Religion 202: “Is there a Heaven or Hell in Judaism?” (Shabbat Bereishit October 28, 2016)
This week’s Torah portion open’s with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth –“et ha-shamayim v’et ha’aretz,” in Hebrew. Genesis 1 delivers a clear scientific statement of the creation of two physical realms that can be seen with the human eye. We can stand on the ground and we can look at the sky, the clouds, the sun, and the moon the heavens.
The Hebrew word “shamayim” is a plural, “heavens” with an “s.” There is no mention of the creation of “heaven,” a realm not visible, or anything that can’t be seen or proven. In fact, nowhere in the entire five books of Moses, and with few exceptions, our entire Torah, is there any indication of a realm beyond this world.
Genesis 2:1 begins, “The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array.” In the second story of creation, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden. In the very center of that garden was the Tree of Life. Man and his future partner, Eve, ate of the tree and so were originally immortal. As the story unfolds, they disobey God, eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and lose their immortality. And so the second creation story ends up being the explanation of why we are mortal, why we die.
But, there is no question from Adam to God about what happens after we die? Eternal life is never mentioned in Genesis, or for that matter in the rest of the Torah. The Torah is concerned with offering us a path for a meaningful life on this earth, and teaching us about the consequences for humanity when we deviate from God’s plan. Noah’s flood is next week!
But, we know from literature, religion, and history, that humanity has speculated on the realm beyond life for as long as we have existed. What constitutes an afterlife, is a question no human being can actually answer, but that has not stopped us from trying.
I would propose that the question of this sermon, “Is there a heaven or hell in Judaism?” is not a Jewish question. It is a Christian question, posed to Jews, or posed about Jews, to see how we compare with the Christian view of the afterlife, which contains a clear view of heaven and hell. Truth be told, most Jews never think about this question and really don’t care.
I would also propose that we cannot possibly know, at this time, if an afterlife actually and scientifically exists. I am not ruling out the possibility that science may find a mechanism to link this world with other dimensions and realms of existence sometime in the future.
So, if we cannot “KNOW” for sure whether there is a realm beyond this corporeal life, I propose that all discussions of the afterlife tell us more about our values and beliefs in this life. How a people, religion, or culture discusses a world beyond this one is completely reflective of that society’s views of fellow humans, good and evil, punishment and reward, and even our belief in the powers or limits of God.
I was tasked with answering the question, “Is there a Heaven or Hell in Judaism?” If you open up the Encyclopedia Judaica, to the words “heaven” or “hell,” there are no listings, so you might conclude that the answer to the question is a resounding “no.” You would have to use the index to find others words “resurrection, afterlife, immortality of the soul, Gehinnom and Sheol, to discover what Judaism speculates about the mysterious realm of the dead after life.
So, let’s first ask the question, “Does Judaism have an afterlife concept?” The answer is absolutely “yes.” Here is just one 474 page volume on the subject by Simcha Paull Raphael, The Jewish Views of the Afterlife. From the title, you can see that there is not just one view. Our views of the afterlife have often been informed by the majority culture’s speculations and beliefs and so it should be no surprise that not only are there contradictory Jewish beliefs, but that even in the same period of time, Jews have held diametrically opposed opinions.
To sum up the different views of “heaven,” I would say:
1- Consistent with our values, according to Jewish teachings, the good people of all faiths and walks of life go to “heaven,” which we ironically call Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden or the Olam Ha’bah, the World-to-Come. All good people. Not just Jews. In fact, bad Jews don’t get a ticket.
And since the rabbis are the ones who describe it, long after the Torah has been completed, it entails an “all you can eat” buffet with Leviathon as the main course, and a wild and crazy all day Torah study. No sickness, no war, no hatred, no controversy. Eternal life and peace for all. Some would say this takes place in a realm beyond this one, and many Jews have believed that all the good people will be resurrected, in a movie that might be Halloween worthy, as we stand up, leave our graves and walk on a messianic world, the epicenter of which is Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why Jerusalem means, “city of peace,” a foreshadowing of the world to come.
2- The second most popular answer is that you spend a year in an afterlife detention center or way station, and at the end, you get a permanent placement based on your actions.
3- There is no world beyond this one. This is the newest Jewish view and the one preferred by early Reform Rationalist thinkers who were all about getting rid of anything in Judaism that resembled a bubbemeiseh. So, just as there is no heaven for the Torah and 19th century rationalist Jews, there was no hell for them either, although later Jews hoped that Hitler might burn in one, even if their rational minds didn’t believe it existed.
Even when our Egyptian neighbors were optimistic of a world beyond this one, taking their belongings with them in burial to be prepared for it, our Babylonian neighbors were pessimistic, fatalists, sending most people to a netherworld governed by a god and goddess of death. Our Biblical ancestors believed in a just God and justice in this world. It is not until the Greco-Roman period when rabbis begin to speculate on the possibility of a world to come and debate what might be contained in it.
