“Belief in survival of the soul goes against the scientific model, which assumes that all phenomena are physical, are grounded in time, can be measured and have a rational explanation. Although there is no proof of heaven, there is evidence worthy of careful examination.... I invite you to read the many stories ahead that convey my own deliberations in the jury box and encourage you to come to your own conclusions.”
—from the Preface
Includes discussion guide for book clubs and study groups.
With candor, questioning and sharp-eyed scholarship, Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz recounts personal experiences and the ﬁrsthand accounts others have shared with him, which propelled his own journey from skeptic to believer that, indeed, the soul does survive bodily death.
From near-death experiences to reincarnation, past-life memory to the work of mediums, Rabbi Spitz explores what we are really able to know about the afterlife, and draws on Jewish texts to share that belief in these concepts—so often approached with reluctance—is in fact true to Jewish tradition.
In this updated second edition, Rabbi Spitz looks squarely at both sides of the issues, addressing, for example, the discrepancies in afterlife and reincarnation accounts. A new preface explains the impact the book had when first published and the ongoing conversation about the nature of our existence that has resulted.
“Readers will close this book wondering, questioning, perhaps recalling their own unexplainable moments of connection that transcend the five senses.”
—NY Jewish Week
“Very worthwhile.... People do not know enough about the Jewish point of view on death and dying, and people need to know that reincarnation and afterlife is a fact. It’s about time and the time is now. This is a brilliant book that keeps you fascinated.”
“A wise, moving, carefully thought out and provocative first-person exploration into the immortality of the soul. Indispensable for anyone who has ever wondered about the mysteries of life before and after this one. A beautiful book.”
—Lawrence Kushner, rabbi-in-residence, Hebrew Union College; author, Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary and other books
“His initial reticence to believe people’s stories about life after death and past incarnations ... gives this book credibility even for skeptical philosophers like me.... Rabbi Spitz has me wondering!”
—Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, PhD, rector and professor of philosophy, American Jewish University
“Elegantly written.... Rabbi Elie Spitz’s ‘journey’ will inspire its readers to follow his example and search for what is meaningful in Jewish life and learning.”
“Might provide emotional comfort and religious consolation for people who have lost loved ones.... Could persuade many of its readers to increase their compassion for all beings and to lead more purposeful lives by remaining mindful of the fragile, fleeting beauty of this world.... A provocative, interesting and compellingly honest book.”
“See your (future) world in this life.... Read Rabbi Elie Spitz’s book and experience what your own intuition corroborates and you will not fear death at the end of your life’s journey.”
—Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi (z"l), author, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer
“A very welcome addition to the all-too-meager bookshelf of works that attempt to find meaning in ancient doctrines by examining them in the context of the lives of real people.... Well organized and well written.... A book to make even inveterate rationalists rethink their approach to an article of ancient Jewish faith the rabbis deem to possess cardinal importance.... An accomplishment well worth lauding.”
“A serious and sophisticated enquiry into an arena that many of us might easily dismiss.... Does a very good job of showing that the belief in some form of reincarnation is authentically rooted in the Jewish tradition.... Makes a powerful argument that belief in the survival of the soul may have useful spiritual and moral consequences.”
“Spitz’s compelling arguments may cement the beliefs of Jewish readers already receptive to the existence of the supernatural and open a doorway for doubters to reconceptualize life and death.”
“Rabbi Spitz has taken a fascinating journey from skepticism to hope. No matter our ultimate conclusion, this record of that journey is certain to tantalize, intrigue and uplift the questing spirit.”
—Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles; author, Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times
“A path-breaking book. When Elie Spitz writes about Judaism and reincarnation, he not only examines relevant texts drawn from two thousand years of teaching, he integrates them with his own remarkable experiences. This is a book that has the capacity to expand your soul.”
—Joseph Telushkin, author, Jewish Literacy and other works
“Whether or not we believe, having the conversation about the continued existence of the soul contributes to the healing. Opening to the possibility that there is more than a rigid and unpenetrable curtain between the worlds allows us to approach loss with questions. These call forth creative possibilities for continuing our connection with those we have lost.”
—Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, internationally recognized bereavement therapist; author, Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journey to Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing
“Rabbi Spitz is not your grandfather’s old rabbi. He explores issues of life and death that go back to our earliest traditions and go forward into the next millennium. He proves that Judaism is a many branched menorah with something important for everyone. He shows how to explore the deepest reaches of mind, body, and spirit—and do it Jewishly.”
