Is There Life After Death? Jewish Thinking on the Afterlife. Part One:
Ask Jews what happens after death, and many will respond that the Jewish tradition doesn’t say or doesn’t care, that Jews believe life is for the living and that Judaism focuses on what people can and should do in this world. But not so fast. If anything is less Jewish than belief in heaven and hell, it’s Jews agreeing on an official theological party line. And after 4,000 years of discussion, you’d expect considerable variation. Sure enough, when Moment asked an array of prominent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers and other doers to tell us what they think they’re headed for, the range was extraordinary. In the following ruminations you’ll find ghosts, zombies, animal souls and reincarnation, along with more familiar discussions of memory, legacy and divine judgment. And, of course, disagreements. As they say: two Jews, three afterlives.
An Imaginary Sphere
I think everybody thinks about it. The afterlife is the principal preoccupation of anyone who’s going to die, regardless of religion. Judaism has never decided on a formal approach to the afterlife. It’s never had a formal approach to eschatology, either — what’s going to happen at the end of the world. We’re left with a typically practical, or provisional, interest in the world as it is — a regulation of the mundane, the here and now, rather than a pondering of the celestial.
I’ve always felt the afterlife exists in relation to life in the same way literature exists in relation to life. It’s an imaginary sphere, in which one can play out one’s fears, neuroses, desires and pains, but it’s still a terrain strictly for the living. Only the living can play, or imagine — or read. Once a man dies, his afterlife ceases to exist.
Jews, if not Judaism, regard death as a great injustice. Everything I’ve read tells me that Judaism is loath to encourage a positive view of the afterlife, because it might encourage a more positive attitude toward death. Anything that would see death as a salvation risks encouraging the believer to shirk his job on earth, or opt for thoughtless martyrdom. The classic refusal of salvation is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which says nothing about death, or about life after death. I have always read the Mourner’s Kaddish as a unique provocation to God. “Magnified and sanctified is God, Who brought us all here to the graveside to suffer and yet Who still hasn’t offered any reward.” It verges on gallows humor. I’ve never subscribed to the myth that the Kaddish can be used to spring one’s parents from purgatory. It’s merely a call to duty. I remember as a kid thinking, “Yes, yes — that’s a very effective way of getting me to shul.”
Joshua Cohen is the author of A Heaven of Others and Witz.
Beyond Bodily Death
Maybe most Jews haven’t, but Judaism has absolutely always had a view of the afterlife. From the 14th century on, a belief in gilgul, reincarnation, was as kosher as Manischewitz. In the Artscroll prayer book, there’s a line in the bedtime Shema, “Forgive anyone who has harmed me in this incarnation or any other incarnation.” Even in the Bible, Saul goes to the Witch of Endor to raise up the spirit of Samuel from the dead. It’s forbidden, but it’s practiced.
Most Jews today see the Jewish tradition through the lens of 20th-century rationality, so they don’t see those aspects. The collective shock of losing so many people in the Holocaust was just too great. We had to move ahead, found the State of Israel, deal with the devastation and the trauma — no one could afford to think about six million souls. And then the culture was increasingly secular. Rabbis didn’t talk about God and spirituality from the pulpit, they preached about Israel and anti-Semitism.
But now we’re really on a quest for spirituality. Young people are saturated with material things. They want some kind of connection with nature and the universe, not just with the next iPod. And an interest in the afterlife emerges from that. You see it in popular culture as well: movies about the supernatural, a cop show where a medium is the protagonist. No one would have touched that 20 years ago.
How do we evolve a different pastoral approach based on the idea that consciousness survives bodily death? How does it change the way we think of Kaddish, of caring for the dead, of sitting shiva? There are long-term implications that we haven’t even begun to investigate. I’ve done a lot of work in hospice, and my sense is that with all our science, we really can’t comprehend the subtlety of what happens when we die.
Simcha Paull Raphael is the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife and specializes in bereavement in his private psychotherapy practice.
Love is Immortal
To me, the afterlife consists of the memories that we leave in the minds and hearts of the people we love. Obviously, we all want to leave a heritage for the world, but it’s given to very few of us to do that. But what one has been to one’s spouse and one’s children, and perhaps one’s students, carries through to countless generations. I don’t believe in immortality except in that sense. My sense of religion has to do with community, with continuity, with going to synagogue and identifying publicly with the Jewish people. Continuity doesn’t mean some shadowy figure of your individual self goes on. It means your work and your love go on.
Nature is cyclical. Just look — in the last few months all the green stuff has come out, birds are chirping, everything is renewed. Nature is an environment in which we die so others may live, so that our civilization can expand, so new ideas and experiences can be promulgated. Why should human beings be an exception to all the other biological phenomena?
Sherwin B. Nuland, a retired professor of surgery, teaches bioethics and medical history at Yale University. He is the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.
Heaven is for Everyone
Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife differ less than many might think. But misunderstandings are common. Many Christians think Jews follow Torah in order to earn a spot in heaven (this is known as “works righteousness”); they are unaware that Jewish tradition teaches that all Israel has a share in the world to come, save for apostates and a few other miscreants. Other Christians think that Jews believe heaven is exclusively for Jews; to the contrary, in traditional Judaism, heaven is not a gated community (pearly or otherwise), and righteous gentiles also participate in eternal life. In turn, many Jews think that all Christians believe actions are unimportant and that one only needs to worship Jesus to gain heavenly entry. The New Testament, however, makes clear that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26) and that those who enter the kingdom are those who engage in works of compassion for others (Matthew 25:31–46).
