The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife

Prefer to listen? I read this post for this episode of the Jewish Geography podcast (starting at around 9:15):


Dear Josep,

A number of years ago, you shared this highly amusing little Rowan Atkinson routine with me:

I responded that Eitan and I had laughed our heads off at it, and then: “Of course, if [the Jews were indeed right], the whole thing would be set up very differently, and their term of stay in hell would only last a year… but I don’t expect Rowan Atkinson to know that.  ;)”

You asked me to explain, and I responded: “I never told you about the Jewish concepts of the ‘afterlife’? Probably because they are vague, disputed, and overall a rather unimportant aspect of Judaism…” and proceeded to give a brief overview of the concepts of the Jewish afterlife with which I am most familiar, by comparing it to the Christian concepts and pointing out the differences.

Today, I’m going to go more in depth.

From a theological perspective, the idea of the existence of an afterlife is a very simple answer to the problem of Divine justice. It explains how good people can suffer in this world, by saying that justice will be served after we die. That is why it is such a crucial part of every religion. In Judaism, however, there is a notable lack of focus on the afterlife. I have always said that it’s because Judaism is much more focused on this world, what to do in it and how to improve it, than on the next world.

In the Talmud (Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:4), it says, “Be not like a servant who serves his Master in order to receive a reward, but rather like a servant who serves his Master unconditionally.” Why would a servant serve his master unconditionally? Out of love, right? Love, and the sense that it is the service itself that is the reward; and in cases where that doesn’t feel true, the belief that the master has one’s best interests at heart, and knows best, even when the servant doesn’t understand. Eitan pointed out to me recently that we have so many other more pressing things to focus on, that the afterlife is sort of an afterthought for us. Unlike its numerous mentions in the Christian Bible and in the Qur’an, an afterlife is only very vaguely referred to throughout the Jewish Bible, and never in detail.

So do we believe in an afterlife? Yes we do. For Jewish philosophers, too, it serves as an answer to the question of Divine justice. (Not the only one; but it’s part of explaining how the world is more complex than what we see in front of us.) However, unlike in Christianity and Islam, the details of what it is, what it looks like, etc., are not part of our belief system and therefore are basically a topic of discussion and dispute rather than doctrine. So you will find a very wide variety of opinions on it in rabbinical literature.

If you ask an observant Jew about his beliefs regarding the afterlife, he will probably answer something like what I will describe below. These are the most mainstream views of it that exist in Torah observant Judaism. But again, it’s important to emphasize that this is mostly speculation. The most accurate answer to the question of what the afterlife is according to Judaism, is: “We don’t know. Now, let’s talk about how to kasher that saucepan.” 😉

Olam HaBa/Gan Eden

We have two ways to refer to our version of Heaven: Olam HaBa, “the World to Come”, and Gan Eden, “the Garden of Eden”. The latter of those implies a return to our pre-Adam’s-sin state of simplicity and oneness with God. But unlike other religions that describe in great detail the pleasures that await a righteous person in Heaven, Judaism is very vague on this. In our prayer liturgy for the dead we refer to “basking in God’s light”, or “sitting near His throne”. We talk about one’s soul being “bound in the bond of life” (tzrura b’tzror hachaim). I’m sure the Kabbalah has a lot to say about it, but Kabbalistic thought is not generally mainstream.

Basically, we don’t really know what it is. All we know is that it’s good, some kind of eternal peace, and we talk about there being some kind of hierarchy according to the spiritual level one achieved during his lifetime.

How do we get to Olam HaBa?

This is very Christian question. 😛 A better question in Judaism is, how do we not get to Olam HaBa. The general assumption, and not just with Jews, but with every human being, is that he or she will take part in Olam HaBa. (It may involve a few steps to get there, which we’ll elaborate on in a moment.) You have to do something specifically wrong not to get there. In the Torah, there are a few commandments that list the punishment for transgressing them as “karet“. It is the harshest punishment in the Torah–even harsher than death. No one really knows what karet is, but the root k.r.t., כ.ר.ת, generally means “cut off”, and a common interpretation of the term is that is means being “cut off” from the physical and spiritual world. Meaning when that person dies, he or she simply ceases to exist. The soul is destroyed and does not live on. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.1

Gehennom

So this is the closest thing we have to “hell”. But really, if we’re comparing to Christian theology, it’s more like what y’all call purgatory.