—Alan M. Dershowitz, author, The Vanishing American Jew
“Rabbi Spitz has treated a topic that many approach with doubts in a learned, cogent, Jewishly informed, and, above all, human manner. His personal touch, as well as his mastery of both classical Jewish and modern historical, philosophical and psychological writings on the topic of the soul and its transmigration makes for challenging and thoughtful reading.... Indicates that Judaism has a great deal to say about a subject that is all-too-often exclusively associated in the popular mind with eastern religions. Readers of all stripes and faiths will be provoked and moved by this book.”
—Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, president, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
“With intelligence and compassion, Rabbi Spitz has written a beautiful book that explores one of life’s great mysteries—what exists beyond life. His look at the subject is so compelling because he draws both on ancient Jewish tradition and on the contemporary experience of Americans.... An important book that will change your thinking about life—and the afterlife.”
—Ari L. Goldman, author, The Search for God at Harvard
“A wonderful book on the afterlife. It fills a great void in this area. It is carefully researched and articulately presented. I loved it.”
—Rabbi Abner Weiss, PhD, author, Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology
“A multi-leveled, informative, laudable and inspiring account of an open-minded and open-hearted investigation into a subject for the most part not considered ‘Jewish.’”
—Spirit of Change
“Elie Spitz provides a map for some very tricky territory. With admirable candor and real openness of heart, he leads his readers through contemporary and traditional views of the soul, its nature and purposes.... He is clear without being simplistic, inspiring without beating a drum for his views. I know of no book on the soul which so seamlessly blends the personal and the scholarly. Rabbi Spitz brings to this subject a passion and clarity which will engage and enlighten his readers.”
—Peter Pitzele, PhD, author, Our Fathers’ Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis
“Elie Spitz’s personal quest for an understanding of the soul and afterlife benefits all who read this remarkable book. In the tradition of Dr. Brian Weiss, he brings credibility and a religious context to belief in reincarnation. Even the skeptic will be swayed by Rabbi Spitz’s personal experiences.”
—Rabbi Stewart Vogel, co-author, New York Times bestseller The Ten Commandments
“Rabbi Elie Spitz masterfully blends scholarship, inspiration and information.... His courageous, heartfelt journey into unknown territory will most assuredly survive with his soul.”
—Nancy Rosanoff, author, Knowing When It’s Right
“Rabbi Spitz ... eloquently, compassionately and authoritatively documents his own journey.... A much needed, thoroughly documented link for the twenty-first-century Jew..... Intelligent and inspiring, it is a welcome tool for healers and those looking for a greater understanding of humanity as a whole. A book destined to become a classic reference.”
“Rabbi Spitz has taken our most profound human question and given us an exciting journey into religious, historical and present-day answers.... This inspirational book shows us just how important living our purpose is.”
—Carol Adrienne, PhD, author, The Purpose of Your Life
“Rabbi Elie Spitz writes with complete candor and impressive scholarship.... Comprehensive.... Informative, challenging, at times controversial, but thought provoking and firmly grounded in Jewish scholarship.”
“Spitz is a lively writer, and he brings new vigor to such long-debated topics as reincarnation.... The scope and perspective will give this account [wide] appeal.”
—American Library Association’s Booklist
“Will interest people wanting to read a Jewish response to the concept of a soul’s existence after death.... A useful resource.”
“Makes a convincing and persuasive case.... An impressive and highly recommended contribution to Judaism and metaphysical studies.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Whether readers accept Rabbi Spitz’s view about life after death, reject it completely, or remain an agnostic regarding it, readers will enjoy the rabbi’s analyses and the many stories that he tells to support his view, and will be stimulated by the discussions to think more deeply about this and related subjects.”
“In Does the Soul Survive? Rabbi Spitz allows all of us to take that same journey of soul: to be able to look without fear through the healing lens of faith at what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, what it means to be God’s child. Anyone who reads this book will find it, as I did, uplifting, insightful and profoundly true. It transforms all our lives for the better.”
—Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University; author, Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac
Download a printable version
As a juror, how would you assess evidence to reach a verdict? What is the role of fellow jurors in reaching your conclusions?
