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Frequently Asked Questions about Jewish Afterlife Beliefs
This posting is an attempt to answer questions about Jewish beliefs concerning the soul, resurrection, immortality, the afterlife, and reincarnation.
It was edited by Robert D. Kaiser, based on the sources listed within the text. See especially the excellent discourse of Maimonides’s concept of the afterlife by Professor Amitai Halevi, and also the discussion here by Rabbi Simchah Roth ( זצ״ל)
Subject: 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 it is certainly true that Judaism does concentrate on the importance of this world, the fact is that Judaism does in fact posit an afterlife. The Jewish tradition affirms that the human soul is immortal, and thus in some way survives the physical death of the body. The existence of the soul after death 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.
Subject: How does Judaism differ Christianity on this subject?
The New Testament, the Christian addition to the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] states that no person will be close to God nor have an afterlife in the world to come, without first becoming a Christian. All others will suffer eternal damnation in Hell. Because elements of the Christian Bible are so deeply woven into secular American and European culture, many people believe that all religions have similar beliefs about the afterlife. Yet this is not so. Many religions, including Judaism, Buddhism and Unitarian-Universalism, teach that anyone can have a genuine relationship with God and can merit a heavenly afterlife.
There are no statements in the Tanakh that would exclude gentiles from the world to come. In fact, Judaism specifically teaches that gentiles can receive a share in the world to come. This is codified in the Mishna Avot 4:29, the Babylonian Talmud in tractates Avodah Zarah 10b, and Ketubot 111b, and in Maimonides 12th century law code, the Mishneh Torah, in Hilkhot Melachim 8.11.
Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein writes that “Judaism does not believe people who are Gentiles will automatically go to Hell or that Jews will automatically go to Heaven on their basis of their belonging to the faith. Rather, individual ethical behavior is what is most important.”
More can learned about the differences between Jewish and Christian theology at: http://www.convert.org/differ.htm
Subject: What are the Biblical views of the afterlife?
The family tomb is the central concept in understanding biblical views of the afterlife. When Jacob dies, he says “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my forefathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite. [Gen 49:29] All the patriarchs (except Rachel) were buried in the family cave, and so were many other biblical personalities, including King Saul and King David.
Herbert Brichto notes that it is “not mere sentimental respect for the physical remains that is…the motivation for the practice, but rather an assumed connection between proper sepulture and the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife” [Herbert Chanon Brichto “Kin, Cult, Land and Afterlife – A Biblical Complex”, Hebrew Union College Annual 44, p.8 (1973)]
Another element in the early biblical period is the bamot, high places. These were sanctuaries of cultic worship used by both Israelites as well as various Canaanite groups. (The Israelites had their bamot, while the Canaanites had their own). A number of Israelite Kings (Solomon, Rehoboam, Johoash, etc.) built bamot, although later biblical prophets condemned them. There are many similarities between these bamot and ancient near-eastern funeral mounds; certain biblical texts (e.g. Ezekiel 43;7) refer to bamot both as cultic sites and as burial sites.
After the time of Moses and Mt. Sinai, the separate Israelite tribes came to see themselves as one in a way that they had not felt previously. “Progressively, the nomadic family clan and the tribe were superseded by the notion of the unified Israelite nation…as the idea of collective Israel evolved, it was believed that all the graves of family, tribe or nation united into one…just as the living tribes unified, so the realms of the ancestral dead merged; this unified collectivity became known as Sheol.” [Paull-Raphael, p.52]
Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died. The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu, and the Greeks had one known as Hades. For biblical references to Sheol see Genesis 42:38, Isaiah 14:11, Psalm 141:7, Daniel 12:2, Proverbs 7:27 and Job 10:21,22, and 17:16, among others.