Jewish and Christian views developed in dialogue and debate with each other. Many Jews in Hellenistic and early Roman times had quite robust views of the afterlife — of heavenly realms and places of torment, resurrection of the dead or immortality of the soul, and even the idea of reincarnation. However, the more the Church emphasized salvation and damnation, the more the Jewish community emphasized sanctification of daily life.
Jewish beliefs in the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body, to the idea that we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes). Belief in an afterlife typically correlates with our theology. If we believe in a just and compassionate living G-d, faithful to the promises made to Israel, we may well also believe in resurrection in the Messianic age, when justice and compassion will prevail over sin, evil and death.
Perhaps what sparks belief today is less traditional teaching than personal experience. I was by my mother’s bedside in the local hospital; she was 80, and her body was failing. Late in the evening she woke from her sleep, opened her eyes, and asked me, “What will happen to me when I die?”
I immediately answered, “You’ll see Daddy.” My father had died decades earlier.
She replied, “I look like hell.”
“Well, Mom, you’ve looked better, but when you see Daddy, you’ll look as beautiful as you looked the day you got married.”
“How do you know this?”
“Mom, I’ve got a Ph.D. in religion; I know these things.”
She smiled. I began to cry; my husband took my place by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she died. Afterward, my husband looked at me and said something to the effect of, “I’ve never heard you say anything like that before. You don’t believe in an afterlife.” But when I was talking to my mom, I believed every word.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Science.
A Sense of Soul
There’s a story told about Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav: He’s walking in the village and some dogs approach, barking, and he says to them, “I know, I know, I know.” What he knows is that they are humans in dog bodies, and he has the capacity to redeem them from this. Some Hasidim believed in gilgul, the process of rebirth. The soul keeps returning, and certain souls come back to complete their mission. Most contemporary Jews don’t feel comfortable with the concept of “soul,” let alone the concept of rebirth. That speaks to a lack of imagination in Jewish spiritual life. We are radically rationalist, to the point where we’ve cut our heads off and left the body behind. People confuse belief and imagination. They think, it’s either true or it’s not true, and if it’s not true we can’t believe it, end of story. They don’t understand that imagination is what’s needed to understand the soul.
After Allen Ginsberg died I wrote a poem called “Allen Ginsberg Forgives Ezra Pound on Behalf of Jews.” In a sense the poem is addressed to Allen in the beyond. Just recently I was speaking in the Newark Museum and it occurred to me that Allen had both been born and buried in Newark. We went to his grave and I recited Kaddish — his poem “Kaddish.” I felt a powerful presence. This touches on another aspect of the question: So many people report very powerful dreams of their dead loved ones. It certainly makes you wonder, What is this? How can this be?
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus, Burnt Books and The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul.
Plato and the Maccabees
Why are Jewish notions of the afterlife so indistinct when both Christian and Muslim views of the afterlife, which come originally from Judaism, have attained remarkable specificity?
The doctrine of bodily resurrection is based on apocalyptic Judaism, as expressed in Daniel 12, datable to 165 BCE, a blink of the eye before Christianity: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” In this time of unprecedented, terrible tribulation, the Maccabean revolt, Jews were being martyred for practicing their religion. We do not get an extended explication of why the dead, who used to dwell underground in a place called Sheol in the Hebrew Bible, are now going to heaven. Instead, the passage is framed as a prophetic dream, a direct communication from God.
Immortality of the soul entered Jewish thought at about the same time, from Greek philosophy — in particular, Platonic notions of the immortal soul. The soul turns from the impermanence and corruption of this world to return to its original home, the stars. This notion is the ancestor of all modern notions that we separate from our body and go to heaven when we die. It is, however, in total contradiction with the notion of resurrection, where we stay in our graves until the last days, when God will raise us up to eternal life. The contrast in social class is evident: Whereas self-sacrificing youth may want complete restoration of their bodies, intellectuals want continuity of consciousness.
It would be a mistake to think that the moment resurrection and immortality of the soul arrived on the Jewish scene, they were accepted. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the Sanhedrin of the first century was deeply divided on the issue. The Wisdom of Ben Sira in the second century BCE says a person outlasts death through children and by means of a lasting good reputation.
Christianity, by contrast, believing fervently in bodily resurrection, had a great deal of trouble reconciling it with the soul’s trip to heaven. It took until Augustine in the fourth century to find exactly the right philosophical formulation: Our souls are immortal and go to their rewards at death, but the faithful shall recover their bodies at the last judgment when sinners will be punished.
How different are the rabbis! The rabbinic term for the afterlife, Tehiat ha-metim, usually translated as “resurrection of the body,” literally means “the vivification of the dead.” It comes from Isaiah 26: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy.” The rabbis use the ambiguous rather than the exact terminology, which allows them wiggle room as to whether God promises bodily resurrection, the world to come, the days of the Messiah, or even immortality of the soul. This allowed Jews to live among Christians and Muslims, who all had more specific ideas of resurrection and who might have held the Jews responsible for heresy.
The rabbis also believed that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come, thus giving their hosts an equal chance at heavenly rewards. This was an earthly as well as a heavenly strategy. It laid the basis for cultural pluralism.
Alan Segal was Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College and author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. This excerpt is from an unpublished article Dr. Segal wrote for Momentbefore his death in February.