What is an example of “because you want it to be true does not mean that it is false”?
Have you had a telepathic experience? If so, describe. Do you know someone that you trust who claims that they have had such an experience? If so, describe.
1. Telepathy: A Window on the Soul’s Survival
Have you had any unusual experiences around the death of a loved one? If so, describe.
Have you ever had an experience of knowing of the death of a loved one even before you were told? Or do you know anyone who has? If so, what significance do you give the account?
2. Near-Death Experiences (NDEs): The Literature
Have you ever had a near-death experience? If so, describe the experience and its impact on your worldview.
Had you heard about NDEs before? If so, what did you know?
What are your questions about this phenomenon?
3. What Is Soul?
What is soul? What is its relationship to the body?
Describe how you understand Rabbi Isaac Luria’s five levels of soul.
Do you believe that the soul exists independently of the body? Why or why not?
4. Survival of the Soul: Judaism’s Views
What are some definitions of olam habah, “the afterlife”?
What does a non-Jew need to do to attain olam habah, according to Judaism?
Why do you think the Torah says so little describing the afterlife?
5. What Happens After I Die?
Describe the seven phases of purification after death according to the Jewish mystics. How do you react to these phases?
What are the similarities between the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Zohar? How do you account for these similarities?
What are the human limitations in knowing what happens after we die?
6. Traditional Judaism on Resurrection of the Dead
What is resurrection of the dead?
What are the biblical proof texts? Do you find them compelling?
How did Maimonides understand the nature of resurrection of the dead?
How do you react to the idea of the resurrection of your body?
7. Past-Life Regression: An Introduction
How is reincarnation different from resurrection? Can you conceive of how the two ideas can coexist?
What stands out to you about Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s hypnotic regression of his subject? Do you judge the material elicited as actual memory?
Do you know anyone who claims to have past life memories? If so, describe.
8. Training with Dr. Brian Weiss
What are your initial reactions to Brian Weiss’s description of the efficacy of eliciting past-life memory? (I recommend reading Many Lives, Many Masters, of course, before forming too strong an opinion.)
What are your questions for Brian Weiss?
9. Reincarnation: Judaism’s Views
What are your beliefs about reincarnation?
Did you know that reincarnation had a mainstream place in Judaism?
Who was Isaac Luria and what is the impact of his teaching on Jewish mysticism?
How do you relate to Luria’s teaching about reincarnation?
Describe the place of reincarnation in the prayer recited before sleep along with the Shema prayer. Does this affect the prayer’s significance for you?
10. Tales of Reincarnation: The Role of the Rebbe
What is a rebbe? Is there someone who serves that role in your life? If not, why not? Who comes closest to that role for you? If yes, describe.
What powers did the faithful believe their rebbe possessed to improve the lives of followers?
What quality of your character would you like to mend? How would you do so?
11. Mediums: Judaism’s Position
What does the Torah say about mediums?
Recount the story of King Saul and the Witch of En-Dor (1 Samuel 28:1–25). What is the significance of the story for you?
How do the Talmudic sages interpret the Torah’s prohibitions against mediums?
What does the code of Jewish law (Shulkhan Arukh) say about consulting with the dead?
12. Psychic Gifts of a Medium: James Van Praagh
Have you ever had an experience with a medium? If so, describe.
What are your concerns in dealing with a medium? What might be gained?
Do you believe that a person can commune with the dead?
13. Weighing the Evidence
Traditional Jewish teaching offers the holdings of fellow jurors. What importance do you place on these texts? How do they influence your understanding of the afterlife?
Is there evidence in the book that fits a pattern that impresses you? If so, which evidence and what is its impact?
What is your verdict on survival of the soul?
What are your remaining questions or doubts about any of the topics discussed? What additional information would you seek to reach a decision?
14. Discrepancies in Afterlife and Reincarnation Accounts
What are some of your questions about the nature of past-life memory?
Maimonides said that describing the afterlife to a person with a body is like describing color to a blind person. How does this analogy apply to your deliberation on the existence of the afterlife?
15. The Impact of Affirming the Soul’s Survival
What are your reactions to the guided visualization for Gertie as a process of closure and letting go?
How would you want to die?
How do you deal with the reality that we lack ultimate control over the bodily events that lead to our last breath?
16. Cultivating the Soul
What does the word soul mean to you?