Other Biblical names for Sheol were: Abbadon (ruin), found in Psalm 88:11, Job 28:22 and Proverbs 15:11; Bor (the pit), found in Isaiah 14:15, 24:22, Ezekiel 26:20; and Shakhat (corruption), found in Isaiah 38:17, Ezekiel 28:8
The early biblical books present Sheol without a religious or moral component; both the souls of the good and bad dwelled there alike, and God was not mentioned in relationship to this realm. It is in the later biblical texts that we find Sheol clearly under God’s dominion, and where it becomes a place of punishment for the wicked, and a place from which God could redeem the souls of the dead, if the dead reach out to God. See Psalms 49:15, 116:2, Isaiah 14:15 and Ezekiel 32:18. In the later works, Sheol is an eternal abode only for the wicked, but merely a way-station, so to speak, for the souls of the righteous.
In the later works of Ezekiel and Isaiah we first find the concepts of resurrection, but the majority of biblical and scholarly commentary is of the opinion that these references are metaphors for the rebirth of the nation of Israel, and do not refer to any biological resurrection of the dead.
The one biblical text that does seem to discuss physical resurrection is Daniel, one of the latest Biblical works and the only apocalyptic text in the Tanakh. Daniel promises that all the dead will be resurrected and judged by God, with the wicked condemned to everlasting reproach, and the just “will be rescued” (12:1). [Adapted from “Jewish Views of the Afterlife”]
Subject: What are the Apocryphal views of the afterlife?
“There is a growing diversification of the postmortem worlds evidenced in apocrypha literature. Sheol comes to be seen as a stratified realm in which there are separate and distinct regions for the righteous and the wicked. During the apocryphal period, a dualistic conception of the hereafter emerges: Sheol – or Gehenna – comes to be seen as the abode of the wicked; Paradise, or Heaven – an entirely new postmortem concept – becomes the abode of the righteous.”
“Elaborate depictions of Gehenna and Paradise are presented…within certain texts, afterlife takes on a mythic, imagistic form…In Alexandrian Judaism the doctrine of an eternal individual immortality becomes increasingly popular, replacing the notion of the physical resurrection of the dead.” [Paull-Raphael p.115] A few texts refer to Sheol as a place where souls reside after death, until the soul is reunited with the body at the time of a physical resurrection of the dead.
“Given that apocryphal and pseudigraphic texts [were never officially made a part of the Tanakh] the impact of these texts within the Jewish world dissipated over time. However [these] teachings, while not predominant in rabbinic Judaism, reappear almost a thousand years later in medieval midrash and in Kabbalah.” [Paull-Raphael p. 232]
Interestingly, the name Gehenna/Gehinnom (Rabbinical: גהנום/גהנם) comes from a place outside ancient Jerusalem. It was known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Hebrew: גֵיא בֶן־הִנֹּם or גיא בן-הינום).
See this article for more details:
Subject: What are the Rabbinic Jewish views of the afterlife?
(The phrase “Rabbinic” unless otherwise stated, refers to the classical rabbinic midrash, the Mishna and the two Talmuds.)
Rabbinic afterlife teachings varied in different places and times, and were never synthesized into one coherent philosophy. As such, the different views of the afterlife are sometimes contradictory. This is especially true for “Olam Haba”, the world to come. In some rabbinic works this phrase refers to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth. However, in other works this phrase means Gan Eden, Paradise, a purely spiritual realm.
There is much rabbinic material on what happens to the soul of the deceased after death, what it experiences, and where it goes. At various points in the afterlife journey, the soul is said to encounter:
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
Gehenna (purgatory) and Gan Eden (Heaven; Paradise)
A discussion of the classic rabbinic view of the afterlife, including these topics and more, can be found in an essay by Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi “Life in the hereafter: A tour of what’s to come”.
Gehenna is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as “hell”, but Jews must take note that the Christian version of hell is extremely different from the Jewish view of Gehenna. For Christians, hell is an abode of eternal torment where sinners go.
In many forms of Christianity, anyone who does not accept Jesus as their messiah/god is destined for eternal damnation. For Jews, gehenna – while certainly an unpleasant place – is not hell. The longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months. It is a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden [Heaven], where all imperfections are purged.
