Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

Dear Rabbi,

I’m puzzled by a new film based on a 2010 book called, “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. First, I don’t understand how a fictional story has been classified and ranked as a bestselling work of nonfiction. More disturbing, I find it offensive that the book portrays the heaven of Christians, by Christians and for Christians. Please help me understand what to believe about all of this?

Heavenly Jew in Hackensack

Dear Heavenly,

I’m critical of the book you mention because its story is so obviously manipulative and because the premise of its narrative is so patronizingly Protestant.

For those unfamiliar, the book recounts, “the true story of a four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who experienced heaven during emergency surgery. He talks about looking down to see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear …”

This book builds on a familiar narrative about the soul and death that is common in the belief systems of Western religions. That story proposes that every living person is made up of a body and a soul, which is the life-force that animates the body. When a person dies, that life-force no longer inhabits the body. It does not cease to exist. It goes to another domain. Since death by definition is irreversible, that domain is a mystery to us.

No matter that it is unknowable. Many have speculated about whether a heaven or a hell exists and, if so, what it/they look(s) like. This book to which you refer purports to settle the speculations only about heaven, with nothing to say about hell. It presents us with an account of an innocent young boy whose soul departs his body, goes to heaven, and comes back to inhabit his body and to report to us what he found in the next world.

So yes, this book’s framework account is legitimately nonfiction in parts because it tells us about a true story about a little boy who did undergo emergency surgery and had a near-death experience. And because the book, and now the film, both allege to report what the boy said to his parents after his operation, it can be classified as a nonfiction chronicle of a boy’s conversations with adults.

Then, by a manipulative literary sleight of hand, the tale weaves into the framework of bare facts a wildly imaginative fundamentalist Christian account of heavenly ascent by an ostensibly guileless little boy. It mingles wholly imaginary details of what the boy says he saw in heaven into the factual background of his hospital procedures.

You need to know that this type of tale is nothing new. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics and religious visionaries have provided us in the past with reports of heavenly ascents, mainly achieved in ecstatic states of mediation or other events. The Jewish Hekhalot literature, for instance, describes mystical rises into heaven accompanied by divine visions, including in them ways to summon and control angels and to find in heaven some new knowledge of the Torah.

Our religious traditions have a variety of idealized stories of heaven. But you seem not to care much for the conclusion that a Christian heaven is “for Real” and that the Burpo boy was there and back.

Neither do I, partly because I had a near death experience that does not confirm the boy’s story.

In 2006 my heart stopped at the beginning of a routine angioplasty procedure in a hospital catheterization lab. I fell unconscious while the cardiology practitioners were inserting a catheter into an artery near my leg. By the doctors’ criteria, I was clinically dead for two minutes.

Did I go to heaven? Do I have a report about what wonders I saw there? Did I have any out-of-body experience? No, I had none of the above. My experience contradicts Colton Burpo’s. With the help of his father, who is a minister, Colton recollected a whole lot of “facts” about the spiritual experiences of his soul as it traveled outside his body and made a visit to a Christian heaven.

Unlike Colton’s, my soul did not see bright lights suggesting the divine presence of a God. My soul did not soar to heaven or float around outside of my body. My soul did not meet my dead relatives or greet any great religious personages of any faiths or persuasions.

In spite of my own non-ascent, if you do insist, I can weave for you a narrative of a Jewish heavenly experience. There are many possibilities based on the strands of Jewish religious traditions.

The great medieval rabbi Maimonides presents us with a visualization of Gan Eden, a heavenly depiction based on the Talmud that always has seemed attractive to me.

“In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, no material substance. There are only souls of the righteous without bodies – like the ministering angels… The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8).

In some Talmudic views, the Garden of Eden is the eternal destination for the righteous. In that realm of joy and peace the Talmud in some instances describes golden banquet tables (Talmud, Taanit 25a), stools of gold (Talmud, Ketubot 77b), lavish feasts (Talmud, Baba Batra 75a), celebrations of the Sabbath, basking in sunshine and engaging in sex (Talmud, Berakhot 57b).

In other views – which Maimonides seems to prefer – Talmudic rabbis declare that in Gan Eden there will be no eating, drinking, procreation, or commerce; no envy, hatred, or rivalry. The righteous will sit in Gan Eden with crowns on their heads, and bask in the light of the Shechinah (Talmud, Berakhot 17a).

Every religion has its own meaningful storylines, which are used to educate its adherents and promulgate its beliefs. The (unarticulated) deal in our pluralistic American culture has been that each religion agrees to tell its stories to its own members and to stop there.

The Burpo book cleverly sidesteps an understood status quo that encourages plural religions to coexist calmly in our complex society. Your unease was caused by the loud unsolicited declarations of faith that come forth in this book and movie. Those proclamations are tantamount to acts of proselytization – active attempts to convert others to another faith. They ought to make you uncomfortable or even angry.

Using a cute boy’s medical emergency to preach fundamentalist Christianity to the populace at large is a tacky activity that you appear to recognize for what it is, to question its validity, and to properly reject it.

Dear Rabbi,

Ten years ago, when I was shopping in a big department store, I saw a nice leather belt for sale on a table. Something came over me. I picked up the belt, I liked how it looked, and I put it into my pocket. Shortly thereafter I walked out of the store without paying for it. No alarms went off. I went home and started to wear the belt. I had not done anything like this before and truly I do not know what moved me to act this way, to shoplift a small and paltry item that I surely could have paid for.

Recently I have become reflective and am trying to understand myself, introspective of my inner motives and some of my inexplicable actions of the past. Will it help me to give back the belt to the store or to offer to pay for it? If so should I do that anonymously or let the store know who I am?

Remorseful in Randolph

Dear Remorseful,

How are we supposed to act once we regret a little or a big action that we took in the past? What is better – to make amends involving other parties actively, or to recognize privately that we are human and prone to occasional failure, to learn from that, and to move on?

A situation like this, where there appears to be a contradiction among value systems, can be clarified when it is approached talmudically. On the one hand, commercial stores expect to incur some percentage of losses from shoplifting. After years have passed, it makes no sense to me for you to go back with the belt or directly to offer payment. At this late date, the store managers probably would be amused by your story and not know what to do with your restitution.

On the other hand, you did violate a commandment. To make true amends you need to repent and repay. It seems like you have grown in self-awareness and repented. To repay the company, I suggest a simple, unconventional method. Go to the store (or go online to the store site), buy a gift card for the value of the belt, go home (or offline) and shred the card (or delete the emails and codes pertaining to it). The store will have received value back to its bottom line and you will have satisfied your needs to make restitution.