What do Jews Believe about Life After Death

By Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

“I don’t want to attain immortality through my work. I want to attain immortality by not dying.” –Woody Allen

“The sun is red at sunrise because it passes by the roses of the Garden of Eden, and at sunset because it passes by the Gate of Hell.” –Bava Batra 84a

“Rava said to Rav Nachman, ‘Show yourself to me in a dream after you die.’ He showed himself to Rava. Rava asked him, ‘Was death painful?’ Rav Nahman replied, ‘It was as painless as lifting a hair from a cup of milk’. But were the Holy One, blessed be He, to say to me, ‘You may return to that world where you were before,’ I would not wish to do it, the fear of death is too great.’” –Moed Katan 28a

“Anyone who wants to get a taste of death should put on shoes and sleep in them.” –Yoma 78b

Judaism regards death as an inevitable part of life. Just as we are born, so too we must die. The Talmud teaches, “Without asking you, you were formed, and without asking you, you were born, and without asking you, you live, and without asking you, you will die.” (Avot 4).

No one and nothing lives forever. Yet from time immemorial the human mind has sought to know the unknowable, to understand that which is beyond understanding. So pervasive was this endless search for the answer to what lies beyond the grave, that an injunction was laid down in the academies of learning, forbidding any speculation or study of “that which lies before or after.” By this was meant mystical speculation on the nature of the universe before creation, or descriptions of the untouchable world we enter only upon death.

Yet obviously speculation continued to abound among all peoples – Jews and non-Jews alike – so that over the centuries we have inherited a fascinating assortment of “traditional” Jewish opinions of the nature of life after death.

Tonight I will share with you some of those traditional ideas – that there is perhaps nothing at all, that we join with our ancestors in a shadowy world called Sheol, about resurrection of the body and soul, of Hell and Paradise, immortality, reincarnation and more. Then we can share with each other our own understanding, or perhaps hopes, of what lies ahead for us all.

I. Beyond Death, Perhaps Nothing, Who Knows?

In one of the most well-known contemporary rabbinic statements of comfort, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote, “I often feel that death is not the enemy of life, but its friend, for it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious.” It is the realization that life is limited, our time on earth is brief, our ability to control our ultimate destiny non-existent that gives urgency to the quality of our lives. It makes each moment precious, each act of will crucial, each opportunity to create something meaningful all-important.

Though the pursuit of immortality has been a dominant theme of world literature for thousands of years, it remains true that there is no absolute proof of life beyond the grave. Great Jewish thinkers have often rejected the very notion of an afterlife as mere “wish fulfillment.”

Sigmund Freud, who invented this notion of the afterlife as “mere illusion,” stated that the whole idea of immortality is a sign of despair and limitation, invented to compensate for the misery of our life on Earth.

In reality, he claimed, death is annihilation, a return to “inorganic lifelessness.” Religion, as “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” includes the belief in an afterlife as a way to satisfy the human need for overcoming the existential problems of the day. Freud saw the idea of immortality as a way of retreating from the challenges of this world into a world of myth and fantasy.

Although there are a number of religious Jewish thinkers who categorically deny the possibility of life after death, more common is the position of those who express skepticism, yet are unwilling to deny the possibility altogether. Such thinkers are known as “agnostics,” from the Greek word meaning “unknown.”

Agnostics maintain that the human mind is incapable of knowing what lies beyond material phenomena and therefore refrain from accepting or rejecting its existence. An example of a great contemporary Orthodox Jewish thinker is British scholar Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

Jacobs wrote, “Religious agnosticism, in some aspects of this whole area, is not only legitimate but altogether desirable. As Maimonides says, we simply can have no idea of what pure, spiritual bliss in the hereafter is like. Agnosticism on the basic issue of whether there is a hereafter would seem narrowness of vision, believing what we do of God. But once the basic affirmation is made, it is almost as narrow to project our poor, early imaginings on the landscape of heaven.”