Beyond Gan Eden there is a little known realm called the otzar, the divine treasury of souls; this is also called the tzror ha-hayyim, the bundle of life. This otzar is a transcendent realm of human souls, in the highest spheres of creation. Before souls are born they are sid to come from this treasury, and they return they at some point after death.
Souls are said to originate in a realm called the ‘guf’ (Avodah Zarah 5a, Nedarim 13b, Yevamot 62a), from which they descend to the earthly real to animate human bodies. After death, these souls return to the otzar, or tzror ha-hayyim. (Shabbat 152a; Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)
Eventually the physically resurrection of the dead came to be a primary doctrine of pharisaic Judaism, the progenitor of rabbinic Judaism. Resurrection was rejected by other Jewish sects of that time, such as the Sadducees. As for who would be resurrected by God at the end of days, there were many differing opinions among the rabbis. Some places posit that all people will be resurrected, others posit that all Israel will be resurrected, and others posit that only the righteous (both of Israel and the gentile nations) will be resurrected.
Subject: What was the Jewish medieval era?
The medieval Jewish period was a period of increasing cultural interaction between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Jewish philosophers were inspired to contrast and compare Jewish thought with gentile philosophy, and a number of Jewish works reconciled differences whenever possible. The afterlife was one of the subjects discussed. To learn more about the Jewish medieval period, see:
This was also the time of the Golden Age of Jewish-Islamic relations. In much of this era Muslims granted Jews and Christians exemptions from military service, the right to their own courts of law, and a guarantee of safety of their property. Jewish poets, scholars, scientists, statesmen and philosophers flourished in and were an integral part of the extensive Arab civilization. This Golden Age lasted from around 900 CE to the middle of the 12th century.
The most important medieval works on the afterlife are those by Sa’adiah Gaon, Maimonides, Gersonides and Nachmanides.
Subject: What are the medieval midrashic views of the afterlife?
There is a rich array of Jewish medieval midrashic works on the afterlife, some of which are literary parallels to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. It is a tragedy that these texts are not taught or discussed in most Hebrew schools or Jewish literature classes; they are even rarely discussed within many rabbinical seminaries. Descriptions and excerpts of the array of these works are available in the following works:
“Jewish Views of the Afterlife” by Simcha Paull Rapahel, Jason Aronson Inc. NJ
“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 (now in paperback)
“Rabbinic Fantasies”, Ed. by David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky, Yale Univ. Press
“In the medieval period an extensive mythical tradition developed that yielded a series of elaborate visionary texts delineating the fate of the soul in the afterlife. These texts reflect a continuation of apocryphal traditions…There are three clusters of themes explored in medieval midrash:” [Paull-Raphael]
(a) the fate of the soul immediately after death
(b) The soul in Gehenna
(c) The soul in Gan Eden/Heaven.
Subject: What were Sa’adiah Gaon’s views on the afterlife?
Sa’adiah Gaon (882 – 942 CE) is one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the medieval era, best known for his work “Sefer Ha-Emunot Ve-HaDaot” (Book of Beliefs and Opinions). Sa’adiah’s basic assumption is that the soul is not pre-existent, but is created in the womb. Because it is created by God, it has the potential to become immortal. Interestingly, Sa’adiah believed that the soul was not immaterial, but was actually made of a luminous material, similar to that which celestial bodies were thought to be made of.
He believed that all human conduct affected the state of the soul. After death, one is judged by one’s deeds; one’s afterlife recompense is based on this. In his system “reward and punishment take the form of two very fine substances that God…will create at the time of retribution, applying them to each of his servants in accordance with his [or her] desert.”; the material will shine brightly and be pleasant for the good, and will be dark and burning for the bad. Sa’adiah equates the light form with Gan Eden and the dark form with Gehenna.
Sa’adiah posits that there will actually be two separate and distinct resurrections – one in the messianic era, here on Earth, and a second in the World to Come, Heaven. In the first, righteous Jews will be physically resurrected, and will live on the Earth and gain a physical reward; they will then, somehow be transported to the World to Come. At a later time, non-righteous Jews and all gentiles will gain a heavenly resurrection in the heavenly World to Come only.
