What happens when one dies?
Rabbi Mendel, in conversation
After the Parsha class last evening, several of us were talking about some of the problematics raised during the discussion of mutton Torah (the gift of the Torah and not the revelation at Sinai because tradition holds that the Torah was already known to the Jewish people having been taught to Abraham and then passed down through all subsequent generations). One of those problematics was the notion that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai, even those unborn souls, at the exact point when God descended from his heavens and Moses ascended to God’s mountain. The very idea of a soul became the point of the after class discussion. Rabbi Mendel was making the point that a creator God created the soul in order for there to be a ‘spark’ of life infused into every living creature, great or small; that that ‘spark’ or soul ascends to a different level of existence when the body dies. He was questioned vigorously by a member of the group (not me) trying to come to grips with the very idea of the existence (even pre-existence if the idea that all souls living, dead and yet unborn were present at Sinai) of the soul. It was at that point the question quoted above was raised. I’m sorry in advance, but Rabbi Mendel’s argument is what is famously known as one of those false logical arguments that philosophers call the argument from incredulity; that argument goes basically like this: I cannot even imagine something different therefore what I believe must be true. Let me explore this for a few moments.
Let me first assume there is a creator God for the sake of argument. Let me also assume that this creator God is at once omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent (all powerful, all knowing and loving/merciful). If, and only if (iff) this is true does the very existence of a soul begin to make any sense at all but the jury remains out on the truth of this kind of a creator God. If God is all these things then how is it the God cannot build a mountain that God itself cannot move? The very idea that this is possible, even in the face of countless described miracles where God alters nature described in Scripture, then the creator God cannot be omnipotent. Strike one! If the creator God is all knowing how is it possible for man to have choices, to exercise free will? This questions both the omniscience and omnipotence of the creator God. If the creator God knows all possible outcomes then man can only have the illusion of free will, the simulacrum of moral and ethical choice because both the choice and the outcome are already known by the omniscient creator God. If, as theologians argue, the creator God gives mankind free will it surrenders some of its power rendering itself no longer omnipotent and some of its knowledge rendering itself no longer omniscient. Strike two! As to benevolence, the creator God is responsible for the commonplace as well as the extraordinary suffering of all life on earth. In the face of massive genocides of the 19th and 20th Centuries, where was this benevolent creator God. Either the creator God was unable to stop the genocides in which case the creator God was impotent not omnipotent or the creator God was unwilling to stop the genocides in which case the creator God is unmerciful at best and a sadist at the very worst. Strike Three.
Simply on the basis of the evidence briefly described above, the question of a creator God remains a moot point. Perhaps there is a force that is something akin to Aristotle’s Prime Mover, but even that is a circular argument that ends only because, incredulously, Aristotle himself, after circling back in time comes to a point where he cannot imagine that there was creation ex nihilo (creating something from nothing), hence he concludes that there must have been something that lit the flame of the universe and all creation, else why would anything at all exist. But just because one cannot imagine creato ex nihilo doesn’t mean that there aren’t alternative solutions to creation. Two come to mind. First there is the idea of creato ex materia or creation from some pre-existing, eternal material force that has not yet been identified. Then, of course, the theological favorite, creato ex deo or the creation out of the very voice of God. These are three competing voices to explain the creation of the universe, none of which are inevitable but perhaps only one of which is supported by cosmologists; the idea of the Big Bang is, in fact, an argument for creato ex nihilo. By isolating one of the other two possible explanations for the creation of the universe and all that is within it and suggesting that it is the only reasonable explanation is to argue from incredulity. The failure to address competing arguments is, at the very least, an argument that leaves reasonable doubt in my mind.
So if the question of the existence of a creator God can be called into doubt, which is not to say that there is no creator God, merely that there is not enough positive evidence extant to support such a God and more than enough evidence extant to deny such a God, then to base the existence of the divine soul on the idea of creato ex deo to the exclusion of all other possibilities is not persuasive. The internal argument for creato ex deo in Judaism is based exclusively in Scripture. It is a theological argument based in a mythological explanation for that which was thought to be completely outside the ken of human understanding. As an ethical story the whole idea of creation arising from the spoken word of the creator God may have ethical and moral lessons to be learned about the genesis of everything but given the state of scientific knowledge it is a story that can only be understood as metaphor and not as revealed truth. If that is the case, the argument for the existence of a soul, even a repository for all souls dead, living and yet unborn, makes little sense except teleologically. If there is, however, real evidence to show my analysis to be wrong, then I am obligated to explore that evidence for its credulity and either accept it or reject it as warranted or not warranted. I would reject as unwarranted any assertions that are only based on Scriptural writings or commentaries on Scriptural writing, not because it is incredulous, rather because it is steeped in that which it purports to prove leaving no room for alternatives.
As I told Rabbi Mendel last night, it would take an awful lot of persuasion to get me to accept the existence of an eternal soul leaving the door open to being persuaded.
- Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)