Thoughts for the Week
By Cantor Gershon Silins
Do Jews believe in an afterlife? The Hebrew Bible has very few references to it. It does make reference to a place called “Sheol” to which the dead go, but it doesn’t seem to represent anything like heaven or hell, and it appears to be more of a metaphor than an actual place or expectation. The concept of resurrection appears, but again rather ambiguously, and only in
later biblical books. For example, in Daniel 12:2 we read: “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.”
The book of Daniel is very late; it dates to the 2nd Century BCE, and over the following centuries, a Jewish concept of some kind of afterlife began to develop. In mystical traditions, we find ideas about the immortality of the soul, and reincarnation in a kind of transmigration of souls.
The principal concept that ties Jewish beliefs with some kind of life after death is the notion of the World to Come, olam haba, which we can find in early rabbinic sources as some kind of reward for individual Jews (and sometimes righteous gentiles), but it is never described in any detail. Indeed, it is so vague that it might not specifically refer to life after death somewhere other than this world. It could refer to legacy we leave behind. On this reading, the “world to come” would be this world, after we are no longer alive in it.
Judaism also has ideas that seem to relate to heaven and hell: the Garden of Eden (Gan Eden) and Gehenna (Gehinnom). They seem to be associated with the immortality of the soul and the World to Come, but it is impossible to interpret them in any consistent way. The earliest reference to the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom as a pair seems to be the rabbinic statement of the 1st Century sage Yochanan ben Zakkai: “There are two paths before me, one leading to Gan Eden and the other to Gehinnom” (Berachot 28b). Our sages would have understood both of these as referring to actual places in the world, not some kind of heaven existing outside this world. And in fact, Gehinnom is an actual small valley in Jerusalem, where some of the kings of Judah were said to have sacrificed their children by fire. You can find it on a map and actually go there.
None of these ideas fit consistently with one another. For example, if the sources that refer to the World to Come are referring to the Garden of Eden, then what is the world of the resurrected? And if judgment immediately follows death, then what need is there for the judgment that would follow resurrection?
Though some Jewish scholars have tried to clarify these ideas, it is impossible to reconcile all the Jewish texts and sources that discuss the afterlife.
I think that our sages don’t present a consistent vision of a world that we might inhabit after we die because Judaism tends to focus on “this world” issues rather than on “next world”
ones. In fact, I’m rather comforted by our failure to provide a heaven or hell with a lot of detail. I think life is better when we are mindful of it, rather than focusing on possible rewards or punishments. And (as Maimonides noted) a blissful afterlife would not make up for the suﬀering that preceded it. We ought to do good because it is good, not because of a possible reward for it after death. And we ought to work for the common good in the world for the sake of a better life for everyone; if we focus too much on the next world, we are likely to be less committed to fixing the problems of this one.
Of course, Jews aren’t the only people who try to be good for its own sake or fix the world for the sake of others. But our tradition does not allow us to avoid our responsibilities in this world. It does enjoin us to work for a better future in a world that we will never see. We find this concept in the often quoted passage in Pirkei Avot 2:16: “He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labour; And know that the reward to the righteous is in the age to come.”