Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked: Do you believe in life after death? Have you ever been visited by the spirit of a dead relative or friend? Do such visions or visitations have any theological meaning?
Here is Rabbi Steinsaltz’s response:
I do believe in life after death, as it is one of the tenets of the Jewish religion.
However, my perception of life after death is perhaps almost purely spiritual. It does not contain the folklore of legends or superstitions that is so often associated with this concept.
I do not envision the souls of the departed as holding harps or walking in a garden.
I believe that once the soul departs from the body it begins a process of detachment from this world and its inhabitants.
The soul begins to forget its body, its life, and its connections to the world. It no longer has a real world – only a dreamlike memory of a world.
Many people subscribe to the myth that, after they die, they will meet their departed friends and relatives and re-experience the joy of their shared memories.
But, because of the nature of a spirit without a body, those meetings are destined to be very unsatisfying.
Therefore, if I have been visited by the spirit of the dead, I possibly did not recognize it as such.
Aside from the obvious influence of dreams and memories – which are very much part of this world – pure souls have a primarily unconscious relationship with us.
The perception of visions and visitations by the dead are, oftentimes, the result of the living mind rather than of the departed spirit.
Metaphors and legends about departed souls can be helpful and even illuminating, but they too belong to the world of the living.
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn” http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/