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.
Beyond Bodily Death
Maybe most Jews haven’t, but Judaism has absolutely always had a view of the afterlife. From the 14th century on, a belief in gilgul, reincarnation, was as kosher as Manischewitz. In the Artscroll prayer book, there’s a line in the bedtime Shema, “Forgive anyone who has harmed me in this incarnation or any other incarnation.” Even in the Bible, Saul goes to the Witch of Endor to raise up the spirit of Samuel from the dead. It’s forbidden, but it’s practiced.
Most Jews today see the Jewish tradition through the lens of 20th-century rationality, so they don’t see those aspects. The collective shock of losing so many people in the Holocaust was just too great. We had to move ahead, found the State of Israel, deal with the devastation and the trauma—no one could afford to think about six million souls. And then the culture was increasingly secular. Rabbis didn’t talk about God and spirituality from the pulpit, they preached about Israel and anti-Semitism.
But now we’re really on a quest for spirituality. Young people are saturated with material things. They want some kind of connection with nature and the universe, not just with the next iPod. And an interest in the afterlife emerges from that. You see it in popular culture as well: movies about the supernatural, a cop show where a medium is the protagonist. No one would have touched that 20 years ago.
How do we evolve a different pastoral approach based on the idea that consciousness survives bodily death? How does it change the way we think of Kaddish, of caring for the dead, of sitting shiva? There are long-term implications that we haven’t even begun to investigate. I’ve done a lot of work in hospice, and my sense is that with all our science, we really can’t comprehend the subtlety of what happens when we die.
Simcha Paull Raphael is the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife and specializes in bereavement in his private psychotherapy practice.
Love is Immortal
To me, the afterlife consists of the memories that we leave in the minds and hearts of the people we love. Obviously, we all want to leave a heritage for the world, but it’s given to very few of us to do that. But what one has been to one’s spouse and one’s children, and perhaps one’s students, carries through to countless generations. I don’t believe in immortality except in that sense. My sense of religion has to do with community, with continuity, with going to synagogue and identifying publicly with the Jewish people. Continuity doesn’t mean some shadowy figure of your individual self goes on. It means your work and your love go on.
Nature is cyclical. Just look—in the last few months all the green stuff has come out, birds are chirping, everything is renewed. Nature is an environment in which we die so others may live, so that our civilization can expand, so new ideas and experiences can be promulgated. Why should human beings be an exception to all the other biological phenomena?
Sherwin B. Nuland, a retired professor of surgery, teaches bioethics and medical history at Yale University. He is the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.
Heaven is for Everyone
Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife differ less than many might think. But misunderstandings are common. Many Christians think Jews follow Torah in order to earn a spot in heaven (this is known as “works righteousness”); they are unaware that Jewish tradition teaches that all Israel has a share in the world to come, save for apostates and a few other miscreants. Other Christians think that Jews believe heaven is exclusively for Jews; to the contrary, in traditional Judaism, heaven is not a gated community (pearly or otherwise), and righteous gentiles also participate in eternal life. In turn, many Jews think that all Christians believe actions are unimportant and that one only needs to worship Jesus to gain heavenly entry. The New Testament, however, makes clear that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26) and that those who enter the kingdom are those who engage in works of compassion for others (Matthew 25:31-46).
Jewish and Christian views developed in dialogue and debate with each other. Many Jews in Hellenistic and early Roman times had quite robust views of the afterlife—of heavenly realms and places of torment, resurrection of the dead or immortality of the soul, and even the idea of reincarnation. However, the more the Church emphasized salvation and damnation, the more the Jewish community emphasized sanctification of daily life.
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). Belief in an afterlife typically correlates with our theology. If we believe in a just and compassionate living G-d, faithful to the promises made to Israel, we may well also believe in resurrection in the Messianic age, when justice and compassion will prevail over sin, evil and death.
Perhaps what sparks belief today is less traditional teaching than personal experience. I was by my mother’s bedside in the local hospital; she was 80, and her body was failing. Late in the evening she woke from her sleep, opened her eyes, and asked me, “What will happen to me when I die?”
I immediately answered, “You’ll see Daddy.” My father had died decades earlier.
She replied, “I look like hell.”
