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Is There Life After Death? Jewish Thinking on the Afterlife

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 Moment asked 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

About Amy E. Schwartz

Amy E. Schwartz, Moment’s opinion editor, has lived in Turkey and travels there regularly.


  1. Hi Amy,
    I didnt know about jewish thinking i just got to know now.
    I also didnt believe in all these life after death theories but it all changed with one incident happened to me.From then i started believing that there is life after death.

    Check out my experience in the article link below.

  2. The Jews once knew what happened after death. It is written in the Bible, the old testament. They have just forgotten.

  3. I, too, believe that there is more that meets the eye. I am a nurse and my husband a physician and having dealt with life and death quite often and have seen and heard circumstances that make me wonder about the coincidence of it all, and ponder the question of other realities, dimensions, etc. My mother recently died suddenly at the age of 88 years old, who was very independent, lucid and lived in her own home. She was a big part of my life. I always try to explain things in a rational manner, but I wonder if that there really is a design in the world larger than ourselves and that human beings are maybe too arrogant to think that they are only a small part of this unexplained universe.

  4. Here are a few relevant Tanach quotes.
    Life after death wherever God lives – Ecclesiastes 12:7-8. “And the dust returns to the earth as it was; and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities..all is vanity.”

    Life after death on Earth – Daniel 12: 1-2. “..people shall be saved, every one whose name shall be found written in the book..many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

    Life after death possibly “upward”, but who knows? – Ecclesiastes 3:21 “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward, and the spirit of the beast goes downward to the earth?”

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