What do you do to cultivate your soul?
What is a soulful practice that you would like to add to your life?
Conclusion: Live Now Gratefully and Responsibly
What is the present-day impact of belief in an afterlife? Reincarnation?
How does your belief or disbelief in the survival of the soul affect how you view death?
What changes would you like to make to how you live this life?
Appendix: Torah and Immortality of the Soul—A Hot Debate
How do you understand the Bible’s use of the term she’ol?
Why do you think the Bible’s description of the afterlife is scant and even contradictory?
How does a post-modern reading of a text differ from modern and pre-modern readings?
What are the Jewish origins of the idea of resurrection? Reincarnation? How do you explain the history of these ideas?
What is the significance of the biblical phrase “and he was gathered to his people”? Why do you think it was only used regarding men?
With which biblical character are you most identified? What qualities of character does that person exemplify? How do you see yourself developing those qualities?
Why did you write this book?
This book emerges from my work as a pulpit rabbi. In the hospital or hospice room of a dying congregant, I am often asked, “What happens after death?” Frankly, I only received theoretical answers during my intensive studies in rabbinical school. I could recount what the Rabbis of the Talmud or Maimonides believed, but I was uncertain. With the approaching death of my mother, I sought to answer more personally whether I believed in survival of the soul. This book emerges from exploring a pattern of knowing that transcends the five senses.
What is your approach?
My approach is that of a juror. I am not an expert witness in that I am not telepathic nor have I had a near-death experience. As a juror, my role is to listen to witnesses who describe first-hand experiences, and to discern the credibility of the witnesses, whether a pattern emerges and what explanations are possible for the evidence. As in a criminal trial, the evidence is largely circumstantial, rather than subject to scientific trial-and-error testing.
What’s the importance of Jewish sources?
Jewish sources present the wisdom of the best minds and most sensitive souls of the Jewish community. I read those texts with respect and curiosity as to what conclusions were held by those who went before me. I listen as if in the jury room taking into account the interpretations of others who have weighed the evidence. At the same time, as a juror I need to reach my own verdict based on the actual evidence for survival of the soul.
What contemporary types of accounts of survival of the soul are relevant and why?
Near-death experiences, telepathy, mediums, apparitions and past-life memories are distinct phenomena, yet their veracity depends on the assumption that people can gain information without the use of the five senses. The anecdotes I include are worthy of consideration as evidence for survival of consciousness after the final breath.
Are these phenomena present in Jewish sources too?
Yes; each of these phenomena is present in Jewish sources. For instance, the Bible (1 Samuel 28) describes King Saul visiting a medium, the Witch of Endor, and gaining access to the deceased prophet Samuel in order to prepare for battle with the Philistines. Rabbis have to consider whether it is permissible for others to use a medium as a conduit to the deceased despite the biblical injunction against mediums, though there is room for interpretation. In regard to reincarnation, most Jews are unaware that such a belief is part of the mystical teachings, and is so mainstream in Orthodoxy that it is part of the daily evening prayer said before sleep.
Are they universal phenomena?
Yes; all major religions believe in an afterlife. At the same time, there are differences among religions concerning the nature of the afterlife, including who is worthy of heaven and whether souls return to this physical plane of existence.
What is your verdict? Does the soul survive?
In examining the contemporary evidence and listening to the voices that come through traditional sources, I conclude that there is a consciousness that survives this plane of existence. In revealing that, I feel like I am giving away the ending to a mystery novel. But that still leaves the reader to uncover how that ending is reached. The goal of this book is not only to share my conclusion, but, more importantly, it is to generate conversation and encourage the reader to reach an independent verdict.
What difference does it make to have such a belief?
Belief in an afterlife makes visiting a dying person less upsetting. Death is but a transition to another plane of existence. Such a belief comforts the dying and their families and conveys that the time that we have now is precious and purposeful.
What would my non-Jewish friends gain from reading your book?
As humans, we are each distinctly aware of our mortality. The phenomena and questions that this book considers are universal. It is precisely because the anecdotes in this book are so personal and the survey of reflections quite broad and simultaneously detailed that the book appeals to a wider audience, prompting valuable reflection and conversation.
Brian L. Weiss, MD, the nation’s foremost expert on past-life regression therapy, is chairman emeritus of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami.