A friend has started a wonderful conversation with me and I thought that I would share it here. This is part one and I hope that people will respond with your ideas and feelings and thoughts.
You asked me about the Jewish view of life after death. My short answer is that we believe in them all and in none. By that I mean that we have a plethora of views and each one ends with the statement that we know nothing of “the World to Come.” We have faith that this is not the only realm. We believe that there must be something after. In ancient times, the TaNaCh spoke of Sheol which was where we all went after death. It was never clear what happened there, merely that we were collected. I imagine that it was similar to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. It’s just a nice place to hangout for eternity. Of course it could also have been similar to the realm of Hades as the Greeks interpreted it. I don’t know about you, but that is unsatisfying to me. Many concepts have slipped into our belief system including a variation on the Christian heaven and hell. But ours was based on deed more than the acceptance of a belief system. When Eichmann was awaiting execution in Israel (the only execution ever in the State of Israel), a group of Christian ministers asked to meet with him. There purpose was to convert him, to teach him the “Jesus Path.” A curious Israeli authority asked them what would happen if Eichmann accepted Jesus. Would all his sins be forgiven and would he go to the Christian heaven. They answered in the affirmative. This baffled the authority as it does me. Our view is more akin to the Mashal (teaching parable) of the man who was given the gift of being allowed to visit Heaven and Hell. First he was taken to Hell. He was surprised to find a long table filled with a wonderful feast. Then he noticed that the silverware was over a yard long. Each knife and fork was made as if for a giant. In addition each fork and knife was attached to each person at the feast at the wrist and above the elbow. The result was that no person could feed himself and was in a perpetual state of starvation while seated before this amazing repast. The man turned to his angel guide and pronounced that it was certainly a huge punishment for those poor souls in Hell. Then he was transported to Heaven. In Heaven he was surprised to see the exact same arrangement. There was the table, the abundance of delicious food and the extremely long utensils attached as they were in Hell to the ‘guests’ at the feast. There was only one difference. In Heaven each person was feeding the person across from him/her. Everyone was satisfied and happy.
In Liberal Judaism there is not much discussion of the afterlife, viewing this as the main venue and whatever happens after is in the hands of G. There is much talk of the concept of living on after our death in the deeds that we do. There is a very good summary of the Liberal view by Rabbi Evan Moffic a Reform Rabbi.
“Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless. Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer. We can identify, however, several core teachings.
“There is an afterlife: Texts from every era in Jewish life identify a world where people go when they die. In the Bible it’s an underworld called Sheol. In the rabbinic tradition it’s known by a number of names, including the yeshiva shel mallah, the school on high. The Hebrew word for skies, shamayim, also came to refer to heaven.
“Heaven has open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate. No concept of Hell exists in Judaism. The closest we get is the fate of apostate (a person who renounces God, faith and morality in this world), who is said to be “cut off from his kin.”
“The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth most eloquently, “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).”
“The afterlife is here on earth: One strand of Jewish thought sees heaven as a transitory place where souls reside after death. They reside there until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time when messiah comes. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates this view in his early book, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb. This approach differs from reincarnation since the return to life happens only in the messianic era, not as a regular occurrence, as in Hinduism.
“We live on through others: The Reform Jewish prayerbook expresses this idea through the metaphor of a leaf and a tree. A leaf drops to the ground, but it nourishes the soil so more plants and trees spring up. The same is true in our lives. We nourish the future through the influence we have on those who follow us. It can happen in unimaginable ways.”
The more traditional view is that the soul returns to G. Some say that this is a temporary state and that eventually it is reunited with the body that is rejuvenated (or is it reJewvenated), when the Mashiah comes. Then there is a certain amount of time when we live “Heavenly days on earth.” But that too will end and we will return to that soulful existence without the body, in the end of days. I think that this view is eisegesis, that is, trying to make the disparate texts fit together using one’s own ideas. Another belief that I have heard in traditional circles is the idea that in the “World to Come” souls are given the chance to return (similar to reincarnation) in order to fulfill the Mitzvot that they hadn’t in a previous lifetime. The cycle continues until the soul becomes perfectly righteous and need not return. Of course there are some souls who so wish to return (according to some Yiddish mythology) that they enter bodies and cause mischief. They are called dybuks and cause problems in life.
There are many other variations on these attitudes. I would like to share just a couple more with you. The first comes from my father, zt’l, Rabbi Maurice Davis. He would often speak of ‘anonymous immortality.’ If I tell you a story that touches you, you might decide to share that story. The person with whom you share it might continue the process of sharing. Somewhere along the line, my name, as the author of the story is forgotten, but the story or teaching remains. Here is a good example. Last week I took part in a gathering celebrating the wedding of a young friend of mine. The celebration included Havdalah. At the point in the ceremony when they were to ‘use’ the Havdalah candle, my friend said to his wife; “I use this candle to look into your eyes, as you have taught me.” She responded; “I love this teaching but I thought that you taught it to me.” I smiled to myself as I am the one who created and shared that teaching with him when he lived with us: Anonymous immortality.
Lastly, let me share my own view. There is in the realm of G a “Pool of Soul.” When a human is born, some of the Pool of Soul is poured into the person. For as long as s/he lives that soul grows from every experience that happens in life. When the person passes, the soul which has been separated from the “Pool of Soul,” returns to the pool becoming one with the pool. It is like taking a spoonful of water from a bowl and pouring it into a glass. No matter how the glass is moved or shaken, when the water returns to the bowl it becomes one with the water in that bowl. In that way the “Pool of Soul” becomes, in a spiritual sense, greater for each encounter with the limitations of human life.