Before Tommy (ex-God Squad co-author, the Rev. Tom Hartman) died, I asked him to send me a sign from heaven that he was OK. This sign would settle a long-standing debate between us about whether it was possible to talk to dead people. It would also settle my need to know that death was not the end of my best friend. Tommy agreed, but in the days since Feb. 16, 2016 — nothing. No choirs of angels, no mysterious strangers, no winning lottery numbers — nothing!
My request to have Tommy dial me up from heaven violated a long list of Jewish and Catholic laws.
Consulting mediums and talking to the dead is prohibited in many biblical verses that echo Leviticus 19:31, "Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritualists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God." (See also: Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-13) King Saul was deposed and killed because consulting with the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:1-25) violated that command. "Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David, son of Jesse." (1 Chronicles 10:13-14) As usual, Isaiah has the last and best word, "When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isaiah 8:19)
The Catholic Church's catechism is brilliantly succinct, "Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone" (No. 2116).
Thus ends our historical review of the religious prohibition of talking to dead people. But it does not end what happened to me at a Long Island diner on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (I think you might want be seated for this).
As is my joy and custom, I traveled back to New York to preach at my home congregation, Temple Beth Torah in Melville, as rabbi emeritus on Rosh Hashanah. It was wonderful to see my flock and gracious of them to pretend that I was still their shepherd. On the second day, after services and a teaching session, I met Michael and friends for lunch at the Celebrity Diner on Jericho Turnpike. Michael is a dear friend and deeply faithful Catholic who introduced me to Tommy some 30 years ago. After the iconic Celebrity Diner chicken salad, Michael asked the friends to leave us and then he told me this story:
Michael said that the day before, on Rosh Hashanah, he was shaving and praying, and in his prayer he addressed Tommy: "I am going to meet your best friend tomorrow for lunch. Do you have anything you want to tell him?"
Michael said that he immediately heard Tommy's voice as clear as a bell: "Tell Marc that Sol is in charge and that he wants Marc to know that Sol said that this place is beautiful — more beautiful than he could ever imagine."
Michael said that this made no sense to him. He looked at me and asked, "Who is Sol?"
I almost lost my chicken salad. I said, "Sol is the name of my father who died in 2007."
Michael had never met my father and did not know his name, but Tommy did.
My father always acted as if he was in charge, and Tommy's saying that my dad thought he was in charge of heaven is exactly the kind of humor Tommy had. My dad was also fond of saying that something was the "most beautiful" or "most delicious." It was how Dad talked.
There was no way Michael could have known any of this. There is no rational way to explain it. It was clearly the sign Tommy had promised me.
I don't care about the biblical prohibitions this sign violated. I do care that my dad is in charge of heaven. I do care that Tommy is OK and that my best friend still has my number. On other days I may know more or I may know differently, but today that is all I know, and it is enough for me today.