Tacking on Absurdity

I stood over a sizzling pan of potatoes and onions this morning, spatula in one hand and cigarette in the other. As I prepared the ingredients for my little breakfast, I watched one of the countless informational videos on chabad.org, which I have become increasingly fond of as I explore its many resources. The particular video I was watching was entitled “Resurrection 2.0.” It piqued my curiosity first and foremost because I am very much unclear with the specifics of the Jewish doctrine of the afterlife and its relationship to the Jewish eschaton. The topic garnered my academic curiosity, but as a person trying to explore my Judaism spiritually, it’s incredibly problematic just how opposed any notion of an afterlife is with my scientifically-minded worldview. I find myself agreeing with so much of the philosophy, and then all of a sudden, I come upon what I see as completely untenable beliefs portrayed as the philosophy’s logical conclusion.

This first time I really paid attention to Judaism as the subject of my academic study was in the context of a class I took on apocalypticism. I wrote my seminar paper on the reaction of the Chabad-Lubavitch community to the death of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994.

The Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson

While I wrote the paper in the midst of putting together my undergraduate thesis, my writing leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, I managed to highlight an important aspect of the underlying philosophy of Chabad Hasidism which deals with spiritual presence after death. I have written about the Shema, the central claim of Judaism. It amounts to the claim that God encompasses all of reality and is a single, unique, completely unified whole. This is at odds with our experience, of course, as I perceive myself as separate from this keyboard, and I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t identify the chair you’re sitting in as part of yourself. Nevertheless, according to Chabad philosophy, all of the myriad things in the world which we are so ready to concede individual identities to are in fact all no more than persistent illusions of our perspective. The Tanya, the foundational mystical text of Chabad Hasidism, quoting from the Torah, puts it like this:

“‘The Glory of God fills all the earth.’…And, likewise, to prostrate oneself and to laud the Lord who animates and makes all there is, and for whom everything is essentially non-existent as in ‘And all that are before him are esteemed as naught,’ truly as nothing and null. Though we cannot apprehend just how everything is truly as null before Him, nevertheless we acknowledge with a sincere admission, that in absolute truth such is the case.”

If, as the Tanya claims, the individuality of any single thing we perceive in the world is in fact an illusion, then it seems appropriate to me to reach the conclusion that birth and death only amount to temporal boundaries from our perspective. Everything that you are always has existed, and always will exist. How lovely. Unfortunately, I don’t see any reason why some take this philosophy to imply that certain people retain their individuality after death. I say this in response to many of the practices I researched which were instituted after the Rebbe’s death. Services held at 770 in Crown Heights where the Rebbe lived and worked were meticulously recreated to ensure that they proceeded exactly as if the Rebbe were still there. If only to plug myself, I’ll quote from my paper:

“Practices following the Rebbe’s death were meant to reinforce the notion in the minds of the Lubavitchers that despite the Rebbe’s physical absence from the head of the community, his spiritual or metaphysical presence could still be experienced. Instituted in practices as regular as daily prayer are behaviors which rely on the meticulous recreation of as much sensory experience attributed to the Rebbe’s presence as possible. During prayer services, the Rebbe’s chair and pulpit upon which he reads from the Torah are prepared and at the start of the services, the congregation parts way between the stairs leading to the Rebbe’s office and the congregation hall of the synagogue. The same songs which were sung during his entrance and exit are sung today with as much vivacity as they were during the Rebbe’s lifetime.”

Now, given my subscription to the idea that God is the only true reality and that it amounts to a single, undifferentiated whole, I can be completely at ease with a Lubavitcher community member who uses the philosophy to justify actively working to recreate a worldly experience of the Rebbe through making sure the practices associated with his presence are instituted. If, as the founder of the Lubavitch movement Rabbi Shneur Zalman suggests, “it is imagined that there is a world, but in truth there is only simple unity…and our seeing the existence of the world is only imagination,” then there should be no difference on the level of reality with which our consciousness deals in terms of whether the experience of the Rabbi’s presence comes from his physically being in the community or from practices designed to produce the same experiential effect. I am on board. The Rebbe was an incredibly influential and powerful figure, the philosophy seems to work for me, and the practices of recreating the experience of his presence can be for all intents and purposes identical to his physical presence…but only to the observers.

The most disconcerting parts of the video on resurrection which spurned on this little tangent dealt mostly with qualifications for the world to come and experiences of the afterlife. While the underlying philosophy of unity justifies the belief in the spiritual presence of the Rebbe to the believers, the philosophy does not imply that the Rebbe is himself having an experience of still being among his constituents after his death. The existence of a soul retaining its individuality after death seems to theologically threaten the unity, or at least the uniqueness of God. After all, the reason God exists and we do not is because of our spatial and temporal boundaries. Does the individuality of a soul after death not imply its coexistence with God and thus threaten the doctrine of God’s unity? This seems to be the case to me. It is for this reason I cannot take seriously belief in an afterlife which involves conscious experience.

As I scour my old papers for clues as to why belief in a conscious afterlife seems to be inextricable from belief in the kind of postmortem spiritual presence which the Lubavitcher community feels of the Rebbe, I keep coming upon the notion that according Hasidic philosophy, a religious leader increases his efficacy as such after his death. This is corroborated by interviews with Lubavitchers at the time of the Rebbe’s death and by such mystical texts of Judaism as the Zohar. There is something here to be taken seriously. Whether the community members are conscious of it or not, they ascribe their postmortem experience of the Rebbe via their meticulously preserved liturgy to the Rebbe himself. Even as I write this trying to understand just how a Lubavitcher conceives of his current relationship to a deceased Rebbe, I cannot but concede that a person who truly makes the doctrine of God’s unity a central aspect of their worldview has no reason to differentiate between an experience of the Rebbe caused by his physical presence and an experience of the Rebbe caused by particular rituals. While it may seem absurd to my skeptical sensibilities to discuss the deceased as if they are still directly perceivable, the philosophy seems to be one step ahead of me. I think this is summed up nicely in the words of a young Lubavitch community member after the Rebbe’s death:

“The Rebbe has great power [now that he is no longer alive]. His spiritual presence is even greater now in all the world. People still write to him for a blessing, although, of course, they do not get a reply but there is a response. Things are happening.”

I am not quite sure where this short excursion into the afterlife beliefs of my fellow Jews has left me. I maintain that upon my death (may it be many years from now, surrounded by friends and family), I expect to close my eyes and be aware for the last time. Such is the temporal nature of my existence in relation to God’s. If after my heart stops, I open my eyes and I find myself in a garden, somebody’s gonna owe me a damn explanation. If, on the other hand, I wake up in a fiery chasm filled with tortured screams, I’ll probably be less in need of an explanation. I expect that my state after my death will amount to unconsciousness. And this is a good thing, I happen to be of the opinion that our being conscious is the root of all our spiritual woes. Self-awareness is the original sin, not eating from the fruit of a tree. Of course, I’ll leave that issue for another day. What I have been convinced of is that I can only understand the legitimacy of many of these afterlife beliefs in the context of philosophy and social science, as my understanding of the way that humans process the presence of other agents greatly informed my interpretation of the afterlife practices and beliefs surrounding the Rebbe. I can see this kind of thinking being a constructive way to broach the topic of afterlife beliefs in conversations on the content of religious traditions.

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