Subject: What were Maimonides’ views on the afterlife?
Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam) lived from 1135-1204 CE. He is considered to be the Jewish philosopher and halakhist par excellance of the medieval era. His education was both in Jewish and secular works; he was well schooled in Arab and Aristotelian philosophy. He strove to reconcile Jewish teachings with the science and philosophy of his time. This was based on the premise that there could be no contradiction between the truth of the Torah and the truth of the universe as revealed by science and reason.
Maimonides views on the afterlife and resurrection of the dead can be found in three works (1) Commentary on the Mishnah, Perek Helek (2) Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) and (3) Ma’amar Tehiyyat Hametim (the treatise on resurrection).
Commentary on the Mishnah, Perek Helek
Maimonides surveyed the various afterlife beliefs prevalent within rabbinic Judaism at his time, sorted them into five categories, and soundly rejected all of them. He compared people with these beliefs to children, and ridiculed those who asked unimportant questions such as how the physical process of resurrection will take place, whether the dead will arise naked or clothed, what their strength will be etc. He then elaborates his theory, a Jewish take on Aristotelian philosophy. In Maimonides view there is a clear division between the physical body and the immaterial soul: After death the immortal soul will be able to comprehend the pleasure of the spiritual realm, which exists outside the boundaries of physical existence.
Julius Guttman writes that for Maimonides “knowledge is a preliminary condition for the immortality of the soul. [He] accepts the doctrine of acquired immortality, according to which only the actualization through knowledge of man’s intellectual power leads to immortality. The immortality of the soul thus becomes the immortality of the knowing spirit. But this metaphysical idea also has a religious meaning; it is the communion with God, gained through knowledge which endows man with eternal life. [Julius Guttmann, “Philosophies of Judaism” trans. by David Silverman, Schocken, NY, 1973, p.199-200]
In Perek Helek, Maimonides presents Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come) as a purely spiritual, non-physical realm. He draws on the Talmudic text which states that in the world to come, there will be no eating nor drinking, no washing nor sex, but rather “the righteous sit with crowns on their heads enjoying the radiance of the Divine Presence” (Berakhot 17a). Maimonides states that this verse refers to “the immortality of the soul in the intellectual sphere”, and that souls “derive bliss from what they understand of the creator, just like the holy spirits and the other ranks of angels”.
If this is divine reward, what then is divine punishment? Maimonides states that _karet_ is the punishment for those who do not live righteously? Karet is the cutting off of the soul from God. As for the term _Gan Eden_, Maimonides restricts use of this phrase to refer to a physical area of natural abundance that is physical, here on Earth, that God will reveal to a future generation of mankind; it plays no role in the afterlife.
Maimonides second work dealing with the afterlife was written some years later, in the Mishneh Torah, his massive 14 volume compilation of all areas of Jewish law.
The afterlife is only briefly discussed here. He notes that the afterlife is an immortal, purely spiritual realm, in which the soul has no body. “In the World to Come there is no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies” [The Book of Knowledge; Hilkhot Teshuva]. It is reserved only for the righteous: “The reward of the righteous is that they will attain bliss and abide in this state of happiness; the punishment of the wicked is that they will not attain this life, but will be cut off and die”
Subject: What were Maimonides views on the messianic era?
In Perek Helek Maimonides defines the messianic era as an earthly era of physical prosperity and peace; there is no connection between this era and the afterlife. He writes:
“The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence.
Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…. it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God.
Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations.
Subject: What was the Maimonidean heresy controversy?
Maimonides writes that “The thirteenth principle of faith is the resurrection of the dead, and we have already explained it.” Surprisingly, this is all that Maimonides has to say on this concept in his 13 principles of belief. When considered along with other statements he has made, this leads many people to believe that he denies a physical resurrection of the dead altogether. They are correct, for Maimonides does reject “resurrection”, as it is understood by both the orthodox of his day and the Orthodox Judaism that exists today. In fact, Maimonides ridicules those who hold the Orthodox view as ‘utter fools’ whose belief is ‘folly’.
