Do Jews believe that there is an afterlife? If you ask many secular or liberal Jews whether Judaism teaches that the soul is immortal or if there is an afterlife, they will likely answer that Judaism doesn’t believe in afterlife; rather, most people will say that Judaism is a this-worldly religion which concentrates on the here and now.
While Judaism does concentrate on the importance of this world, it also posits an afterlife. The Jewish tradition affirms that the human soul is immortal, and in some way survives the physical death of the body. This is described with terms such as Olam Haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden, or Paradise) and Gehenna (Purgatory).
Why is this unknown to many modern Jews?
Since the haskalah (age of enlightenment in late 17th to 18th century Europe) ideas about immortality were considered to be embarrassing and superstitious by many modern religious thinkers. As such these traditions were denied by most Reform Jews, and were played down or ignored by Conservative Jews; there even was a tendency to downplay this topic within Modern Orthodoxy. While the last 50 years have seen an explosion in the amount of classical Jewish works translated into English, Russian, and Modern Hebrew, many Jews were embarrassed when dealing with literature on this topic, and so neglected its translation and presentation.
Today, this trend has reversed itself. Modern Jews have begun to reclaim Jewish teachings on immortality, resurrection and the afterlife. Even for those who do not believe in the literal truth of these propositions, it is now recognized that this area is a part of Jewish heritage and literature.
Perhaps the best English language book on this subject is Simcha Raphael Paull’s “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” (Jason Aronson Inc.) It is a comprehensive introduction and overview of how the afterlife is viewed in the Torah, the midrash, the mishna and Talmud, the medieval works, and in the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). There is extensive translation of source material, and many medieval Jewish texts are presented here for the first time in English.
What is the Kabbalistic view of the afterlife?
What is the soul? Kabbalistic models of the soul
According to the Zohar, after death each aspect of the soul undergoes a different experience on the afterlife journey. The lower levels of the soul are purified and purged of physical and emotional attachments, while the higher levels experience transcendental bliss. The nefesh temporarily remains with the body in the grave, undergoing the Hibbut Ha-Kever, the suffering of the grave.
Simultaneously, the Ruach experiences Gehenna for 12 months “Gehenna is conceived of as a purification process in which the psychic remnants from the previous life are purged and transformed. This purgation process lasts only twelve months and is tormentingly painful in direct proportion to each individual’s lived life experience. [Paull-Raphael p.326] After leaving Gehenna, the ruah then permanently enters the Lower Gan Eden.
After death the Neshama, since it not subject to being tainted by sin, goes to Gan Eden Elyon, the Upper Gan Eden, where it experiences divine reward and bliss.
The hayyah and yehidah also return to Upper Gan Eden immediately after death, and become as one with God as is possible. “Those who have awakened these dimensions of their being are able to perceive the infinite grandeur of the divine realms, to enter the ever-flowing celestial stream – described by the Zohar as the “bundle of life”. [Paull-Rapahel, p.282]
Topics to add
Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave
Dumah, the angel of silence
The angel of death
The Kaf ha-Kela, the catapult of the soul.
The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Neil Gillman, Jewish Lights Publishing
“Jewish Views of the Afterlife” Simcha Paull Rapahel, Jason Aronson Inc. NJ
Does the Soul Survive?: A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose, Elie Kaplan Spitz
“Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Medieval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha and Samaritan Archaeology”, vol. 1, Ed. Moses Gaster, Ktav, NY, 1971
“Legends of the Jews”, Louis Ginzberg, JPS
“Rabbinic Fantasies”, Ed. by David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky, Yale Univ. Press
Journey of the Soul: A Fresh Look at Life, Death, and the Rest—in Peace, Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
What does Orthodox Judaism teach on these subjects?
Orthodox Judaism affirms a belief in both the immortality of the soul as well as the physical resurrection of the dead. Most Orthodox Jews posit that Jews are obligated to accept Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith, which includes both of these principles. Some such as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, hold that the resurrection of the dead is identical with Olam Haba, the world to come, while others hold that they are separate phenomenon. In terms of how Orthodox Jews view the soul, most accept the model presented by Lurianic Kabbalah, and accept that all 3 (or 5) parts of the soul survive after death.
Other books that present an Orthodox point of view include the following: “Mashiach” by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, published by S.I.E., Brooklyn, NY, 1992. “Moses Maimonides’ Treatise on Resurrection” Trans. by Fred Rosner, giving an Orthodox understanding of Maimonides’ views on the afterlife, published by Ktav, NY,1982. One can also refer to the chapter on the afterlife in “A Guide to Life”, by Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowicz, Jason Aronson Inc., NJ, 1989/94.
One of the most well known Orthodox works on this subject is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “If You Were God”, which features the essay “Immortality and the Soul” by Aryeh Kaplan. This book is published by NCSY/Mesorah Publications.
Are there traditional Jewish but non-supernatural views of immortality?
Many religious Jews are surprised when confronted by the claim that some books of the Bible deny the existence of the afterlife. Yet this understanding is in the peshat, the plain meaning of the text (i.e. what the author intended the original audience to understand) of these books. The following quotes are from the new JPS translation.
Isaiah 39:18 “For it is not Sheol that praises You, Not [the land of] Death that extols you; Nor do they who descend into the Pit hope for your grace. The living, only the living can give thanks to you.
Psalms 6:6 “For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim you?”
Psalms 115:17 “The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence.”
Job 7:7-10 “Consider that my life is but wind; I shall never see happiness again….As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down into Sheol does not come up..”