You see, in Christianity, Hell is permanent. If you’re a sinner and/or you don’t accept Jesus, you are condemned to an eternity of suffering.

Serious bummer.
This is what awaits me according to your religion. Thanks a bunch. 😛

In Judaism, this is not so. Gehennom is a stage in a process of spiritual purification or cleansing. That process actually begins with the physical world–or at least, the parts of the process we are aware of. We see life as an opportunity to purify and refine our souls, by making the right choices in this life. If we have not managed to do so in this life, there are two possibilities, at least according to my own beliefs: Gehennom, and reincarnation, which we’ll get to in a moment. So again, no one really knows what Gehennom is or what exactly happens there, but the most common explanation I’ve heard is that it is a state of remorse and regret for not living up to your full potential. It appears to be a state of understanding why the things you did wrong were wrong, how they affected you and those around you, and what you could have done and been versus what you did and were… and the subsequent profound regret that comes with that.

Our sources say that this process lasts as long as that individual soul needs, which is, at very most, a year. That is why we recite kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, for a year after the death of a close family member. Actually, we recite it only for eleven months, under the belief that no one could possibly be wicked enough to deserve the full twelve months.

When the process is complete and the soul is “cleansed”, it then moves on to Olam HaBa.

In essence, Gehennom is actually not really a different place than Olam HaBa, but a part of it. Jew in the City (who, BTW, is also a great resource for people looking to learn about the basic concepts of Judaism) has a cute video explaining how it’s like the difference between attending a symphony as someone who has a deep appreciation for music and understanding of it, versus attending the same symphony as someone who hates classical music and has never even bothered to learn to appreciate it. For the first person, it’s heaven; for the second, it’s hell. Gehennom, in this allegory, is the place where at first the “music” is torture, but then you slowly learn to enjoy and appreciate it, and then it becomes heaven for you.

Reincarnation

Not all Jews believe in reincarnation. As with all this stuff, it’s opinion, not doctrine, and reincarnation even more so than the other things. Personally, as you know, I do believe in reincarnation; I believe it is another way to cleanse souls that for whatever reason God decides need to be purified this way and not through Gehennom. We come back to this world and live another life, completing whatever lessons we needed to learn or achievements we needed to accomplish in the previous lifetime, but didn’t.

Resurrection of the Dead

This concept is one that is specifically referred to in our scriptures. It is not really about the afterlife, but about the Messianic Era. Our tradition teaches that when the Messiah comes, the righteous dead will come back to life to experience and take part in the Redemption of the World. Most of our sages interpret this is being 100% literal. Most Jewish cemeteries all over the world are arranged with the graves facing Jerusalem, with the idea that when the dead are resurrected, they can just climb on out of the grave and conveniently find themselves facing the right direction.

They may be disappointed, however, to find the gates locked. By Techielaw (Author) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
They may be disappointed, however, to find the gates locked.
By Techielaw (Author) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
…Obviously, this is a bit of a stretch for a rationalist like myself. I tend to prefer to take this as being metaphorical; after all, no one actually knows what the Messianic Age will look like either. In fact, the Messianic Age is also referred to as Olam HaBa in many sources, so there seems to be some idea there about the joining of the physical and spiritual world into one, and that makes a little more sense to me.

The Devil

So actually the concept of Satan in Judaism has nothing at all to do with the afterlife, but I’m bringing it up here to fully address Rowan Atkinson’s routine. The word “Satan” means “adversary”, and in Christian thought, the Devil is kind of God’s “enemy” in that he tries to attract people to sin and therefore, I suppose, is appointed master of Hell, which is where the sinners go. In Christian thought, the Devil is a sort of independent force that works against God. In Jewish thought, Satan is a spiritual entity that works for God and is subordinate to Him. He (it…) is an “adversary” in that he is the “prosecutor” against us in the Heavenly Court. (This is all allegorical.) He makes claims against us and is harsh on us, but he still works for the Judge and for justice.

In summary: here’s hoping the Jews are indeed right on this one. 😉

Love,

Daniella


1. They do have Monopoly in Catalonia, right?


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