I was born in 1945. I was the youngest of 3 boys whose parents were both immigrants from Poland who lost relatives in the Holocaust. Although my parents were orthodox Jews, the Holocaust had severely tested their belief in the God of Abraham and the idea of what I call cosmic justice which in biblical terms equates to heaven and hell. Accordingly, the idea of an after life was never expressed to me by my parents and in my Jewish studies. That is true for most of my generation of Jewish Americans. On the other hand, I observed that many of my Christian friends had an abiding belief of heaven and hell primarily through the teachings of the New Testament.
I could not relate to the teachings of the Jewish scripture in that I personally believed it was written by the people of the period from stories handed down to them through the generations. History has proven that the Hebrew bible sometimes called "Torah" was written during the Babylonian exile of the Jews in the 6th century B.C.E., not by Moses 700 years earlier. My reading of the New Testament makes me equally skeptical of scripture as both a spiritual and historical guide to our lives. However, after the deaths of my mother and father, I began to have a different attitude about spirituality and the tangible experience we call life.
As I had discussed in my book, Road to Air America, my father had a great influence upon my life politically and spiritually. His experiences as an immigrant and his humanistic values always gave me a belief in the idea of cosmic justice. When my father observed political leaders who were truly evil, he would say aloud that this or that politician should die or be paralyzed. Most of the time he cursed them, they either died or became paralyzed. In 1968 I asked my father if he had given George Wallace his death curse. He told me that death was too good for him. He would rather have Wallace live with half his body paralyzed. A week later Wallace was indeed shot and paralyzed. As a young child growing into manhood, I thought that dad had spiritual powers.
I never took any of this seriously until after his death and especially after my mother's death. My mother died 2 weeks after I had seen the movie The Sixth Sense. In that movie, the story was about a child who sees dead people who do not understand that they are dead. Bruce Willis, playing the part of the psychologist helping the boy is also one of those who does not recognize that he is indeed dead and has some unresolved issues that he has to take care of before his soul can move on. Right after my mother died, I had a similar experience with my departed mother that induced me to look at the literature about this subject. I started reading the book, Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. The book was written in 1994 and opened up a whole new understanding for me about ancient and contemporary teachings about the afterlife. The author wrote about Jewish teachings concerning the afterlife and connects that teaching to modern studies of near death experiences.
The following passage had a lot of meaning to me after my mother's death:
"Transit Stage 3 bears a particular relationship to Jewish mourning customs. After the death of a beloved family member, the traditional period of mourning lasts twelve months, during which time the Kaddish memorial prayer is recited for eleven months, less one day. Interestingly, and not coincidentally, this period of mourning corresponds with the length of time the soul spends in Gehenna. (Cleansing and purging of the soul after death).
For the living, reciting the Kaddish prayer daily helps the individual adjust to the loss of a beloved one. The mourner is able to grieve more fully, and in so doing experience-in Kubler-Ross's terms-the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance that are the inherent stages of the bereavement process. Eventually, the mourner is moved toward an acceptance of death in the face of personal pain and suffering.
On another level, the ritual act of saying Kaddish may also have a direct effect on the soul of the deceased. Our secular-influenced society emphasizes how Kaddish is for the bereaved; but traditionally Judaism has recognized that by saying the Mourner's Kaddish, in the year after a death, the living have the capacity to influence the postmortem fate of the dead. For example, the Talmud tells the following story:
Rabbi Akiva once saw in a vision the shadowy figure of a man carrying a load of wood on his shoulders. "What ails you?" asked the Rabbi. "I am one of those forlorn souls condemned for his sins to the agony of hell-fire," replied the shadow. "And there is no hope for you?" inquired the Rabbi further in great compassion. "If my little son, who was a mere infant when I died, could be taught to recite the Kaddish, then and only then would I be absolved." The Rabbi took the boy under his care and taught him to lisp the Kaddish. He was then assured that the father had been released from Gehenna.
What we see in the story is the Jewish belief that saying Kaddish functions as a way of assisting the disembodied soul through its purgations in Gehenna. Judaism teaches quite overtly that after death there is a continued emotional connection between the living family member and the soul of the person who is being mourned. And that connection is mediated through the ritual act of saying Kaddish.
Conceivably, what this means is that the bereavement process of the mourner has the capacity to either free or hinder the soul of the deceased in Gehenna. In the course of the first year after a death, grief for the living is most intense; for the soul of the deceased, it is a time of emotional purification. If the mourner can reach a feeling of peace, forgiveness, and resolution about the death of a beloved one, does this not directly affect the soul of the deceased in its process of emotional cleansing? If a child can forgive a parent for any hurt or injustice, does this not enable the soul of the dead parent to resolve incomplete and unresolved feelings of guilt? On the other hand, if the mourner cannot get beyond resentment, anger, and hostility toward the person who has died, perhaps such feelings will maintain the intensity of purgation for the deceased soul in Gehenna.
That information was helpful to me in making peace with my mother shortly after she died. I knew she needed me to say the Kaddish prayer for her whether or not I believed it to be meaningful. What I also took away from this is an abiding belief in cosmic justice that gives me a strong sense that those who have lived evil and cruel lives will not escape cosmic justice. The Bush/Cheney cabal and all the evil-doers that preceeded them in my mind are wearing the chains of Marley's Ghost from Dickens' A Christmas Carol and are condemned to do so for eternity. And I believe there is no person who will be able to cleanse their eternal souls no matter who says the Kaddish prayer for them.