by Rabbi Aryeh
What is the root of immortality and the
Look at your hand. What do you see?
A part of your body, an appendage made of
bone and sinew covered with flesh and skin. It is filled with
nerves, blood vessels and lymph ducts which run through it and
connect it to your body, making it part of you.
You can open and close your hand. It obeys
every command that your mind sends to it. It is yours -- a
part of you. But what are you? Who is the real you? What
happens when you tell your hand to open and close? How does
your mind will it to obey its commands?
Now point a finger at yourself. If you are
an average person, you will point a finger at your chest. You
think of yourself as your body. But is your body the real you?
Not too long ago, a person could consider
his own body an integral part of himself. You were your body
and your body was you. But this is no longer the case.
Scientific progress has changed the entire concept of human
personality and identity.
Heart transplants are now an almost
commonplace occurrence. They do not even make the news
anymore. A person can live with another person's heart beating
in his breast. If we would ask such a person to point to
himself, would he point at his heart? Is this transplanted
heart really part of him? Is the heart that beats within your
breast the real you? Or is it something else entirely?
Researchers are predicting that within the
next decade or two, brain transplants maybe possible. This
would force us to completely re-evaluate the concept of human
Imagine what it would be like to undergo a
brain transplant. A man might be suffering from an incurable
disease in his body, but still have a healthy brain. The
donor, on the other hand, would have suffered irreparable
brain damage, but otherwise have a perfectly sound body. The
brain is removed from the sick body and placed in the healthy
Who is the new man? We have an old brain
with all its memories, personality traits and behaviour
patterns. But it has a brand new body. The old body might have
been old and sick, while the new one may be young and full of
Let us ask this man to point to himself.
Will he point to his body? Is the real you your body or your
(Actually, an analogous question is raised
in the Talmud. In the case of an unsolved murder, a special
sacrifice, the Eglah Arufah, was brought by the city
nearest the corpse. The Talmud raises two questions: What if
the head is found in one place and the body in another? And if
the body is equidistant from the two cities, from what portion
of the body do we measure?)
A brain transplant raises enough questions.
How about a memory transfer?
The science of cybernetics has discovered
many similarities between computers and the human brain.
Computer technology allows one to program a memory transfer,
taking all the information contained in one computer and
transferring it to another. All that passes from one computer
to the other is information.
What if this were done with the human
brain? This may lie in the realm of science fiction, but even
if it will never be possible in practice, it is certainly
possible in theory.
Let us try to envision such a memory
transfer. Assume we have a person with an incurable disease
where neither the body nor the brain can be salvaged. We clone
a new body for this individual, brain and all. The
possibilities of doing this have already been discussed at
length in the literature. This new body has a blank, new
brain, capable of functioning, but without any memories or
thought patterns. As a final step, we accomplish a memory
transfer, bringing all the information from the sick person
into the brain of the new body.
We now have a fascinating situation. If all
of a man's memories, thought patterns and personality traits
are transferred to a new body and brain, this personality
literally exists in his new body. But nothing physical has
been transferred. No physical part of him has been placed in
the new body. All that has been placed in this new body is
information that previously existed in the old brain. Yet this
information contains the sum total of this person's
If this is true, then it offers us
tremendous new insight into our original question: Who is the
The real you is not your body or brain, but
the information contained in your brain -- your memories,
personality traits and thought patterns.
(The philosophical Kabbalists write that
the spiritual world is a realm whose substance is information.
It is an arena where information can interact without being
attached to or dependent on matter. Thus, an angel, for
example, can interact with another angel, even though they
have no connection with anything material. Angels can also
interact with material objects. Such a spiritual world would
also be able to interact with the information comprising the
What happens then when a person dies?
We know that the body ceases to function.
The brain becomes inert and the physical person is dead.
But what happens to the real you -- the
human personality? What happens to all this information -- the
memories, thought patterns and personality traits? When a book
is burned, its contents are no longer available. When a
computer is smashed, the information within it is also
Does the same thing happen when a person
dies? Is the mind and personality irretrievably lost?
We know that God is omniscient. He knows
all and does not forget. God knows every thought and memory
that exists within our brains. There is no bit of information
that escapes His knowledge.
What, then, happens when a person dies?
God does not forget, and therefore all of
this information continues to exist, at least in God's memory.
