Feb. 27, 2010
One day, I was having trouble with the computer in my office. The technician who was dispatched to fix the problem spent about an hour in my office and, then, just as he was about to walk out the door he paused and asked me, "So, you're a rabbi, right?" "That's right," I answered.
"Well, do you believe in heaven?" he asked. "I'm looking for the answer."
I paused and gave him a short Jewish answer on the subject. I was well prepared to answer him, because if it's not the computer technician, it's the person sitting next to me on the airplane or, more often, a congregant who wants to know the answer to the million dollar question: "Is there life after death?" Most people ask me about the afterlife with an earnest sincerity and a sad uncertainty. I suspect that many of us would like to believe that our existence does not end with our physical death and many are left coldly empty by the notion of nothingness after death. And, ironically, Jewish people constantly remind me that Jews do not believe in the afterlife.
This is distressing, because, although it was the Jews who gave Christianity a belief in the world to come, we have almost abandoned it ourselves.
In part, this is because Judaism as a whole and, especially, liberal Judaism, emphasizes rational, objective thought, and it's easier to believe in what we can see and prove.
In this light, life after death is hard to fathom. As a result, we focus more on the here and now, which can be good. That emphasis pushes us to perform good deeds and to find meaning in the world around us.
But I wonder. How much more comfort might those who are close to death or who are bereaved find if they allowed themselves to be inspired by the idea of the world to come? What if our inability to grasp ideas of life after death is due to our lack of ability to imagine that which we cannot touch and see? Maybe our inclination not to believe is an act of hubris. Who are we to say there isn't an afterlife?
All of these possibilities lead me to conclude that we need to educate ourselves about Jewish views of the afterlife.
Two wonderful books articulate the Jewish approach to death: What Happens After I Die, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme, and Wrestling with the Angel, edited by Jack Riemer. The former presents traditional and modern views on the subject, while the latter offers insights on death and mourning.
It is true that the Bible is centered on life in this world. God is presented as affirming life and there is little preoccupation with life after death. Our purpose is to sanctify life on earth.
When our patriarchs die, we read of them going to their ancestors, or being gathered to their kin, but it is unclear what form this kind of existence takes. The overwhelming message is that death is final and that one is not expected to return to this earth.
The first clear notion of resurrection in Judaism comes from the prophet, Ezekiel, who had a vision after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Ezekiel envisioned the dry bones of the Israelite people rising out of their graves and coming back to life in the land of Israel. The important thing to note here is that the prophecy did not indicate a belief in the resurrection of individual persons. Rather, using poetic imagery, he speaks of the restoration of the national life of the Jewish people. Later, in the book of Daniel, written around the Second Century B.C.E., the author refers explicitly to some people who will awake from the dead and rise -- some of whom will enjoy eternal life, while others will face everlasting abhorrence.
The bulk of Jewish thought on the subject comes from the time after the Bible was completed. Jews were first exposed to the idea of a personal hereafter by the Second Century B.C.E. and, by the First Century C.E., there was a clear division between the two major sects of Jews, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The Pharisees taught that our souls are immortal and that there will be rewards and punishments based on how we lived our lives. While the wicked will be detained in everlasting prison, the righteous shall have the power to revive and live again.
In contrast, the Sadducees taught that our souls die with our bodies.
The Pharisees won out, and the Talmud further developed the notion of reward and punishment and the afterlife.
While there is no consensus on what the afterlife looks like -- after all, no one has been there and back to give us a definitive report, there are some general ideas Jews have embraced over the last two millennium.
Jews have affirmed that God implanted a soul in each of us and that they are eternal. After a person dies, the soul separates from the body and returns to its Maker. The soul then takes comfort in the shadow of God's protective and nurturing wings.
Eventually, the soul stands in judgment before God, the perfect Judge, who rewards the righteous souls.
Among the more beautiful passages about the afterlife is this one from the Talmud: "When the righteous die, their souls are gathered into God's treasury, where they find... the treasures of life, the treasures of peace, and the treasures of blessing."
May we find wholeness and inspiration to live our lives with purpose and peace and let us open our imaginations to the possibilities of the world to come.