To sum up the different views of a Jewish version of “hell,” I would say:
1- We don’t go straight to hell. All those who have died, Jewish and non-Jewish, wait for a final messianic kingdom, resurrection of the dead who were good in life.
2- We receive immediate Judgment and get an express train to Gehinnom, a Jewish equivalent of hell or the Olam Habah, the Jewish equivalent of heaven.
3- Spend twelve months to decomposes and atone in Gehinnom, during which you do not burn in the fires of Abraham if your loved ones say Kaddish. Clearly this belief was a way to get loved ones to say Kaddish. No person is said to be so bad as to need the full twelve months, which is why traditional Jews only say Kaddish for eleven months, but we say it for twelve. Our Kaddish is not based on a fiery detention center.
4- Dead is dead. There is no afterlife. It was this 19th century Reform rationalist belief that eliminated “m’chayay maytim” (resurrection of the dead) in our prayerbook and replaced it with m’chayay hakol (that God is the one who gives life to all).
As for that warm place beyond this one, for punishment and time to think about one’s misdeeds, Jews do not go to Florida. The first one that comes to mind is Gehinnom, which is named for a real valley south of Jerusalem today called “wadi al rababah” – “the accursed valley,” because there child sacrifices to the pagan God Moloch are said to have taken place.
Who goes there automatically? Adulterers, the unchaste, idolators, prideful people and hypocrites, people with anger issues, unseemly speech and my favorite, those who follow the advice of their wives!
What keeps you out? Philanthropy, visiting the sick, reciting the Shema and observing Shabbat.
And who is exempt from Gehinnom, our Jewish version of hell? Those who live in poverty, those who suffer from intestinal disorders and ulcers, and those who are pressed by their creditors… in other words, those whose lives are a living hell.
2- There is a place called Sheol, mentioned in the Torah. It is a dark, ethereal, and ghost filled placed, first visited by Israel’s first king, Saul.
3- In the Book of Daniel, the last book of the Torah to be canonized in our Jewish Bible, Daniel 12:2 states: “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, andsome to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. I’m not sure where that takes place, but it doesn’t sound good.
The tradition is ambiguous, at best. And even though Reform Judaism through the years was quite negative about a world to come, the Reform Rabbi’s Manual has included many passages indicating that the traditional belief remains. On Wednesday at the cemetery, I included the following passage for Rabbi Rappaport to read at the burial:
“The dust returns to the earth as it was; the spirit returns to God who gave it. It is only the house of the spirit which we now lay within the earth; the spirit itself cannot died. Receive in mercy, O God, the soul of our departed.
Grant him that everlasting peace which you have prepared for us in the world to come. Though no human eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor mind has grasped it, still it is our sure inheritance and everlasting portion. “
Over time, more emphasis has been placed Jewishly on the immortality of the soul and less on resurrection of our physical bodies in a messianic age. For Reform thinkers, such as the great philosopher Hermann Cohen, we should focus on our immortality as a people, rather than as individuals. Some 19th and 20th century philosophers, like Ahad Ha-Am, actually looked upon a belief in the immortality of the soul and an afterlife as a weakness. In 1885, the Pittsburgh Platform of American Reform Judaism rejected resurrection, heaven and Gehinnom.
Ultimately, there are many Jewish views of heaven and hell and the afterlife. Many of those views were born in response to social, economic, political and philosophical beliefs of the times. Often we most strongly believed in an afterlife when this life was too hard to bear. The more intellectual and comfortable we became, the less these issues seemed to concern us.
Our values always guided our belief in eternity. Jews never tied heaven or hell to religious beliefs of individuals and never offered superiority to Jews. Any justice that was connected to meting out reward or punishment was strictly based upon how you lived your values and not how you prayed or fulfilled mitzvot.
So you get to decide how you respond to the person who tells you that you are going to hell, because you are Jewish. We live in Virginia. It happens all the time to our kids and to us. I have even worked with interfaith couples where one partner actually believes the other is going to hell, but is pledging to love the spouse until that unfortunate ending.
Or you can toast your loved ones with vodka, as is our Russian Jewish tradition, and pray that your dearly departed is in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, enjoying the immortality of the soul, for the garden of this week’s portion still exists according to the Torah, even if we are permanently barred from living there.
In the 1980’s when I first started studying this seriously, I told this congregation that I didn’t believe in an afterlife. I was young and hadn’t spent my life dying with people, and burying them. I have seen real glimpses of a world beyond this one over the past two decades, which caused me to rethink my unwillingness to be open to the possibility of a world beyond this one. Today, I am more uncertain, and more hopeful. Don’t we all want to believe we will see those we love after we die, or that they are watching over us when they die?
I like the fact that there is the possibility of a Jewish heaven for all good people who die. And yes, there are days working with people, and living in this crazy and violent world, that it is comforting to think that there is a Jewish hell. Shabbat Shalom.