Is There a Jewish View of the Afterlife?

I have a life motto: a great way to know a little about a lot of subject is . . . to read 25% of a lot of books!

Well, I didn’t mean for that to be my life motto. But it is. I see so many books on theology, Biblical studies, Christianity, Judaism, history, archaeology, and so on that fascinate me. I want to read them all — at the same time.

I frequently get a book and read a little, put it down, move on in succession to a dozen other books, and then come back to it — mix, stir, repeat. Sometimes I finish books through this method in a year or two, having digested fifty more the same way.

One of the books I am abusing in this manner is Simcha Raphael’s Jewish Views of the Afterlife. It is a fascinating journey starting with Biblical material and traveling into modern times in Jewish sources.

I’ve only read the first ten percent of Raphael’s book and I am not endorsing his views. He seems to be leading toward something very Eastern and not, in my mind, Jewish. He is a disciple of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. In the foreword, Reb Zalman, as he is called, disavows physical notions of the afterlife in favor of a Gnostic-Platonic-Maimonidean-Pantheist sort of non-physical, eternal contemplation of the divine mystery after a long period of reincarnations.

How did such a view come to be part of anyone’s idea of Judaism? I honestly would like to understand. And yes, I mean also to express my disdain for the kabbalistic emphasis on reincarnation.

Yet it also appears that Raphael’s book, even if he comes out with a very different conception of the hereafter than I do, is a great source. No doubt I will find many topics from his book for blogging delight.

In the second chapter, for example, Raphael examines the reasons for modern Jewish ambivalence about the hereafter.

Raphael astutely mentions a variety of factors: rationalism, the influence of Maimonides’ skepticism, and Auschwitz. The astounding thing is that surveys from 1952 and 1965 found that only 35% and 17% of American Jews believed in the afterlife with any degree of firmness. I would guess the number has probably risen again in our time as faith in the metaphysical is increasing. Yet it pains me as a student of the Bible (and increasingly of rabbinic literature as well) to think that the beautiful words I read in the Bible and the rabbis are not lovingly embraced as the greatest light in this present darkness.

In my early days of learning about Judaism I used to hear often, “Christians are too focused on the afterlife; in Judaism we focus on obedience in this life without needing a promised reward in the life to come.”

This is not true according to my reading of the rabbinic literature. Sure, Pirkei Avot says we should serve as those who do so for no reward. But this is about our attitude of love to the Master of the World and not about actually disdaining reward. Numerous texts speak of reward as a motivation for selfless living in the eyes of heaven. The words merit and reward are common in rabbinic sayings, reflecting, I believe, a Biblical view of life and afterlife.

So, is there a Jewish view of the afterlife? I mean is there a core belief that should define Judaism’s opinion on all things hereafter?

I think so. I think that modern and rationalistic views from the previous eight or nine centuries (starting with Maimonides) should not be allowed to overturn the Biblical-Talmudic picture of bodily resurrection from the dead, an earthly paradise, and dwelling in the divine presence.

Let me simply conclude with a few examples from rabbinic literature (see my about-to-be-released book The World to Come for biblical examples):

Not like this world will be the world to come. In this world one has trouble to harvest grapes and to press them; in the world to come a person will bring a single grape in a wagon or a ship, store it in the corner of the house, and draw from it a flagon of wine . . . there will not be a grape which will not yield thirty measures of wine. –Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111b.

[When Rabbi Abahu] was about to depart from this life, he beheld all the good things that were stored up for him in the world to come and he rejoiced. –Exodus Rabbah 52:3.

The sages have taught us that we human beings cannot appreciate the joys of the future age. Therefore they called it the world to come, not because it does not yet exist, but because it is still in the future. The world to come is the one waiting for man after this world. There is no basis for the idea that the world to come will only exist after the destruction of this world. –Midrash Tanhuma, Vayikkra 8.

In the world to come, the Holy Blessed One will take a scroll of Torah on his lap and say, “Let him who occupied himself therewith come and receive his reward.” –Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 2a.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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