Maimonides wrote much on this topic, but in most cases he wrote about the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect; his writings were not about any resurrection of dead bodies. This prompted hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and sparked a controversy over his true views, which has gone on unabted to this day.
In general, this is a difficult topic to discuss because Rabbinic afterlife teachings varied greatly; they were never synthesized into one coherent philosophy. In some rabbinic works “Olam Haba” (the world to come) refers to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth; in other works this phrase refers to a purely spiritual realm. It was during Maimonides’s lifetime, that this lack of agreement flared into a full blown theological dispute, with Maimonides himself charged as being a heretic by many Jewish leaders.
Some Jews at this time taught that Judaism did not require a belief in the physical resurrection of the dead, as the afterlife would be a purely spiritual realm. They used Maimonides’s works on this subject to back up their position. In return, their opponents claimed that this was outright heresy; for them the afterlife was right here on Earth, where God would raise dead bodies from the grave so that the rsurrected could live eternally. Maimonides was brought into this dispute by both sides, as the first group stated that his writings agreed with them, and the second group portrayed him as a heretic for writing that the afterlife is for the immaterial spirit alone. Eventually, Maimonides felt pressured to write a treatise on the subject, the “Ma’amar Tehiyyat Hametim” (the treatise on resurrection).
In it he shows that contrary to the prevailing dogma, the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is ambiguous on resurrection; most verses on this topic can be read in two ways, and these are only hints or allusions. It is only the book of Daniel that Maimonides accepts as definitively stating that “many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence”. (12:2) This is taken as referring to a physical resurrection of the dead, which clearly would be a miracle. However, we must take care to understand Maimonides’ understanding of “miracles”, for it is not the same as the definition used by many sages of the Talmud, nor is it the same one used by many Orthodox Jews.
Maimonides writes that God never violates the laws of nature. Rather, all divine interaction is by way of angels. Maimonides also states that the layman’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant in the extreme; the Bible’s and Talmud’s references to “angels” are really metaphors for the various laws of nature, or the principlies by which the physical universe operates, or kinds of platonic eternal forms. Thus, if a unique event actually occurs, even it is perceived as a miracle, it is not a violation of the world’s order [“Perush ha-Mishnah” (Commentary on the Mishnah), Avot 5:VI]
To modern day readers, a miracle is an event caused by God that violates the laws of physics. However, Maimonides envisioned the laws of the universe differently than we do; his Aristotelian influenced worldview envisioned a close natural connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. In this worldview all physical occurances are the results of “intellects”, some of which are human, some of which are angels – using the rationalist definition given above – and some of which are what we today would call laws of nature. Maimonides held that these sets of ‘intellects’ could interact in such a way as to produce results that violated the day-to-day way that we see the world work; these events are what he referred to as miracles. This rationalist understanding of miracles stands in the twilight between strict scientific naturalism and supernatural theology. Therefore, Maimonides proposes that we can believe that in some way, at some time, a dead body might well retun to animated life within the context stated above.
Maimonides’ views are still further from the Orthodox view than commonly realized.
In contrast to the dogma of his day, Maimonides believes that any miracles which contravene the laws of nature are not permanent. Thus, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again. Maimonides thus disassociated the resurrection of the dead from both the afterlife as well as from the Messianic era. He writes: “and [we explained] that life in the World to Come will be after the resurrection of the dead, as explained in [the commentary on] Chapter Heleq, and we thought that this would be enough”.
Note that Maimonides says nothing of a universal resurrection. All he says it is that whatever resurrection does take place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the world to come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual. He writes “It appears to us on the basis of these verses [Daniel 11:2,13] that those people who will return to those bodies will eat, drink, copulate, beget, and die after a very long life, like the lives of those who will live in the Days of the Messiah.” This clearly states that (a) the resurrection is not the world to come, and (b) it has nothing to do with the messianic era.