II. The Bible and Beyond

When we turn to the Bible to see what it might say about life after death, we find precious little at all. Though influenced strongly by the prevailing Babylonian notions about death, the Israelites gave their own shape and form to the discussion. Two basic ideas seem to dominate biblical thinking on life and death:

God is life-affirming and the source of all goodness. There are simply very few speculations in Hebrew scripture about life after death, and little preoccupation with the hereafter. The ultimate purpose is to sanctify life here on Earth.

Death does not represent a total annihilation of the individual, but a transition to a new kind of life where people meet their own ancestors, continuing to live a shadowy kind of existence. This is reflected in the biblical saying that when one dies, one goes to one’s “ancestors,” or is “gathered to his or her kin.”

There is a reality to the biblical notion of death, a directness that recognizes the physical process is undeniable. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” Genesis 3:19. “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up,” II Sam.14:14.

In the biblical mind, death is final. After death, one is not expected to return to this Earth. In the Book of Job we read, “If a man dies, can he live again?” The biblical answer is no.

Yet the ancient Israelites did not fully accept the notion of a total dissolution; rather they spoke of a place called Sheol, where the dead dwell. Sheol is referred to in the Bible as “the ditch,” “the pit,” “the realm of death,” or “the land of darkness.”

It is clearly a place to which one descends after death, where one meets up once again with relatives who have died before us. In Sheol, the dead live a shadowy existence. They are refayim, shades, who are without strength, freed from the sickness of the flesh, and God can hear their voices. Though dreary, Sheol is not seen as a place of punishment. Every living being, without regard to moral character, goes down to Sheol at the time of death. The concept of Hell developed much later.

We even have the story of King Saul, who desperately sought the advice of the already-dead Prophet Samuel by forcing the Witch of En-Dor to raise him up from the grave: “And the woman said to Saul, ‘I see a divine being coming up from the Earth.’ ‘What does he look like?’ he asked her. ‘It is and old man….And he is wrapped up in a robe.’ Then Saul knew that it was Samuel; and he bowed low in homage with his face to the ground.’ Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?’”

III. Resurrection?

The first clear idea of resurrection appears in the writings of the Prophet Ezekial, in his vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. But though the language was personal, the idea was symbolic and communal. Just as the dry bones once again took on life, so too Israel would be redeemed from Exile and revived to life anew after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

The Book of Daniel, on the other hand, written around the second century B.C. E., clearly states the belief that “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the Earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.”

You see, the ancient Israelites borrowed concepts of the afterlife from surrounding cultures, adapting and refining them. For them, death was not the end but rather a transition to that shadowy life of Sheol. Thus, the biblical view of what lies beyond the grave ranges from the netherworld of Sheol to a rudimentary belief in personal resurrection.

With the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, belief in the resurrection of the soul emerged as a kind of cardinal dogma during the Maccabean period, when so many good people were dying for their faith.

The rabbis began to teach that all souls have an immortal quality to them, and that after death there will be rewards and punishments according to how virtuous one has been in this life. By the Middle Ages, concepts of Hell and Paradise were taken for granted in rabbinic literature. It was only the theological details that varied.

It was generally accepted that the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished somehow, in the world to come – Olam Haba. The former would go to Paradise – Gan Eden – and the latter to Gehennom. Individual rabbis differed as to the details, however.

Some argued that the righteous and the wicked assumed their places immediately upon death; others maintained that the departed waited until the final resurrection and judgment; others that the soul would remain with the body for a brief period of time – three days, seven days, twelve months – and then ascend. Others declared that the soul returns to a heavenly treasury and waits there until the period of resurrection.

Who enters the Olam Haba? The basic Jewish view is “all Israelites have a share in the world to come,” with just a few exceptions. Some rabbis promised a place in the world to come to those who suffered, to make sense out of their poverty and suffering.

What about non- Jews? Those in inter-faith marriages will be pleased to note that the basic Jewish idea expressed in the Talmud is that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.”

Jewish Hell – the term Gehennom – came from the name of the valley outside Jerusalem that was the site of heathen cults whose rituals included the burning of children. It became associated with punishment and purgation. Yet in Judaism, even the wicked ultimately end up in Paradise. As Rabbi Akiba taught, “The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna shall endure only 12 months.”

