"What is a soul? Where does it go after it departs this world? Do Jews believe in heaven and hell? Can souls communicate with us from the afterlife?"
These intriguing questions are posed in the online promotion of a new course developed by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, titled "Journey of the Soul: An Exploration of Life, Death and What Lies Beyond."
Thanks to Lancaster's Rohr Chabad Jewish Center, an affiliate of the Brooklyn, New York-based JLI, area residents — Jewish and non-Jewish — have the opportunity to explore these and other weighty questions about the "spiritual dimension of our existence."
Rabbi Elazar Green, the Chabad co-director, will teach the six-part class, to be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, starting Oct. 25 and continuing through Dec. 13, at the center, 1024 Harrisburg Pike.
The course has two purposes, Green said. First, it will examine the mystical and kabalistic understandings of the soul according to Judaic tradition, such as the soul's existence before a person is born and what happens to the soul when a person dies. (Kabbalah is an ancient Jewish mystical tradition.)
Secondly, “It provides a very specific understanding and meaning to the Jewish traditions of mourning and death and burial, which will provide a message of comfort to many who have gone through this tragedy of losing a loved one," Green said.
A person's spirit, he said, is like a reservoir: "You need to be filled up when you encounter life's tragedies and difficulties." The course, he added, "is a great opportunity to fill up one's spiritual reservoir."
Green will lecture using textbooks provided by JLI that draw upon a variety of texts, including kabalistic, mystical writings by such authors as Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher from the Middle Ages, and selections from the Talmud, the collected rabbinic teachings and commentary on Jewish law and traditions.
"My approach to teaching is going to be from traditional Judaism," said Green.
That means focusing on what Jews believed and practiced before Judaism evolved into the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative branches, a relatively recent change in Judaism's long history.
While Green and his family are of the Orthodox tradition, the Chabad is an educational resource center with an outreach to nearby Franklin & Marshall College that is open to all Jews and welcomes non-Jews in various adult education programs.
Typically, about a third of any given program's attendees are not Jewish, he estimated. A previous class on Jewish law drew a number of attorneys, he said.
Green is hoping for a good turnout for this class, which also is being offered at the York Jewish Community Center starting on Wednesday, Nov. 4.
"Anyone who has deeply religious beliefs would be interested in what ancient or traditional Judaism has to say about (the soul)," said Green, noting that the two other monotheistic, Abrahamic religions —Christianity and Islam — arose from Judaism.
Additionally, with advance registration, medical and mental health professionals can earn educational credits by taking the course.
As for a Jewish perspective on an afterlife, Green, not wanting to summarize an entire course in a few words, would say only that Jews believe in heaven and hell, "but not in the way our society does." The course also will touch on reincarnation.
Green hopes that those who take the class will share what they learn with others.
"Not only will it provide oneself with these tools for comfort, but it will also give a person the tools to help comfort other people," he said.