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Afterlife in Judaism

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. Judaism has always maintained a belief in an afterlife, but the forms which this belief has assumed and the modes in which it has been expressed have varied greatly and differed from period to period. Thus even today several distinct conceptions about the fate of man after death, relating to the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and the nature of the world to come after the messianic redemption, exist side by side within Judaism. Though these conceptions are interwoven no generally accepted theological system exists concerning their interrelationship.

In the Bible

The Torah, the most important Jewish text, has no clear reference to afterlife at all. It would seem that the dead go down to Sheol, a kind of Hades, where they live an ethereal, shadowy existence (Num. 16:33; Ps. 6:6; Isa. 38:18). It is also said that Enoch “walked with God, and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5:24); and that Elijah is carried heavenward in a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:11). Even the fullest passage on the subject, the necromantic incident concerning the dead prophet Samuel at En-Dor, where his spirit is raised from the dead by a witch at the behest of Saul, does little to throw light on the matter (1 Sam. 28:8 ff.). The one point which does emerge clearly from the above passages is that there existed a belief in an afterlife of one form or another. (For a full discussion see Pedersen, Israel, 1–2 (1926), 460 ff. A more critical view may be found in G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols., 1962.) Though the Talmudic rabbis claimed there were many allusions to the subject in the Bible (cf. Sanh. 90b–91a), the first explicit biblical formulation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead occurs in the book of Daniel, in the following passage:

Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence (Dan. 12:2; see also Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1 ff.).

Why doesn’t the Torah address the issue given that Judaism does believe in the “next world”? Joseph Telushkin explains”

I suspect that there is a correlation between its non-discussion 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 21:2).

Consequently, Telushkin posits that Judaism was meant to differ from other religions in part because of the way the idea of the afterlife can be used in malign ways. He gives the example of the Spanish Inquisitors who believed they could save people from hell if they coerced them using torture to accepted Christ.

In Second Temple Literature

In the eschatology of the apocryphal literature of the Second Temple period, the idea of heavenly immortality, either vouchsafed for all Israel or for the righteous alone, vies with the resurrection of the dead as the dominant theme. Thus, IV Maccabees, for instance, though on the whole tending toward Pharisaism in its theology, promises everlasting life with God to those Jewish martyrs who preferred death to the violation of His Torah, but is silent about resurrection. II Maccabees, on the other hand, figures the latter prominently (cf. II Macc. 7:14, 23; IV Macc. 9:8; 17:5, 18). The doctrine was, however, stressed by sectarian groups and is vividly expressed in the New Testament. For Philo, the doctrine of the resurrection is subservient to that of the immortality of the soul and is seen by him as a figurative way of referring to the latter. The individual soul, which is imprisoned in the body here on earth, returns, if it is the soul of a righteous man, to its home in God; the wicked suffer eternal death (see H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 2 vols. (1947–48); index, S.V. Soul, Resurrection).

In Talmud and Midrash

When a man dies his soul leaves his body, but for the first 12 months it retains a temporary relationship to it, coming and going until the body has disintegrated. Thus, the prophet Samuel was able to be raised from the dead within the first year of his demise. This year remains a purgatorial period for the soul, or according to another view only for the wicked soul, after which the righteous go to paradise, Gan Eden, and the wicked to hell, Geihinnom (Gehinnom; Shab. 152b–153a; Tanh. Va-Yikra 8). The actual condition of the soul after death is unclear. Some descriptions imply that it is quiescent, the souls of the righteous are “hidden under the Throne of Glory” (Shab. 152b), while others seem to ascribe to the dead full consciousness (Ex. R. 52:3; Tanh. Ki Tissa 33; Ket. 77h, 104a; Ber. 18b–19a). The Midrash even says, “The only difference between the living and the dead is the power of speech” (PR 12:46). There is also a whole series of disputes about how much the dead know of the world they leave behind (Ber. 18b).