In a move that infuriated his critics, chapter two of the letter on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies; he refers to one with such beliefs as being an “utter fool” whose belief is “folly”: “If one of the multitude refuses to believe [that angels are incorporeal] and prefers to believe that angels have bodies and even that they eat, since it is written (Gen. 18:8) `they ate’, or that those who exist in the World to Come will also have bodies – we won’t hold it against him or consider him a heretic; we will not distance ourselves from him, nor will he regard one who speaks thus to be an utter fool. Let us hope that no fool will go farther than this in his folly.”
One can now see why so many people regarded Maimonides as heretical. At that time, many Jews believed that the physical resurrection was identical to the world to come; thus denial of a permanent and universal resurrection was considered tantamount to denying the words of the Talmudic sages. However, instead of denying the resurrection, or maintaining the current dogma, Maimonides posited a third way: That resurrection had nothing to do with the messianic era (here in this world) nor to do with Olam Haba (the purely spiritual afterlife). Rather, he considered resurrection to simply be a miracle that the book of Daniel predicted; thus at some point in time we could thus expect some instances of resurrection to temporarily occur, which would have no place in any eschatological scheme.
Rabbi Simcha Roth summarizes the view of Maimonides:
One thing is certain: he [Maimonides] had every intention of denigrating the accepted conceptualization of resurrection….he had written that there were people that “suppose that the reward [for keeping Torah] is the resurrection [Techiyyat ha-Metim]. That is, that a person will come to life again after their death, together with their relatives and friends, will eat, drink and never die again. The punishment for disobedience will be the reverse of the above. This group derives its opinion from various statements in the Bible and from various Biblical stories… A fifth group – and they are the majority – blend all these previous opinions together to claim that we are awaiting the Messiah, who will resurrect the dead, we shall all then enter Paradise, where we shall live happily ever after. Very few, on the other hand, are the people who consider that wonderful concept “Olam ha-Ba”. Very few are there who really ponder the question and who ask themselves what all the above ideas really mean. What you will find everyone asking – clergy as well as laymen – is whether the dead will be resurrected naked or clothed…”
It is in this same excursus that Rambam expounds his Thirteen Basic Principles…the last of his Thirteen Principles is entitled “Resurrection”, and his expounding thereof is limited to one pithy phrase: “I have already explained all this”! No doubt this is the reason why he was accused in his own lifetime of entertaining the heretical belief that there would not be a physical resurrection of the dead. He got so much flack that he had to write another work, “Ma’amar Techiyyat ha-Metim” [An Essay on Resurrection] in which he claims that he was misunderstood and grossly calumniated! He states quite categorically that resurrection of the dead is an essential part of Jewish theology and that “he who does not accept it is not part of Israel”. He then manages to set up such a thick screen of verbiage concerning his own position that more heat is generated than light. However, his conceptualizations are obvious to those who wish to understand them.
Thus it is that Judaism seems to have stated “absolutely categorically” that “Techiyyat ha-Metim” is so important a credal element that it must be hammered home in the second berakhah of the Amidah so that no one can claim that they do not accept the idea. However, no one seems to be able to agree with anyone else as what is the precise meaning of that which has been “categorically stated” – except the absolute certainty that different views must, of course, be heretical! Thus, in fact, in Judaism we seem to have found legitimate room for Resurrection, Afterlife, Transmigration of souls and so forth. What can be stated positively is that Rabbinic Judaism teaches that physical death does not entail spiritual extinction as well.”
- from a Mishna lesson by Rabbi Simcha Roth,in the Rabin Mishna Study Group.
Subject: What is Gersonides’s view of the afterlife?
