Olam haBa (afterlife) is rarely discussed
in Jewish life, be it among Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews. This is in marked contrast to the religious traditions of the
people among whom the Jews have lived. Afterlife has always played a
critical role in Islamic teachings, for example. To this day, Muslim terrorists who are dispatched on suicide missions are reminded that anyone who dies in a jihad (holy war) immediately ascends to the highest place in heaven. In Christianity,
afterlife plays a critical role; the vigorous missionizing efforts of
many Protestant sects are rooted in the belief that converting nonbelievers
will save them from hell.
Jewish teachings on the subject of afterlife are sparse:
The Torah, the most
important Jewish text, has no clear reference to afterlife at all.
Since Judaism does believe in the "next world," how does one account for
the Torah's silence? I suspect that there is a correlation between its
nondiscussion of afterlife and the fact that the Torah was revealed
just after the long Jewish sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society from
which the Hebrew slaves emerged was obsessed with death and afterlife.
The holiest Egyptian literary work was called The Book of the Dead,
while the major achievement of many Pharaohs was the erection of the
giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast, the Torah is obsessed with
this world, so much so that it even forbids its priests from coming
into contact with dead bodies (Leviticus
The Torah, therefore, might have been silent about
afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction
of the death obsessed Egyptian religion. Throughout history, those religions
that have assigned a significant role to afterlife have often permitted
other religious values to become distorted. For example, belief in the
afterlife motivated the men of the Spanish
Inquisition to torture innocent human beings; they believed it was
morally desirable to torture people for a few days in this world until
they accepted Christ, and thereby save them from the eternal torments
In Judaism the belief in afterlife is less a leap
of faith than a logical outgrowth of other Jewish beliefs. If one believes
in a God who is all-powerful
and all-just, one cannot believe that this world, in which evil far
too often triumphs, is the only arena in which human life exists. For
if this existence is the final word, and God permits evil to win, then
it cannot be that God is good. Thus, when someone says he or she believes
in God but not in afterlife, it would seem that either they have not
thought the issue through, or they don't believe in God, or the divine
being in whom they believe is amoral or immoral.
According to Judaism, what happens in the next world?
As noted, on this subject there is little material. Some of the suggestions
about afterlife in Jewish writings and folklore are even humorous. In
heaven, one story teaches, Moses sits and teaches Torah all day long. For the righteous people (the tzaddikim),
this is heaven; for the evil people, it is hell. Another folktale teaches
that in both heaven and hell, human beings cannot bend their elbows.
In hell people are perpetually starved; in heaven each person feeds
All attempts to describe heaven and hell are, of course,
speculative. Because Judaism believes that God is good, it believes
that God rewards good people; it does not believe that Adolf
Hitler and his victims share the same fate. Beyond that, it is hard
to assume much more. We are asked to leave afterlife in God's hands.