“Well, Mom, you’ve looked better, but when you see Daddy, you’ll look as beautiful as you looked the day you got married.”
“How do you know this?”
“Mom, I’ve got a Ph.D. in religion; I know these things.”
She smiled. I began to cry; my husband took my place by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she died. Afterward, my husband looked at me and said something to the effect of, “I’ve never heard you say anything like that before. You don’t believe in an afterlife.” But when I was talking to my mom, I believed every word.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Science.
A Sense of Soul
There’s a story told about Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav: He’s walking in the village and some dogs approach, barking, and he says to them, “I know, I know, I know.” What he knows is that they are humans in dog bodies, and he has the capacity to redeem them from this. Some Hasidim believed in gilgul, the process of rebirth. The soul keeps returning, and certain souls come back to complete their mission. Most contemporary Jews don’t feel comfortable with the concept of “soul,” let alone the concept of rebirth. That speaks to a lack of imagination in Jewish spiritual life. We are radically rationalist, to the point where we’ve cut our heads off and left the body behind. People confuse belief and imagination. They think, it’s either true or it’s not true, and if it’s not true we can’t believe it, end of story. They don’t understand that imagination is what’s needed to understand the soul.
After Allen Ginsberg died I wrote a poem called “Allen Ginsberg Forgives Ezra Pound on Behalf of Jews.” In a sense the poem is addressed to Allen in the beyond. Just recently I was speaking in the Newark Museum and it occurred to me that Allen had both been born and buried in Newark. We went to his grave and I recited Kaddish—his poem “Kaddish.” I felt a powerful presence. This touches on another aspect of the question: So many people report very powerful dreams of their dead loved ones. It certainly makes you wonder, What is this? How can this be?
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus, Burnt Books and The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul.
Plato and the Maccabees
Why are Jewish notions of the afterlife so indistinct when both Christian and Muslim views of the afterlife, which come originally from Judaism, have attained remarkable specificity?
The doctrine of bodily resurrection is based on apocalyptic Judaism, as expressed in Daniel 12, datable to 165 BCE, a blink of the eye before Christianity: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” In this time of unprecedented, terrible tribulation, the Maccabean revolt, Jews were being martyred for practicing their religion. We do not get an extended explication of why the dead, who used to dwell underground in a place called Sheol in the Hebrew Bible, are now going to heaven. Instead, the passage is framed as a prophetic dream, a direct communication from God.
Immortality of the soul entered Jewish thought at about the same time, from Greek philosophy—in particular, Platonic notions of the immortal soul. The soul turns from the impermanence and corruption of this world to return to its original home, the stars. This notion is the ancestor of all modern notions that we separate from our body and go to heaven when we die. It is, however, in total contradiction with the notion of resurrection, where we stay in our graves until the last days, when God will raise us up to eternal life. The contrast in social class is evident: Whereas self-sacrificing youth may want complete restoration of their bodies, intellectuals want continuity of consciousness.
It would be a mistake to think that the moment resurrection and immortality of the soul arrived on the Jewish scene, they were accepted. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the Sanhedrin of the first century was deeply divided on the issue. The Wisdom of Ben Sira in the second century BCE says a person outlasts death through children and by means of a lasting good reputation.
Christianity, by contrast, believing fervently in bodily resurrection, had a great deal of trouble reconciling it with the soul’s trip to heaven. It took until Augustine in the fourth century to find exactly the right philosophical formulation: Our souls are immortal and go to their rewards at death, but the faithful shall recover their bodies at the last judgment when sinners will be punished.
How different are the rabbis! The rabbinic term for the afterlife, Tehiat ha-metim, usually translated as “resurrection of the body,” literally means “the vivification of the dead.” It comes from Isaiah 26: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy.” The rabbis use the ambiguous rather than the exact terminology, which allows them wiggle room as to whether God promises bodily resurrection, the world to come, the days of the Messiah, or even immortality of the soul. This allowed Jews to live among Christians and Muslims, who all had more specific ideas of resurrection and who might have held the Jews responsible for heresy.
The rabbis also believed that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come, thus giving their hosts an equal chance at heavenly rewards. This was an earthly as well as a heavenly strategy. It laid the basis for cultural pluralism.
Alan Segal was Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College and author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. This excerpt is from an unpublished article Dr. Segal wrote for Moment before his death in February.