Gersonides is Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, also known as the Ralbag. 1288-1344 CE. He is the author of Milhamot Hashem, Book 1 “The Wars of the Lord”
Gersonides posits that people’s souls are composed of two parts (a) a material, or human, intellect. This is inherent in every person, and gives people the capacity to understand and learn. This material intellect is mortal, and dies with the body. However, he also posits that the soul also has (b) an acquired, or agent, intellect. This survives death, and can contain the accumulated knowledge that the person acquired during their lifetime. For Gersonides “Man is immortal in so far as he attains the intellectual perfection that is open to him. This means that man becomes immortal only if and to the extent that he acquires knowledge of what he can in principle know, e.g. mathematics and the natural sciences. This knowledge survives his bodily death and constitutes his immortality”
[Gersonides, Trans. by Seymour Feldman “Wars of the Lord”, Book 1, p. 109, JPS, 1984]
“After death, all the knowledge that one has accumulated during life is apprehended simultaneously and perpetually…this, according to Gersonides, is what is meant by the pleasure of the world to come as described by the sages” [Paull-Rapahel, p.261]
Subject: What is Nahmanides’s view of the afterlife?
Nachmanides, Moshe ben Nachman, is also known as the Ramban. His essential work on this subject is Torat Ha’adam, Sha’ar Ha’Gemul “The Gate of the Reward”. Unlike many other rabbinic or medieval thinkers, Nachmanides posited that after death one immediately receives his or her own eternal reward. Each person is subject to judgement at the time of his death, and his fate is decided in one of three ways: The throughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed and enter into Gan Eden; The throughly wicked are immediately sealed and enter Gehenna to be punished eternally. The intermediates cry out in prayer and are brought to Gehenna for 12 months. After this, they earn admission into Gan Eden.
For Nachmanides, there is a difference between Olam Haba and Gan Eden. Gan Eden is a divine reward here on this Earth in the messianic era, and will be experienced by righteous souls who will be physically resurrected. Olam Haba is a purely spiritual realm. In another place in his writings, Nachmanides calls these realms the lower Gan Eden and Higher Gan Eden.
He posits this structure to solve an inherent contradiction in rabbinic writings on this subject. Classical rabbinic works posit two mutually exclusive schemes regarding the afterlife; some claim that one receives a divine reward immediately after death, while others claim that after death no reward is immediately granted, and that one’s soul must wait for the physical resurrection of all people, at the end of days. What happens to the soul between death and resurrecion is rarely discussed. More confusing, some authors seem to accept the former scenario in some of their writings, yet seem to accept the latter scenario in other parts of their writings. This confusion was not acceptable to Nachmanides, who then created a model that resolved this issue: He developed a new term, Olam Ha-neshamot, the world of souls. Olam Ha-neshamot, what he sometimes calls Gan Eden, is the post-mortem realm that one’s soul enters immediately on death. Basically, this is heaven, a realm of disembodied spirit.
At a later point in time, the messianic era will occur on Earth, and this he terms Olam Haba, the World to Come. At this time, the souls of the deceased will leave the world of souls, and will be physically resurrected in new bodies on Earth; these bodies will be of a higher and purer form than the matter that we now know, and will then spend an eternity in a resurrected form.
Subject: According to Kabbalah, what are the components of the soul?
To understand kabbalistic afterlife doctrines, one must first understand the kabbalistic picture of the human soul. According to some elements in Kabbalah every human has at least one element in their soul; with the proper study a person can eventually develop two higher levels of the soul.
“The Zohar refers to three essentially different parts of the soul that form a sequence from lower to higher and are designated by the Hebrew terms nefesh, ru’ah, and neshamah. True, here too a unity was posited among these parts, but for the most part is remained problematic. The nefesh or first element is to be found in every man, for it enters him at the moment of birth and is the source of his animal vitality … and of the totality of his psycho-physical functions. Whatever is necessary for the well-being of these functions is already contained in it and it is equally the property of all human beings.
“The two other parts of the soul, on the other hand, are postnatal increments that are found only in the man who has awakened spiritually and made a special effort to develop his intellectual powers and religious sensibilities. The ru’ah … is aroused at an unspecified time when a man succeeds in rising above his purely vitalistic side. But it is the highest of the three parts of the soul, the neshamah …, which is the most important of all. It is aroused in a man when he occupies himself with the Torah and its commandments, and it opens his higher powers of apprehension, especially his ability to mystically apprehend the Godhead and the secrets of the universe.” [“Kabbalah” Gersom Scholem, p.155]
A common way of explaining the three parts of the soul is as follows:
1) Nefesh – the lower part, or animal part, of the soul. Is linked to instincts and bodily cravings.
