I'm a bit overwhelmed in trying to sort out the various Jewish beliefs about the afterlife (I'm 61 and terrified). The overarching idea seems to be: Don't worry about it so much; Judaism emphasizes doing good works on Earth and that should be our focus. Well, maybe so. But having studied it all, I trust, have you reached any firm conclusions? I cannot bear the thought that this is all there is and all that implies. The Christians have such simple answers and feel-good stories---Judaism is hard. What can you tell me about this?
Thanks for your question. You are asking the single most difficult question in the world and one that, at some point, we all struggle with. The truth is that there are no easy answers and no one right answer to provide comfort and assurance to you. Judaism has many different views of the afterlife, and many different visions for the world to come.
For me, the most compelling story from Jewish tradition around the afterlife involves the death of Rabbi Meir and Beruriah’s sons. They die during Shabbat and Beruriah hides the children until after Rabbi Meir has made havdallah. She tells him a story about a man who loaned her something and now, after many years, has come to collect it. When Rabbi Meir says that the item must be returned, Beruriah informs him of the death of his sons.
In this story, our souls are simply on loan from God. Whatever is truly “James” about me is earthly but there exists something within me which is godly. That is my soul, and when I die it returns to God whenever God comes to collect the soul that S/He has left in our care for the time of our life. I personally imagine a giant pool of water. When one drop is removed from the pool we can see it as distinguished; it takes on a different shape and becomes its own entity. But when we drop it back in to the pool its molecules mix and again become intertwined with the other water. For me, that is the afterlife. I don’t know what that experience feels like or if we perceive it, but I believe that is what is there for every person.
I don’t believe that “this is all there is.” Something of us remains beyond our mortal life. But I believe that whatever it is – is so drastically different that we cannot describe it. And I don’t know if I would argue that Christians have feel-good stories or simple answers. Judaism is not burdened with hell or damnation in the way that Christians are. Nor do we give up this world for the next. Jewish theology asks us to live fully in this world in order to prepare for the next world, not to live in a particular way in order to gain entrance into a world to come.
You are right to say that this topic is difficult. And I don’t know if any of our words will provide you with comfort. However, I offer you my own prayers that you will find peace and comfort in your own searching. May you be blessed with healing from this struggle, answers that fulfill you, and may you find joy in the practice of spiritual seeking.
While you are correct to surmise that Jewish tradition tends to focus on the here-and-now and making ourselves the best that we can be in this life, there is quite a bit in traditional Jewish sources about the nature of the afterlife. Primary initial references and descriptions may be found in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, numerous passages in the Talmud (particularly Tractates Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Sanhedrin), and the works of classical commentators such as Maimonides (see laws of repentance chapter 8). For an excellent brief essay and overview of the topic, you may want to look at the essay entitled “Immortality and the Soul” in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book If You Were God.
While there are variations offered on the primary themes, the core concepts of the afterlife stem from the notion that a human being is an amalgam of two very different aspects: a body and a soul. For the course of a person’s lifetime, the two work together in marvelous coordination. The body functions as the vehicle or tool that allows the soul (which holds the thoughts and persona and higher levels of existence of this human being) to interact with and impact the world around us. At the time of death, the body and soul separate. The body, beloved and respected for having been the shell that held a holy soul, is laid to rest in the earth like any other precious and holy item in Jewish tradition. The soul is non-physical, and as a result lives on. The cessation of respiration and bodily function do not affect it at all.
The soul continues in a non-physical existence with no physical needs or sensations. No hunger, no cold, no pain, and no exhaustion. Perhaps the best way to describe the nature of that existence is one of exquisite awareness. First and foremost is awareness of one’s deeds during life and the totality of their impact on the world (Sefer HaIkkarim of Rav Yosef Albo). This is a sublime and wonderful experience, as one is aware in a way as never before of exactly how each little positive action helped others and changed their lives. Through good deeds we contribute physically and metaphysically to a better universe, but only after the soul is freed from the confines of a physical body is it truly cognizant of this. However, this can also be a very difficult experience to the extent that a person’s actions were negative and destructive. (It is comforting that the Mishnah in Eduyot 2:10 states that this difficult period of recognizing and reconciling one’s mistakes lasts up to a maximum of twelve months for all but the worst human beings.) Thus it would be fair to say that what others call “heaven” and “hell” are to Jews the same existence; it is knowing very well what our lives amounted to, and that can be a very good or very bad thing and likely some of both.