All Cats Go to Heaven
I don’t believe in an afterlife. To me that unnecessarily clutters up expectations of life and death, because if you expect to be rewarded or punished, you are not behaving according to what you truly believe you ought to be doing in the situation. You’re expecting someone else is going to give you goodies at the end. What you’ve got is what you’ve got. It increases the poignancy. You’re given a life, you do the best you can, you do what you must do, what’s right for you, and then you wear out and you’re done.
I simply can’t imagine wanting to live forever. I’m 75, I still enjoy my life, but I can imagine a time when I wouldn’t. Why would I want to live on after losing so many people who are dear to me? Because even if they lived on, too, you can’t assume they’d be with you, can you? And I’m very attached to animals as well as people. So where would I be in the afterlife—with a bunch of dead boyfriends, plus my husband, and about 30 cats demanding attention? Would my cats be in the afterlife? Why wouldn’t they have an afterlife if I do? They’re better behaved than I am.
Marge Piercy is a novelist and poet. Her most recent collection is The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980-2010.
A Zombie Life
I have no idea if there’s an afterlife. I’d like there to be. I’d like to think that when I said goodbye to my mom, it wasn’t forever. But how would I know? Because some guy in the desert wrote a book and told me so? I don’t go in for that stuff. I wonder about it a lot, but there’s no proof. I’ll have to wait and see.
I’ve always considered myself not Jewish enough for Israel, but Jewish enough for Auschwitz. I write about zombies. I try not to get into the spiritual aspect. I focus on the concrete: How do you not die when you’re supposed to? I grew up in California, so it’s all about disaster preparedness for me. We had earthquake drills; nuclear war drills, because it was the Reagan era; and then we had real disasters, we had fires, we had the Rodney King riots. L. A. was never safe. And now it’s even worse—9/11, global warming. So I took that mindset of disaster preparedness and applied it to a science fiction concept. Zombie culture has really taken off in the last decade and it’s because of the times we’re living in. The world hasn’t been this inside-out since the 1970s, and that was the last time zombies were popular.
There’s always a rise in spirituality when there’s a decline in the physical comfort of the world. Imagine if you lived in some village in Gaul, in the late Roman Empire, and the sewer system had collapsed and the barbarians were everywhere, and you were hungry and poor and terrified, and then along comes some pilgrim from Italy with that Christian glow, and he says, “Don’t worry, after you die it’s all going to be OK.”
I think Jews are probably too neurotic to believe that. I know I am. We think too much, that’s our problem. We sit around and debate, and wonder about the nature of reality, what is justifiable, what is not, what is sin, what does it all mean? Any good Jew by nature has to be a little bit conflicted. Being a good Jew means you don’t sleep well, and you don’t take your rabbi’s view as gospel. We’re questioners. So I don’t think the answer for Jews is heaven. I think the answer is Ambien.
Max Brooks is the author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which is being adapted into a film by Paramount Pictures.
The Spirit’s Presence
Years ago, people would say, Oh, Jews don’t believe in the afterlife. It may be true—in the modern age, the whole world underwent an alienation from faith, and the Jews went along. But if you go through the Bible, there’s a fascinating variety of views. My father was a Hasidic rabbi and the son-in-law of a Lurianic Kabbalist. I grew up hearing it talked about as in Fiddler on the Roof—from heaven they’re all sitting there watching us, seeing what’s going on downstairs—and hearing about the rebbes at Auschwitz who went to their deaths with such faith. When they were digging their own graves, they would say to their followers, “It’s all right, we’re going to a better world beyond this one.” Then I became a Bible scholar and encountered all the scientific criticism. In my book I try to show that the idea of the life hereafter comes from the Bible—from Isaiah, and from Daniel, who is its most famous proponent, saying some go to everlasting life and some to everlasting damnation.
Some Talmudic rabbis say that God can do anything, that if He can make a man from “water”—that is, semen—then He’ll do it again at the Resurrection. Maimonides in the Middle Ages takes a much more spiritual view of the afterlife: “The righteous sit with crowns of glory on their heads, and they look at God.”