2) Ruach – the middle soul, the spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
3) Neshamah – the higher soul, or super-soul. This separates man from all other lifeforms. It is related to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.
The five part soul
“Raaya Meheimna” a later addition to the Zohar by an unknown author, posits that there are in fact two more parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah. As Gersom Scholem writes, these parts “were considered to represent the sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals”.
4) Chayyah – The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
5) Yehidad – the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is possible.
Miscellaneous states of the soul:
Both Rabbinic and kabbalistic works posit that there are also a few additional, non-permanent states to the soul that people can develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are mentioned for completeness.
Ruach HaKodesh – a state of the soul that makes prophecy
possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no
one receives the soul of prophesy any longer.
Neshamah Yeseira – The supplemental soul that a Jew experience
on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment
of the day. This is exists only when one is observing Shabbat;
it can be lost and gained depending on one’s observance.
Neshoma Kedosha – Provided to Jews at the age of majority (13 for
boys, 12 for girls), and is related to the study and fulfillment
of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and
follows Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one’s study
Subject: What is the Kabbalistic view of the afterlife?
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]
Subject: What is the Jewish view of reincarnation [Gilgul] ?
The notion of reincarnation, the transmigration of a soul after death into a new body, has no place in the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible]. The classical rabbinic works (midrash, Mishna and Talmud) are silent on this topic. These beliefs originally only existed in a few gentile sects; however, by the eight century these ideas had found their way into the beliefs of the Karaites, an offshoot of Judaism which later became a separate religion. In the tenth century, the Jewish medieval philosopher Saadya Gaon noted that the belief of reincarnation existed among some Jews despite the inherent “nonsense and stupidities” of such beliefs. Maimonides also did not write about reincarnation.
Although how this occurred is still a matter of debate among historians, the doctrine of reincarnation made its way into Jewish mysticism by the twelfth century, where it made its first appearance in the Bahir [Illumination], around 1150 CE.
“Gilgul, the doctrine of reincarnation, became increasingly popular in kabbalistic Judaism from the twelfth century onward. For the kabbalists, [this] made it possible for one to fulfill all the mitzvot [commandments]. At the folk level, gilgul led to the development of an extensive literary tradition on possession by reincarnation spirits. The terms used in this context were dybukkim, spirits of malevolent possession, and iburrim, souls of benevolent possession.” [Paull-Raphael, p.327]
Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into animal bodies. These ideas can be found in a small number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and even existed among a few mystics at least into the late 1500s. “Over time however, the philosophical teaching limiting reincarnation to human bodies emerged as the dominant view. Nonetheless, the idea that one can reborn as an animal was never completely eliminated from Jewish thought, and appears centuries later in the Eastern European folk tradition”. [Paull-Raphael, p.319]
Today most Jews of all denominations do not believe in any form of reincarnation. Most would state that it is a non-Jewish belief, and is entirely forbidden for Jews to hold. However, many Chasidic Jews, and some non-Chasidic Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) maintain a belief in reincarnation; some Chassidic siddurim [prayerbooks] have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one’s sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.
Subject: 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.
As for how Orthodox Jews specifically view the messianic age, see the above section “What were Maimonides views on the messianic era?”
Rabbi Shmuel Boteach (Oxford University, UK) has written a work on this subject, “The Wolf Shall Lie With the Lamb”, printed by Jason Aronson, Inc.; the entire chapter of this book is available on-line at:
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. This essay is also on-line at: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/burial/immortal.htm
Subject: 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]
Subject: What does Reform/Progressive Judaism teach on these subjects ?
In regards to the doctrine of the messiah and the messianic era, most 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.
Subject: 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.
Both “Afterlife” and “Emet Ve-Emunah” can be obtained through the United Synagogue Book Service.
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 [Shemonah Esrah], the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.