Ask Jews what happens after death, and many will respond that the Jewish tradition doesn’t say or doesn’t care, that Jews believe life is for the living and that Judaism focuses on what people can and should do in this world. But not so fast. If anything is less Jewish than belief in heaven and hell, it’s Jews agreeing on an official theological party line. And after 4,000 years of discussion, you’d expect considerable variation. Sure enough, when Momentasked an array of prominent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers and other doers to tell us what they think they’re headed for, the range was extraordinary. In the following ruminations you’ll find ghosts, zombies, animal souls and reincarnation, along with more familiar discussions of memory, legacy and divine judgment. And, of course, disagreements. As they say: two Jews, three afterlives.
An Imaginary Sphere
I think everybody thinks about it. The afterlife is the principal preoccupation of anyone who’s going to die, regardless of religion. Judaism has never decided on a formal approach to the afterlife. It’s never had a formal approach to eschatology, either—what’s going to happen at the end of the world. We’re left with a typically practical, or provisional, interest in the world as it is—a regulation of the mundane, the here and now, rather than a pondering of the celestial.
I’ve always felt the afterlife exists in relation to life in the same way literature exists in relation to life. It’s an imaginary sphere, in which one can play out one’s fears, neuroses, desires and pains, but it’s still a terrain strictly for the living. Only the living can play, or imagine—or read. Once a man dies, his afterlife ceases to exist.
Jews, if not Judaism, regard death as a great injustice. Everything I’ve read tells me that Judaism is loath to encourage a positive view of the afterlife, because it might encourage a more positive attitude toward death. Anything that would see death as a salvation risks encouraging the believer to shirk his job on earth, or opt for thoughtless martyrdom. The classic refusal of salvation is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which says nothing about death, or about life after death. I have always read the Mourner’s Kaddish as a unique provocation to God. “Magnified and sanctified is God, Who brought us all here to the graveside to suffer and yet Who still hasn’t offered any reward.” It verges on gallows humor. I’ve never subscribed to the myth that the Kaddish can be used to spring one’s parents from purgatory. It’s merely a call to duty. I remember as a kid thinking, “Yes, yes—that’s a very effective way of getting me to shul.”
Joshua Cohen is the author of A Heaven of Others and Witz.