IV. What is Paradise?

Paradise – Gan Eden – is the heavenly abode of the righteous after death. It has been pictured in a wide variety of ways, depending upon the personal inclinations of the rabbi. One sage maintained that three things – Shabbat, sunshine and sexual intercourse – are central to this world, as well as in the world to come, (Ber.57b).

Some teach that, in Paradise, we sit at golden tables, on stools of gold, participate in lavish banquets. But some held the opposite view. Rav, the third-century Babylonian scholar taught, “In the world to come, there is neither eating nor drinking, no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry, but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of the shehinah, (Ber.17a).

What about physical resurrection? Yes, that, too, was considered normative by all. The sages taught, “As a man goes, so he returns. If he died blind or deaf or lame, he lives again blind or deaf or lame.” Another opinion was. “The just in the time to come will rise up in Jerusalem dressed in their clothes.”

Modern Orthodox Jews still embrace the idea of bodily physical resurrection. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm has written, “The belief in a bodily resurrection appears, at first sight, to be incredible to the contemporary mind. But when approached from the God’s-eye view, why is re-birth more miraculous than birth? Surely resurrection is not beyond the capacity of an omnipotent God.”

V. Immortality of the Soul?

Throughout Jewish history, the idea of an immortal, eternal soul has been a central concept. The soul was seen as a guest in the body: “Just as God fills the world but is not seen, so the soul fills the body but is not seen,” (Ber. 10a).

Twelfth-century Moses Maimonides saw the soul as the essence of the human intellect and claimed that it was this rational soul that remains after physical death, returning to the ultimate source of creation: God.

So, too, the great commentator of the 13th century, Gershonides argued that the knowledge individuals acquired in life is indestructible, and the totality of these accumulated ideas represents our only possible immortality.

Baruch Spinoza, in the 17th century, claimed that the more knowledge we have the greater is our participation in eternity. And in the modern era, most non-Orthodox Jews, in rejecting the idea of physical resurrection, have embraced the idea of the soul, or essence of the human spirit, as that which lives on.

Mordecai Kaplan wrote, “The soul is nothing other than the human being as a person or self.”

VI. Reincarnation?

What about reincarnation? Is that a Jewish idea, too? Yes, we have that in Judaism as well, called gilgul nanefesh. Primarily in Jewish mystical literature, the writings of the Zohar and the Kabbalah, we are taught that souls have an independent life, existing before birth and after death.

The soul joins the body at its appointed time, and after staying for a while – according to the job it has to do – it leaves, either to assume its next assignment or to return to the source of its ultimate creation.

The Zohar states, “It is the path taken by man in this world that determines the path of the soul on her departure. If a man is drawn towards the Holy One, and if filled with longing towards him in this world, the soul in departing…is carried upward towards the higher realms by the impetus given her each day in this world.”

Thus it is our actions while we live on Earth which determine how rapidly our souls will rise up the many-runged ladder of the spiritual world to return to God. The pain that people feel in this world may in fact be the consequence of acts committed in a previous incarnation.

Kabbalists even claim that some people act like animals because they carry souls of beasts, barren women carry souls of men, and converts to Judaism carry Jewish souls.

From one incarnation to the next, the soul is cleansed, purified, serving as a vehicle for atonement for past sins, going through stages toward the sparks of holiness that radiate from the divine core of the universe.

VII. How else do we live on?

In the modern Jewish world, immortality takes in other meanings. The lives we lead, the people we touch, the children we bear or raise, the acts we perform which change the world, the words we say, the love we share and place into the world. There is one thing of which we all can be certain - each of us has the opportunity by how we live our lives to live on in what Rabbi Harold Schulweiss calls, “the immortality of influence.”

Jewish thinkers thus see modern immortality in three fundamental ways: as biology, as influence and as deeds.

Perhaps the poet Hugh Robert Orr put it best when he wrote:

They are not dead who live
In hearts they leave behind.
In those whom they have blessed
They live a life again,
And shall live through the years
Eternal life, and grow
Each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
Forgets the rest, and proves
Their immortality.