Two years ago on my sabbatical trip around the world, I visited with a high-ranking member of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey. A significant prelate and an important assistant to the Patriarch, he grew up in suburban Chicago and spoke English fluently, of course, and we had a wonderful conversation about theology and ritual. As I endeavored to understand the intricacies of the Greek Church, he explained carefully to me how central the concept of the rewards of eternal life are for Orthodox Christians. The goal for every believing person, in his faith, was to achieve eternal reward in a much better world than this one. And then he said, “I don’t understand how you can get people to be good if they aren’t trying to get to heaven, and afraid of going to hell.”
I did my best to explain that in Judaism we seek to inspire people to live ethical lives through observing mitzvot, fulfilling commandments designed to make life moral and holy. And I told him what I always say, respectfully: we Jews are much more interested in the quality of life before death than in theoretical rewards or punishments after death.
But that’s not really the whole story.
This week I completed teaching my class on Jewish views of life after death here at Temple. It’s a very interesting subject, and one that Jews, particularly Reform and Conservative Jews, don’t spend much time talking or thinking about. Perhaps my favorite part about teaching this class is that no matter what I say about life after death in Jewish belief, no one can prove that I’m wrong… or is inclined to do the research necessary to discover that fact.
In general, Jews spend less time thinking about the afterlife than pretty much any other religious tradition. It is difficult to imagine Christianity or Islam having developed without a strong belief in heaven and hell, and the same applies to Hinduism and Buddhism. Virtually every religion has a highly developed conception of life after death, including for some reincarnation, and for almost all of them it is central to their belief system.
But for most Jews, the afterlife isn’t a particularly significant part of our own foundational religious convictions. We figure we have a good deal of control over own actions here in this world, and not much control over what happens after we die. And so we focus on what we can control, our own character and conduct.
Having said that, it would be incorrect to say that we Jews don’t believe in life after death, or heaven and hell; it’s just that it’s not nearly as important for us as it is for many other religions. As the Talmud puts it neatly, those who don’t believe in the world to come have no share in it, which seems completely fair to me. Don’t believe it, don’t get it. Fair enough. A done deal.
But when you study the question it turns out that Jewish ideas about life after death are extensive and varied. While the Torah, our central and most ancient text, does not really mention life after death at all, over time two central aspects of belief took hold in Judaism about the hereafter. One was the notion that our bodies would be resurrected, brought back to life in some way or other at some future time. The second was the idea that our souls, that part within each us that is intrinsically and uniquely us, will continue on after our physical deaths.
Over time, these two ideas became linked into one system for what happens after we die. By the time the Book of Daniel in the last part of the Bible was written, there was also a concept of a judgment day. The whole scenario was that we die, our bodies are buried, and at some future date our souls will be returned to our bodies, they will be restored with flesh and blood and so on, we will rise from the grave and be judged, and then go on to either a good future or some kind of oblivion.
You might recognize most of this as what was later enshrined into Christian belief, and those guys really ran with it: it became central to Christianity in an enhanced form—new and improved!—with very vivid depictions of hell and much more fleshed-out editions of heaven. Islam came along and amped up the heaven part a good deal, at least for men, while Christianity continued to elaborate the hellfire and brimstone parts of things.
But Judaism, which originated these ideas, never took to them as completely as others did. While most Jews probably believed in these basic tenets, others did not. And varying interpretations of what it all meant and how it all worked—imagine that in Judaism, differences of opinion!—developed. Rationalists, like Maimonides, believed that the true heavenly ideal consisted of being in perfect connection with the great divine active intellect; that is, our minds continued on forever, in communion with the Greatest Mind of all, God’s. Mystics believed our souls ascended to connect with the indwelling female presence of God, the Shechinah, in a kind of blissful connectedness to holiness. Later Kabbalists came to believe that if our souls hadn’t completed their journeys during our lives, we were reincarnated after death, our souls implanted in new bodies to live again and seek to have our souls ascend to higher levels.
In modern times, Orthodox Jews have continued to believe, at least officially, in the standard Jewish views of life after death, and to pray for bodily resurrection and the eternal soul. Chasidim have embraced reincarnation as well. But most liberal Jews, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, organizational, and so on, are much less likely to embrace the concept of bodily resurrection. But many believe that they have a soul. And there is a great deal of interest these days in spirituality.
In the course of teaching this course, I’ve met several people who have had contact with relatives who are gone, and who have experienced a sense of connection with children, spouses, and siblings who’ve passed away. They tell fascinating stories of experiencing animals who seemed to carry a lost relative’s message, or of sensing the presence of a child or spouse who has died in natural or unusual events. These are moving, and often beautiful, narratives that have great meaning for the people who experience them.
After exploring life after death in Jewish belief for the past four weeks, the greatest insight this time, for me, has been the understanding that what we believe about life after death helps us understand what part of ourselves we truly believe is essential. Judaism doesn’t truly believe that there is only one way to think about what happens after we die. And that openness to the possibilities of what exist after we go can give added meaning to our lives now.
What we think happens after we die says a great deal about who we believe we really are. There are three words for soul in Hebrew, Ru’ach, Nefesh, and Neshamah. Each has a somewhat different meaning, but each is used to identify the intrinsic quality of the individual.
If you think that the most important part of you is your mind, your intellect, your education and thinking, then you are most likely to think that that is your soul. If you believe your feelings, your emotions, your intuitive connection to special people or places make you unique, you will tend to identify your soul more mystically. If you are proudest of your connection to your people, you might identify yourself with that as part of your soul. And so on: that which you value most you are likely to think as the part of you that will go on forever, or that you wish would do so.
That is, thinking about what part of you is really you can help understand what you feel is truly important about your own life now, here, in this world. Remarkably, if you clarify your thinking about life after death, and what you feel happens in the afterlife, you gain clarity about is most important about you, and what you want your life be like here, in this world. How you wish to exist forever helps you know how you wish to be today and tomorrow.
And that is a goal every Jew can embrace…