Ecclesiastes. 9:4-5 “For he who is reckoned among the living has something to look forward to – even a live dog is better than a dead lion – since the living know that they will die. But the dead know nothing; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died.”
It is difficult to maintain that one is obligated to have a belief both in an afterlife, as well as in a physical resurrection of the dead, when so many books of the Bible deny this possibility. It is only in the book of Daniel – the last Biblical book written – that a “modern” understanding of an afterlife appears. While it is true that normative rabbinic Judaism (and later, Christianity, and then Islam) bases its afterlife views on Daniel, it is hard to understand why one who accepts the viewpoint of earlier Biblical works must be considered a heretic. We must, then, conclude that these early Biblical views are valid positions for religious Jews to maintain.
“To the extent that you have a measure of eternity, according to biblical theology, you live on in two ways: through the memory people had of you and your deeds, and through your children. Thus an important consideration in God’s blessing of the Patriarchs is both of these factor: “Abraham, is to become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him.” The Levirate marriage, whereby the brother of a man who died childless marries his widow, is specifically to perpetuate the name of the deceased so he can have continuity after life; and childlessness is the source of frustration and despair, in part, because it prevents such a claim on eternity.”
Elliot N. Dorff “Heal Us, Lord, and We Shall Be Healed: The Role of Hope and Destiny in Jewish Bioethics” Judaism, Vol. 48(2), Spring 1999, p.156
What does Reform/Progressive Judaism teach on these subjects?
Reform Jews reject the idea that there will be a personal messiah; many posit that there will be a messianic era. In 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis authored “Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective”. While not an official statement of principles, it is meant to describe the spiritual state of modern Reform Judaism. In regards to the messianic era, it states:
Previous generations of Reform Jews had unbound confidence in
humanity’s potential for good. We have lived through terrible
tragedy and beer compelled to re-appropriate our tradition’s
realism about the human capacity for evil. Yet our people has
always refused to despair. The survivors of the Holocaust,
being granted life, seized it, nurtured it, and, rising above
catastrophe, showed humankind that the human spirit is
indomitable. The State of Israel, established and maintained
by the Jewish will to live, demonstrates what a united people
can accomplish in history. The existence of the Jew is an
argument against despair; Jewish survival is warrant for human
hope. We remain God’s witness that history is not meaningless.
We affirm that with God’s help people are not powerless to
affect their destiny. We dedicate ourselves, as did the
generations of Jews who went before us, to work and wait for
that day when “They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy
mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the
Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
In regards to the doctrine of the afterlife, since its inception Reform Judaism has both officially and unofficially denied that there is any kind of afterlife. The Pittsburgh Platform explicitly declared that the afterlife (i.e. Gan Eden and Gehenna) has no place in Judaism at all. However, this statement, and later ones, also stated that the human soul is immortal. How the soul can exist after the death of a body without any form of afterlife is not dealt with, as the Reform creed of immortality was more symbolic than literal. Rabbi Howard Jaffe writes that “Reform Judaism, while not taking any ‘official’ position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing.”
In the past decade a small but growing number of Reform rabbis and laypeople have begun to suggest that Reform Jews re-embrace some traditional Jewish afterlife concepts.
Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme (former Vice-President of the UAHC) recently wrote “What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death”, which offers a wide spectrum of Jewish responses to the question of life after death. Classical answers are drawn from traditional Jewish literature. Modern Jewish thinkers, from all denominations in the Jewish community, add their personal notions of life after death. This book is available from the Union for Reform Judaism Press.
What does Conservative/Masorti Judaism teach on these subjects?
Until recently, Conservative Judaism had never issued an official statement on the subject. Instead of affirming or denying any teaching on the afterlife, Conservative Jews tended to bypass such theological speculations altogether. Instead, they tended to critically study texts dealing with these subjects in a historical fashion.
In 1985 the Conservative movement released “Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism”, which discusses these topics on pages 28-32. Concerning the immortality of the soul, it states “that death does not mean extinction and oblivion. This conviction is articulated in our tradition in two doctrines: The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the continuing existence after death, and through eternity, of the individual soul. In the course of Jewish history both of these doctrines have been understood in varying ways. For some of us these are literally true, while for others these are interpreted as metaphors…. In sum, if God is truly God, if His power is the ultimate fact in the world, then His ability to touch us is not cut off by the grave.” [Emet Ve-Emunah]
As for the doctrine of the messiah and the messianic era, Emet Ve-Emunah states: [Since no one can say for certain what will happen in the Messianic era] each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors….For the world community we dream of an age when warfare will be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all, as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”For our people, we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius in every area of our national life. We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3) that “…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.
We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.
JTS Philosophy Professor Neil Gillman has brought this issue into the forefront of Conservative theological discussion, with the publication of “The Death of Death”. He argues that the soul is immortal, and thus will be resurrected by God, although not in a biological or physical fashion.
A new work is “Does the Soul Survive?” by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Other Conservative authorities have written on this subject, including, Louis Jacobs, leader of the Masorti movement in the United Kingdom. See the last chapter in “A Jewish Theology”, from Behrman House.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s great theologians, dealt with this topic in “Death As Homecoming”, published as the last chapter in “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996).
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff included a section on this topic in his new book on Jewish medical ethics “Matters of Life and Death”, p.232-241 (JPS, 1998). Rabbi Wayne Dosick in covers this subject in “Living Judaism”, p.313-322.
Rabbi Simchah Roth has posted a study of Maimonides’ views on the afterlife and resurrection, and the place of these beliefs in the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.
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