(An allusion to this is also found in the
Kaballah. Gan Eden or Paradise is said to exist in the sefirah
of Binah -- the divine understanding. This may well be
related to the concept of memory. Souls, on the other hand,
are conceived in the sefirah of Daas --
knowledge. One may say that while we live, we exist in God's
knowledge; after death we exist in His memory.)
We may think of something existing only in
memory as being static and effectively dead. But God's memory
is not a static thing. The sum total of a human personality
may indeed exist in God's memory, but it can still maintain
its self-identity and volition, and remain in an active state.
This sum total of the human personality
existing in God's memory is what lives on even after man
CUTTING DOWN AT STATIC
But what is immortality like? What is it
like to be a disembodied soul? How does it feel to be in the
World of Soul?
We know that the human brain, marvellous
organ that it is, is still very inefficient as a thinking
device. Henri Bergson has suggested that one of the main
functions of the brain and nervous system is to eliminate
activity and awareness, rather than produce it.
In "The Doors of Perception,"
Aldous Huxley quotes Prof. C.D. Broad's comments on this. He
says that every person is capable of remembering everything
that has ever happened to him. He is able to perceive
everything that surrounds him. However, if all this
information poured into our minds at once, it would overwhelm
us. So the function of the brain and nervous system is to
protect us and prevent us from being overwhelmed and confused
by the vast amount of information that impinges upon our sense
organs. They shut out most of what we perceive and remember.
All that would confound us is eliminated and only the small,
special selection that is useful is allowed to remain.
Huxley explains that our mind has powers of
perception and concentration that we cannot even begin to
imagine. But our main business is to survive at all costs. To
make survival possible, all of our mind's capabilities must be
funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain.
Some researchers are studying this effect.
They believe that this reducing-valve effect may be very
similar to the jamming equipment used to block out offensive
radio broadcasts. The brain constantly produces a kind of
static, cutting down our perception and reducing our mental
This static can actually be seen. When you
close your eyes, you see all sorts of random pictures flashing
through your mind. It is impossible to concentrate on any one
of them for more than an instant, and each image is obscured
by a host of others superimposed over it.
This static can even be seen when your eyes
are opened. However, one usually ignores these images since
they are so faint compared to our visual perception. However,
they still reduce one's perception, both of the world around
him and of himself.
Much of what we know about this static is a
result of research done with drugs that eliminate it.
According to a number of authorities, this is precisely how
the psychedelic drugs work.
NAKED BEFORE GOD
Now imagine the mental activity of a
disembodied soul standing naked before God. The reducing valve
is gone entirely. The mind is open and transparent. Things can
be perceived in a way that is impossible to a mind held back
by a body and nervous system. The visions and understanding
are the most delightful bliss imaginable (as per: "the
righteous, sitting with their crowns on their head, delighting
in the shine of the Shechina").
This is what Job meant when he said
(19:26), "And when after my skin is destroyed, then
without my flesh shall I see God."
But then, an individual will also see
himself in a new light. Every thought and memory will be
lucid, and he will see himself for the first time without the
static and jamming that shuts out most thoughts.
Even in our mortal physical state, looking
at oneself can sometimes be pleasing and at other times very
painful. Certain acts leave us proud and pleased with
ourselves. Others cause excruciating pain, especially when we
Imagine standing naked before God, with
your memory wide open, completely transparent without any
jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force. You
will remember everything you ever did and see it in a new
light. You will see it in the light of the unshaded spirit,
or, if you will, in God's own light that shines from one end
of creation to the other. The memory of every good deed and
mitzvah will be the sublimest of pleasures, as our tradition
speaks of the World to Come.
But your memory will also be open to all
the things of which you are ashamed. They cannot be
rationalized away or dismissed. You will be facing yourself,
fully aware of the consequences of all your deeds. We all know
the terrible shame and humiliation experienced when one is
caught in the act of doing something wrong. Imagine being
caught by one's own memory with no place to escape...
We are taught that the judgement of the
wicked lasts 12 months. Even the naked soul can gradually
learn to live with this shame and forget it, and the pain
eventually subsides. It may be more than coincidence that 12
months is also the length of time required for something to be
forgotten in Talmudic law. Thus, one mourns a parent for 12
months and says a special blessing upon seeing a close friend
after this period of time.
