relationship of the soul and the body as a union of conflict but rather as a union of cooperativeness. The body cannot function without the soul, nor can the soul fulfill itself without the body… The role of the body is to facilitate the journey and fulfillment of the soul in this life, and the role of the soul is to overcome the glaring distractions of this life so that they do not distort its purpose and reality. ” (Page 6).
This prospective recognizes that the earthly realm is as important as the spirit world. To hold too tightly to the spiritual world is to disconnect from the physical world, which is where we learn and grow through our relationships and experiences. The spiritual world should not be forgotten either, but it will take care of its self, life here on earth will not. To be alive means you should live it, experience it, care for it, and learn from it.
In the Kabbalistic tradition the soul is viewed as having five parts, each with its own role in our spiritual growth and experience. This can be defined like the departments in a university or can be seen as different leveled classes that have prerequisites, having their own role in educating a student. These parts are to insure that a soul completes its learning and fulfillment here on earth. These levels allow for both spiritual and physical experience and for the soul to learn and grow over time, which in most cases, cannot be just one physical lifetime. Not all Kabbalists believe in the soul having five separate parts; seeing it as one energy force.
The physical body or bodies that the soul uses over time are as important and holy as the spirit inside. This is why the body must be respected and honored, without purposely being harmed or changed. In most cases Jews do not get tattoos, brands, or piercing that change the body’s look for decorations. It would be like vandalizing your own home. At death the body must not be disturbed, embalming is against Jewish law because it does not allow for natural decomposition. If this process is effected it could tie the soul to the body, not allowing it to go on or cross over, changing its path or destiny.
The Kabbalistic Afterlife
A Jewish Kabbalist may believe in one form of the afterlife or several, always viewing it as transition to something more to learn. Death is not to be feared, it is seen as part of the life map that everyone is traveling. Rabbi Winkler states that the Talumd teaches: “When one is born, he is designated for death. When one dies, he is designated for life” (Page 16). The various ideas and imagery of death and the afterlife in Kabbalah come from Jewish beliefs and share other cultures’ traditions explaining the afterlife.
Reincarnation is the belief in multiple lifetimes, with different bodies but the same soul. The memories and for the most part personality is not completely the same, though the person that has been reincarnated may have past life memories and talents that cannot be explained.
In Kabbalah the five parts of the soul do not have to reincarnate together, because each level may became perfected before the other. Gershon Winkler states:
“This is analogous to the removal of part of a flame with a second candle. The spark captivated from the original flame assumes an independent identity all its own, without lacking any element of the constitution of the original flame, and without diminishing the size or power of the original. King Solomon thus referred to the soul as a Divine Flame” (Pages 18-19).
The belief is that the perfected part of the soul is returned to God and the unperfected part of the soul does not lose anything, going on to learn and be perfected through more lifetimes until completion. In the case of Kabbalists who believe the soul is just one energy force, the soul will return to the Divine in its complete form after it has been perfected.
Resurrection is best known for the belief that both the same body and soul stay together in death-sleep. That when the Messianic era comes, that all these souls and bodies, will arise and become alive again, and will be reunited with their families and friends to live in peace. Various Jewish sects believe that this literally means that you only live twice with the same body and soul. Jewish Kabbalist, who except reincarnation believe in two different theories on the concept of resurrection. Some believe in the idea of multiple resurrections that since our souls are like a flame from a candle, we can arise in more than one body. Kabbalists that see the soul as one entity believe when the Messianic era comes the very first body you were born in, will be the body you will arise in and that your other previous bodies will remain decomposed.
Transmigration is the belief of souls being reincarnated in non-human forms, like animals (chayyah), plants (tzomeach), and even rocks (domem). Kabbalah explains this as both an opportunity for farther learning for the soul (especially a young soul), or a punishment for not learning while in human form. The idea of animals having new or baby souls has been mentioned in some interpretations of Kabbalah and other mystical traditions. The concept is that souls go through levels of learning, starting out as rocks, plants, animals, humans, and finally returning to the Divine.
Heaven and Hell are spiritual places, in Judaism and Kabbalah they have no form that can be explained in physical terms. Heaven for the Jewish Kabbalist is being reunited with the Source of its energy (God), after completely its work. The soul has graduated and now is at peace its final reward. Hell is the idea of being separated from God for some reason, This separation or Hell, is usually from commenting a sin that is so horrendous, that God cannot forgive you for it without distancing Herself/Himself for a time period, usually lasting one year. This is like a parent giving you a timeout, then releasing you to do better. Purgatory is seen as being a place or by wandering the earth as a ghost. Some Kabbalists believe that there are some sins like mass murder and genocide, that God just cannot forgive and annihilates the soul that was responsible for these sins, so they cannot be repeated in the future through another incarnation.
Sins are not the only reason a soul may become a wandering ghost (or dybbuk). The soul of a person sometimes becomes trapped or confused, they may have died before their time or have other issues pulling them to the physical state, this can cause ghost and poltergeist activity and even possession. The trapped soul feels something is undone or has something unresolved or something unfinished in this lifetime, holding them in the earthy realm. Other souls may have wasted their time on earth, not finishing a lifetime’s duty and objective. Soul possession can happen when a lost soul is seeking any means to get a body to house its self in, especially in the case of a premature death. A soul can attach its self to a person, animal, object, or place; these possessions can be both harmless and destructive. If it becomes destructive an exorcism may have to be performed.
Kabbalistic exorcism is not like Catholic exorcism, which deals with demonic possession. Demonic possession is not mentioned as Kabbalistic tradition or worry.
So what happens to us after death? This question can only be answered by those who have died. Paranormal experiences with the dead can by open to interpretation and cannot be held as proof or disproof of the afterlife. We as human beings should have faith in something that is above are explanations, this keeps life a mystery and interesting. But we also should remember how truly precious and important life here on earth is, our bodies are our shelters, but earth is our home. The physical realm is now, the spiritual realm is later, it can wait.
Winkler, Gershon, The Soul of The Matter, 1982 and 1992, The Judaica Press. INC.