I was raised to believe that as Jews, we do not believe in a "life after death"..that we live on through our children. I always wondered if this was truly a Jewish belief. Does the Jewish religion think we have a "soul", an afterlife?
Although this is not directly a question of Jewish morals or ethics, it does touch on Jewish values and proper behavior, at least in some ways.
Judaism is not monolithic – i.e., there is no single authority or answer for everything that all Jews follow (putting aside G-d for this discussion). In some areas, this actually means there is NO particular answer that exists and is accepted in Judaism. One of the principles that I see as a key to living a Jewish life is the ability to live and function with uncertainty. The area of eschatology (‘life’ following death) is precisely one of these topics with no answer.
First then, Judaism does not answer about the idea of an afterlife. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) does not speak to it, other than brief mentions in a few visions in the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings), and the one story of Saul calling on the ‘shade’ of Samuel as an object lesson for what not to do. These instances do not provide strong or solid proof of any particular view; they are often cited and used to argue specific ideas, but they do not really support any of them adequately to conclude that there was such a view that was widespread.
Second, yes, Judaism contains a concept that we have a ‘soul’. It is not a single entity, however, but is described as the fusion of three components. Nefesh (the physically-based component of that individual that resides in the body), Neshamah (the divine breath of life inspired/respired into the person by G-d), and Ruach (the wind/spirit that binds the other two together and allows one to live). A common (but not universal) understanding is that the Neshamah is eternal (just as G-d is eternal), but there is not necessarily the same idea concerning the other two components.
Because there is no Jewish dogma and no theological position that is required to be held by Jews, Jews have been free to view this question and to answer it for themselves in any way that they find comforting. That means that Judaism has absorbed a vast array of different ideas from the surrounding cultures and peoples among whom Jews have lived over the ages, and there is a very wide range of responses that are included in the totality of the Jewish population. These responses run the full gamut from the view that there is nothing following death [which seems to be more or less what you were raised with], to one’s soul returns to the divine source but the individual ceases (eternality of the Neshamah), to a variety of recycling (the soul – some or all of the components - returns to live another life in this world to allow it to complete its’ tasks and perfect itself), to the soul (some or all) is reunited with God and remains there, to some variety of belief that the soul remains in a state of reward (perhaps something like heaven), to the concept of a sort of purgatory (Gei Hinnom) where the soul was purged of its’ faults for a period of time, to the concept of the sould going to She’ol (the place of questions – and no answers), to whatever other views may exist. The full range is explored in a number of books; one that I recall as being a good and readable overview is by Simcha Paull Rafael.
Your understanding that we live on through our children is also an idea that exists, along with the variant that we live on through our good deeds, or through the memory of us in others. This is why the common phrase of comfort to a Jewish mourner is ‘may your loved one’s memory be for a blessing.’
Now we come to the component of this question that affects the Jewish idea of proper behavior and values. Because we do not know, we cannot rely on an afterlife as the motivation or reason to act properly, in accordance with Jewish values. Instead, Judaism is concerned with here and now, what we do in this life, how we act and treat others, what we choose to do or not, what kind of life and what sort of person we will be/are. We are not motivated by some distant reward, nor do we act/refrain out of fear of some distant punishment. Doing what is right – that which is righteous, good, proper, moral, ethical, upright, and godly – is its’ own reward, and the opposite is its’ own punishment, here and now, in this world and this life. We do not look to some time in future or after death to be rewarded or punished. This sets Judaism apart from many other religions which rely on some future reckoning as the motivation for the behaviors sought.
I suspect that this last point is the source of what you were taught by your family; that if you are a proper, upright person – a mentsch, as they say – you would live on through your children, your deeds, and the memory of your life as an example.
The question as you posed it suggests that living on through our children and belief in an afterlife are mutually exclusive.
In THIS world, we do live on through our children, and through our good deeds. But that has nothing to do with afterlife. Afterlife is a separate matter. And belief in afterlife, a world beyond, is central to Judaism, as formulated in the Talmud, and as reinforced with the preamble to Pirkay Avot - Chapters of the Elders, that we study every Shabbat in the summer.
In that preamble, taken from the Talmud, we state that "Every Israelite has a share in the world to come..." There is no equivocation. In Judaism, belief in the world to come is a fundamental, foundational, core affirmation.
Yes, Judaism maintains both a concept of the soul and an afterlife.However, one of the features of Judaism I love most is that it entitles us to intellectual freedom.That is to say, there is little dogma of faith. Jews can and do believe many different things about many different things, and life after death is certainly one area in which many of us are free to differ (Judaism tends to focus more on the living and our behavior here on earth).
Generally speaking, there are 6 commonly referred to Jewish ideas about the afterlife:
1. Only the nation lives on.Supported by Ahad Ha’am (a.k.a. Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927), the individual dies, but there is a spirit to a nation of people.The individual’s “self” becomes part of the nation that survives him or her.
2.Agnostic – we just don’t know.Supported by Rabbi Louis Jacobs who said, “As Maimonides says, we simply can have no idea of what pure spiritual bliss in the Hereafter is like” (A Jewish Theology, p. 321).
3. Living through deeds of influence.This may be what you mentioned in your question.In other words, our actions preserve a legacy of influence – a spirit, if you will – that others carry on when we’re gone.
4. Resurrection – “to rise again.”According to the Rabbinic sages, after someone dies the soul goes somewhere, i.e., Heaven or Gehinnom (see below), or to a “heavenly treasury of souls.”At the end of time, when the Messiah comes, all of the souls will be restored to their bodies and judged (see Lev. Rabbah 4:5).Most Conservative Jews generally don’t hold by this, but they still recite prayers that refer to it (e.g., mechayeh ha-meitim in the Amidah) because it can be interpreted as meaning restoring life in ways other than to a dead body.
5. Gan Eden and Gehinnom.There are many different concepts of Heaven and – for lack of a better English term – “Hell” in Jewish thought.It is generally accepted that in Olam Haba, the World to Come, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished.The righteous will go to a paradise called Gan Eden and the wicked will go to an unpleasant place of judgment called Gehinnom.Some say you go directly to these places after death and others say that you only go to them after resurrection and final judgment. The common view is that, aside from a few exceptions, if a wicked soul is sent to Gehinnom, they would remain there only for a maximum of 12 months (Mishnah, Eduyot, 2:10)
6. Reincarnation.In Judaism, we refer to reincarnation as gilgul neshamot or “the rolling of the souls.” According to this view, the soul has an independent life, existing before the birth of the body and after the body dies. The soul is like an “unpolished diamond” with many facets.Each facet of this soul must be cleaned to reach its highest state and potential.Each life serves as a way to cleanse each and every facet.Sin during a life can “dirty” the soul requiring it to prolong the number of reincarnations. The soul ultimately matures through levels, approaching closer to God and not requiring further reincarnation (The Zohar III, 198b, Ra’aya Mehmena).
What happens when we die is a critical component to Jewish theology and deserves great reflection and study.I hope that you find this very brief introduction helpful.
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