(Of course, there is an exception to this
rule. There are the nonbelievers and worst of sinners reckoned
in the Talmud. These individuals have nothing else but their
shame and have no escape from everlasting torment.)
But even temporary torment is beyond our
imagination. Nachmanides writes that all the suffering of Job
would not compare to an instant in Gehenom. Rabbi
Nachman of Breslov says the same of a man who suffered for
years from the most indescribable torments: It is still better
than a single burn in Gehenom. Mental torture cannot be
compared to the mere physical...
WHAT THE DEAD THINK OF US
There is another dimension of immortality
discussed in the Talmud (Brachot 18b). It asks: Do the dead
know what is happening in the world of the living?
After an involved discussion, the Talmud
concludes that they do have this awareness. The Kabbalistic
philosophers explain that the soul achieves a degree of unity
with God, the source of all knowledge, and therefore also
partakes of His omniscience.
When a person dies, he enters a new world
of awareness. He exists as a disembodied soul and yet is aware
of what is happening in the physical world. Gradually, he
learns to focus on any physical event he wishes. At first this
is a frightening experience. You know that you are dead. You
can see your body lying there, with your friends and relatives
standing around crying over you. We are taught that
immediately after death, the soul is in a great state of
What is the main source of its attention?
What draws its focus more than anything else?
We are taught that it is the body. Most
people identify themselves with their bodies, as we have
discussed earlier. It is difficult for a soul to break this
thought habit, and therefore, for the first few days, the soul
is literally obsessed with its previous body. This is alluded
to in the verse, "And his soul mourns for him" (Job
This is especially true before the body is
buried. The soul wonders what will happen to the body. It
finds it to be both fascinating and frightening to watch its
own body's funeral arrangements and preparation for burial.
Of course, this is one of the reasons why
Judaism teaches us that we must have the utmost respect for
human remains. We can imagine how painful it is for a soul to
see its recent body cast around like an animal carcass. The
Torah therefore forbids this.
This is also related to the question of
autopsies. We can imagine how a soul would feel when seeing
its body lying on the autopsy table, being dissected and
The disembodied soul spends much of its
time learning how to focus. It is now seeing without physical
eyes, using some process which we do not even have the
vocabulary to describe. The Kabbalists call this frightening
process Kaf HaKela -- like being thrown with a sling
from one end of the world to another. It is alluded to in the
verse, "The soul of my master shall be bound up in the
bundle of life with the Lord your God, and the souls of your
enemies shall He sling out, as from the hollow of a
sling" (1-Samuel 25:29). The soul perceives things
flashing into focus from all over, and is in a state of total
confusion and disorientation.
One of the few things that the soul has
little difficulty focusing on is its own body. It is a
familiar pattern and some tie seems to remain. To some extent,
it is a refuge from its disorientation.
The body begins to decompose soon after it
is buried. The effect of watching this must be both
frightening and painful. The Talmud teaches us, "Worms
are as painful to the dead as needles in the flesh of the
living, as it is written, 'his flesh grieves for him' (Job
14:22)." Most commentaries write that this refers to the
psychological anguish of the soul in seeing its earthly
habitation in a state of decay.
The Kabbalists call this Chibut HaKever,
the punishment of the grave. We are taught that what happens
to the body in the grave can be an even worse experience than
This varies among individuals. The more one
is obsessed with one's body and the material world in general
during his lifetime, the more he will be obsessed with it
after death. For the person to whom the material was
everything, this deterioration of the body is most painful.
On the other extreme, the person who was
immersed in the spiritual may not care very much about the
fate of his body at all. He finds himself very much at home in
the spiritual realm and might quickly forget about his body
Many of us think of death as a most
frightening experience. Tzaddikim, on the other hand, have
looked forward to it. Shortly before his death, Rabbi Nachman
of Breslav said, "I very much want to divest myself of
this garment that is my body."
If we truly believe and trust in a merciful
God, then death has no terror for us...
Reprinted with permission, from "If
You Were God" (NCSY-OU)
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was a multi-faceted, prolific exponent of
Jewish thought -- skilled in both Kabbalah and Jewish law, as
well as the natural sciences (he was listed in "Who’s
Who in Physics"). He suffered an untimely death at age