There are sources that suggest that one may well have a sense of connection and awareness of deceased loved ones, as well as some degree of awareness of events happening in this world for those close to us. Reincarnation is debated in classical Jewish sources, with Maimonides clearly of the position that we live only once in this material world, while Nachmanides and the Kabbalists indicate that many people come back to live here again in order to finish up their lives’ missions.
Every one of us began this life in the womb, in an existence that is so startlingly different from our own as to be unrecognizable (living curled up in liquid, not seeing very much, eating through our umbilical cord, etc.). After nine months we emerged into a radically different experience that is now so familiar to us. After our time here, our tradition teaches that we move on to a next and even greater stage of life.
Answered by: Rabbi Judah Dardik (Emeritus)
Thank you for your question. I know that it can be comforting to have seemingly self-assured answers – but when it comes to something as inherently unknowable and mysterious as an afterlife, I worry that it is improper to have a single, definitive answer. Traditional Judaism does believe in an afterlife, a World to Come, and other such notions – and I do believe that the significance of our lives does outlast our physical presence in this world. Minimally, we leave behind a legacy, with others who remember us, God-willing. But there is no one answer. Rabbinic wisdom throughout the centuries has multiple imaginations, interpretive stories, and other teachings about what happens after we die. In fact, the sheer number of different teachings implies to me that in the big picture, we do not know. However, at different times in a mourning process, or in a moment of self-doubt and questioning, or when seeking meaning in this life, different teachings may provide the most guidance or comfort.
I wish I had a firm answer for you – but I believe that the most honest approach is to acknowledge the inherent unknowability of the correctness of any one answer. Further, as you reference and as Pirke Avot (the Ethics of our Ancestors) teaches, to view this world as the antechamber (foyer) of the world to come. This implies that there is something after this life, which may serve as a warning or a reward – but which, more importantly, serves as a source of DIRECTIONALITY for the way in which we should live this life. That is, even if we don’t know what there is to come, we should live this life as if there is a next life. If there is such an afterlife as classically imagined, then we will have earned its reward; if not, we will have still lived a life worth living, and will have helped to build a more perfect world. That is a win-win.
There is a reason that Judaism does not focus on the afterlife and that your perceptions of that are correct. The reason is two-fold: first, there are so many Jewish ideas of an afterlife - none of which can be shown, proven or even generally accepted - that there was no halacha or article of belief about it and, second, somehow Judaism knew that when you have a firm notion of an afterlife and make it a dogma and an article of belief (even though Maimonides tried to do exactly that), people do things only to get into heaven. It is, quite literally, a system of brownie points intended to buy off God.
Indeed, the Christians have simple answers and feel-good stories. That only means that that fantasy is what motivates them.
Jews took a different tact. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon in his older age, there is near-despair as he approaches the end of his life. But his sadness is not about whether or not he will get to heaven - in fact, there is not even mention of that at all. His sadness is his perception that all he did was vanity and dust. But in the depths of his sadness, he realizes that, though there are so many unknowns, the knowns of life are what he has accomplished and what impact he has made. "How sweet the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun!" (Ecc. 11:7) - Ecclesiastes implores us to appreciate life for the end is inevitable and permanent. Notice that he does teach us about an afterlife but he certainly implies that that is God's domain: "...that God will call every creature into account for everything known..." (Ecc. 12:14). This the last verse of the book, and not coincidentally so.
What happens after is God's domain. We see God as a loving God, a forgiving God and a God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Judaism lets God's domain be God's and our domain be ours. The only thing we can do is mitzvot. Belief does not change the world if belief is intended to bribe God. Belief changes the world if it leads to mitzvot. But we can do mitzvot without belief. For us Jews, it is the doing that is so much more important than the believing. God is not so small that believing in Him gets us into heaven. Our tradition teaches us that when we care only about our afterlife, we neglect far, far too much.
There are no firm conclusions about anything except that we live and then we die. How we fill in the gap is what God demands of us: as the prophet says, "And what is it, O Man, that God demands of you? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." (Not a word about belief. Not a word about death. The essence of Judaism is live with God every moment and not create a life around a notion that we will see Hiim when we die.
You say that you are 'terrified.' Of what? That is much deeper question. Is it a fear of punishment, of lack of meaning, lack of worth, oblivion, legacy, or a thousand other things? For such fears are not uncommon but if you identify the fear and the reason for the fear, perhaps you can live without that crippling handicap. Find a rabbi you trust and take the journey together. You may find surprising peace together.
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