In the days of the messianic redemption the soul returns to the dust, which is subsequently reconstituted as this body when the individual is resurrected. It is somewhat unclear whether the resurrection is for the righteous alone, or whether the wicked too will be temporarily resurrected only to be judged and destroyed, their souls’ ashes being scattered under the feet of the righteous. A view supporting the doctrine of eternal damnation is found, but this is disputed by the claim, “There will be no Gehinnom in future times” (RH 17a; Tos. to RH 16b; BM 58b; Ned. 8b and Ran, ibid.; Av. Zar. 3b). The doctrine of the resurrection is a cornerstone of rabbinic eschatology, and separated the Pharisee from his Sadducean opponent. The Talmud goes to considerable lengths to show how the resurrection is hinted at in various biblical passages, and excludes those who deny this doctrine from any portion in the world to come (Sanh. 10:1; Sanh. 90b–91a; Jos., Wars, 2:162 ff.). The messianic reign is conceived of as a political and physical Utopia, though there is considerable dispute about this matter (Ber. 34b; Shab. 63a; and the glosses of Rashi). At its end will be the world to come (olam ha-ba) when the righteous will sit in glory and enjoy the splendor of the Divine Presence in a world of purely spiritual bliss (Ber. 17a). About this eschatological culminating point the rabbis are somewhat reticent, and content themselves with the verse “Eye hath not seen, O God, beside Thee” (Isa. 64:3; Ber. 34b), i.e., none but God can have a conception of the matter. In the world to come the Divine Presence itself will illuminate the world. (For a general discussion see “The Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead in Rabbinic Theology” by A. Marmorstein in Studies in Jewish Theology, 1950.)

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The medieval Jewish philosophers brought conceptual and systematic thought to bear on the more imagist rabbinic eschatology, and one major problem they faced was to integrate the notions of immortality and resurrection. Saadia Gaon was perhaps the most successful among them, since he conceived of the state of the reunited soul and body after the resurrection as one of spiritual bliss (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 9:5). Due to the nature of Greek psychology, however, the emphasis among the other Jewish philosophers, both Platonist and Aristotelian, is on the soul’s immortality – the resurrection being added only because of doctrinal considerations. It is clear in the case of Maimonides, for instance, that the immortality of the soul is paramount (Guide, 2:27; 3:54). Though he makes the belief in the resurrection, rather than in the immortality of the disembodied soul, one of his fundamental principles of Jewish faith (cf. Mishnah, Sanhedrin, introd. to Helek), it is only the latter which has meaning in terms of his philosophical system. Indeed, the resurrection does not figure in the Guide of the Perplexed at all.

In general, the Neoplatonists saw the soul’s journey as an ascent toward the Godhead, and its beatitude as a purely spiritual bliss involving knowledge of God and spiritual beings and some form of communion with them. Their negative attitude toward the flesh, in favor of the spirit, left no room for a resurrection theology of any substance. The Jewish Aristotelians, who thought of the acquired intellect as the immortal part of man, saw immortality in terms of the intellectual contemplation of God. Some of the Jewish Aristotelians held that in their immortal state the souls of all men are one; while others maintained that immortality is individual. This emphasis on salvation through intellectual attainment was the subject of considerable criticism. Crescas, for example, claimed that it was the love of God, rather than knowledge of Him, which was of primary soteriological import (Or Adonai, 3:3).

In Kabbalistic Literature

Kabbalistic eschatology, more systematic than its rabbinic predecessor, is, if anything, more complex in structure and varied as between the several Kabbalistic subsystems. The soul is conceived of as divided into several parts, whose origin is in Divine Emanation, and is incarnated here on earth with a specific task to fulfill. The soul of the wicked, i.e., of he who has failed in his assigned task, is punished and purified in hell or is reincarnated again (gilgul) to complete its unfinished work. In certain cases, however, the wicked soul is denied even hell or reincarnation and is exiled without the possibility of finding rest. Much of the literature is devoted to detailing the various stages of ascent and descent of the soul and its parts. (For a discussion of the various Kabbalistic systems, and the variety of views held, see G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, particularly ch. 6.)

In Modern Jewish Thought

Orthodox Judaism has, throughout, maintained both a belief in the future resurrection of the dead as part of the messianic redemption, and a belief in some form of immortality of the soul after death. The former figures in the liturgy at several points, including the morning prayer (Hertz, Prayer, 18), expressing the believer’s trust that God will return his soul to his body in time to come. It is also a central motif of the second benediction of the Amidah (ibid., 134). The belief in the soul’s survival after death is implicit in the various prayers said in memory of the dead and in the mourner’s custom of reciting the Kaddish (ibid., 1106–09, and 212, 269–71). Reform Judaism has, however, given up any literal belief in the future resurrection of the dead. Reform theology concerns itself solely with the belief in a spiritual life after death and has modified the relevant liturgical passages accordingly.

Telushkin concludes:

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…. 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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.