In Ugaritic literature, there is a belief in reviving the dead, and there are parallels to that in the Bible, in the stories of Elijah and Elisha. Both of them revive a child. Some people think it is resuscitation, but I don’t think so. I think it is meant to show that God resurrects.
And in certain places, like in the Cave of Machpelah where the Patriarchs are buried, for example, you really get the feeling that they might be alive in there, listening to what we have to say. Not everyone feels it. Maybe I’m just attuned to those things.
Leila Leah Bronner is the author of Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife.
I think about it a lot, because I’m a specialist in blood cancer, and I used to work with people with AIDS before it was treatable, people who had only a short time to live. I was brought up in a very traditional family. My mother’s extended family were Satmar, and my father’s family were from Vilna, Orthodox but more of the rational Orthodox, the mitnagdim, in opposition to the Hasidim, so I have both the rationalist and the mystical tradition. I used to ask my father: Do you think there’s an afterlife? And he would shrug without an answer because it’s an unanswerable question. And he said at the very least, there’s a sense that people live within memory. And this is something that is clearly very central.
Four times a year I go to yizkor and I observe my parents’ yahrtzeit, so do they exist in some dimension, as souls? I would like it to be true. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don’t. But I do know I feel their presence, and I feel their spirit within myself. I’m going to be 60 next year, so it’s the time of life when you think about these things. And I’m still torn.
You’re confronted with mystery. In the same way you have the mystery and marvel of birth, where all of a sudden a life appears, here you have loved ones, parents, who have been part of your existence from the moment of awareness, and they disappear. It’s confounding, it’s perplexing, you strain to make sense of it.
Jerome Groopman is the Dina and Raphael Recanati Chair of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Measure of Our Days: A Spiritual Exploration of Illness.
Genes Are Forever
We think of belief in a supernatural afterlife as being incompatible with a rational, scientific view of life. But you could also understand the world to come as just what it literally sounds like—the world in the future. Whether we merit a place in that world depends on how much influence we have on others during our lives.
In my novel, I imagined a kind of supernatural world to come based on a midrash about how, when a child is in his mother’s womb, he’s taught all the secrets of the Torah, and then when he’s born the angel hits him on the face and the child forgets everything, but spends the rest of his life trying to remember it. The way I envisioned it, the child in the womb is being taught secrets about how to live one’s life. There’s a whole society based on teaching these not-yet-borns everything they need to know. There are bars where the drinks are bottled books, there are spas where they bathe in emotions, they sleep on beds made of music, and so forth. And their teachers are the people in their family who have passed away.
I saw this as a way of saying our genes are expressed in our lives, that every ancestor is alive within us. At the end of my novel, when this child is about to be born, he is told that this “world to come” is just a fake—the real “world to come” is his life, the world he’s being born into. And in one sense it’s just a rational fact: The dead live in us genetically; we are carrying the dead into the future, even if their names are not remembered.
And it’s not just biologically that you are carried forward. My mother came from a very assimilated family, not very involved in the Jewish community. But they sent her to Hebrew school, and she had a teacher who had a tremendous impact on her. He ended up a professor at NYU and she did a Ph.D. with him. I’m as involved as I am in Judaism, and teaching my own children Hebrew, because of this man’s influence, even though I’m not biologically related to him. And as a teenager I had a teacher for one class, and something he said made me study one field and not another. I ran into him recently, and he didn’t even remember saying it. So you never know what impact you’re having on people. That’s your place in the world to come.
Dara Horn is a scholar of Yiddish literature and the author of three novels, including The World to Come.
Rolling to Jerusalem
You always have to make a distinction between high Judaism, the Judaism of the great rabbis and scholars, and popular Judaism, full of local beliefs and superstitions. One very widely-held belief was gilgul, which at the popular level was taken to mean the act of rolling in underground passages from wherever you died—let’s say you died in Manchester—until you got to Jerusalem. This “rolling” was accompanied by hibbut ha-kever—the beating of the grave. You’re beaten to a pulp as you go, by the demons who live in the tunnels. And the point was that the resurrection of the dead would happen when the Messiah comes to Jerusalem, so that’s where dead bodies and souls should go.
A lot of Jews would try to avoid this by going to Jerusalem when they knew they were about to die. This belief was very widely attested up through the 19th century. There are passes and passports, there are reports from seafaring folks who said there are Jews on board ship, very very ill, and they’re trying to get to Jerusalem to die.
It’s not Christianizing exactly, because Christianity doesn’t have this idea of a storehouse of souls waiting somewhere specific. The afterlife in folk Judaism does take on some aspects of Christian theology, but it’s very much more of a real place, down to earth, literally under the earth. A tribe I study, the Lemba in Africa, rose to some prominence 10 years ago when it was shown that their DNA was very similar to that of other Jews, particularly the famous Cohen gene found in their priestly clan, so it looks very much as if their ancestors were Jews. It’s very difficult to reconstruct the religion of this group, because with the arrival of colonialism in Africa their practices were pretty much destroyed, but some things have come through. One is the idea of returning to a place called Senna, which could have something to do with Zion: They think they came from a place on Earth, and when they die, they will return to that specific place. It’s interesting the way Jews are so rooted. I think it’s one of the ways Jews are most different from others.
Tudor Parfitt is professor of modern Jewish history at the University of London, where he founded the Centre for Jewish Studies.
In Kabbalah there is a tradition of ibburs—I guess you’d call them ghosts—and dybbuks and souls that remain on the earth for various reasons. It can be for having slept with Lilith, queen of the demons, or any number of mishaps in life. There’s also a curious tradition that a soul can stay in our world if it, he or she still has a mitzvah to fulfill. My novel is about an ibbur from the Warsaw Ghetto who remains on the planet, but doesn’t know what purpose he’s still here to fulfill. I tried to capture it in a haiku:
Entering the first gate
I learned that the world to come
is already here.
Maybe my friendships with Jews are skewed in the sense that I know mostly secular Jews, but I can’t think of a single friend who thinks about angels or afterlife. I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, and the books are filled with heaven talk: What’s it going to be like, can we imagine it? It’s a huge topic for Christian theologians, but not for Jewish theologians. The dominant culture doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on us all these years.
Richard Zimler is the author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and the recently published 72 Kabbalist Haiku.
More Than We Can See
I’ve thought about this for years. The question of whether someone believes there is an afterlife is relevant to me personally as a religiously observant physician and scientist, because it highlights the distinction between science and faith. If I hypothesize something and say by definition it cannot be refuted, then it is no longer in the domain of science. If someone comes by and says, “I’ve done this experiment and it refutes the idea of an afterlife,” then the response, “I don’t consider that a reliable experiment, and I stick with the belief,” takes the question out of the domain of science and places it squarely in the realm of faith.
What do I believe? I believe there is more than meets the eye, more than we can see, feel and measure scientifically, and I believe that as an article of faith. I don’t believe it’s a testable hypothesis, but my belief doesn’t emanate from a vacuum. First, it derives from one of the 13 articles of faith of Maimonides. Second, another of Maimonides’ articles of faith is the idea of reward and punishment. But if you look just at the world, it’s pretty difficult to see the reward and punishment article of faith before our eyes. So you might say there must be an afterlife where it’s all worked out. “Afterlife” is just a convenient word for “more than meets the eye”—it could be after life, it could be before life, but in Hebrew it’s olam haba, the world to come, so time becomes irrelevant. So somewhere, beyond what meets the eye, there is reward and punishment. Can I prove it? No.
I do research on genetics, but the idea of genes being a kind of immortality, of memory, doesn’t satisfy me. Let’s take a very tangible example, the Holocaust. We often think about the number of individuals lost. I’m the only child of Holocaust survivors, and it’s difficult for me to talk about. We often think, appropriately, about the horror and suffering of many individuals, and we should honor their memory, but there’s another level—we know very well that entire branches and lineages were completely eradicated, including their entire genealogy. Everything they brought with them from many generations, traditions, cultures and DNA—sometimes one leaf on a twig was left and then sprouted anew, but sometimes a whole branch was irrevocably cut off. So where is the afterlife there? If it’s only in the continuity of future generations, it’s gone, it’s not there, so where is justice? Where is reward and punishment? So for me that can’t be the whole answer.
Karl Skorecki is Director of Nephrology and Molecular Medicine at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. His research team discovered the “Kohen gene,” the set of genetic markers indicating that the majority of Jewish males named Cohen are descended from a single ancestor.