To Heaven or Not to Heaven: That is the Question!

By Erin Boxt

As a young Jewish child growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, I was often asked what Jews believed about the “afterlife.”  Of course, not everyone was so polite in their questioning. But, that is a whole different story! I will admit that I was very confused growing up about a lot of things and the ideas of heaven and hell were clearly two of the most confusing topics for me. So, what did I do? I went to my rabbi and asked him very bluntly, “Do Jews believe in Heaven?”

I am not sure if I remember exactly how he responded to me. I do remember remaining confused about these topics for a very long time. Today, when my youth group participants or students ask me about heaven, I often turn the question around and ask them what they think. Although we do have some concrete sources that speak of heaven (biblical and rabbinic), I find that most liberal thinking Jews today continue to struggle with these concepts. There are ideas about “life after death” that go all the way back to the Bible and continue through to our rabbinic texts. When we study these sources, we may be able to glean some truth for ourselves.

In Genesis 25:8, we find the death of Abraham:



“And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.”1

Here, Abraham is “gathered to his people.”  There are other examples of noteworthy people being “gathered to their kin.”  These include Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron.  Once the physical body has died, a separate event occurs in which the souls are reunited with their kin who have died before them.  Of course, not everyone who dies is able to participate in the reunion with their kin.  Those who have committed certain sins (such as profaning the Sabbath) are “cut off” from their people, and their souls lose their right to participate in what the Rabbis called olam haba, the world to come.

Let us take a look at a few of the rabbinic ideas of olam haba, the afterlife or world to come:

“Rabbi Yaakov used to say, “This world is like a lobby before the Olam Ha-Ba. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.”2 Some images that come to us from the Talmud include: sitting at golden banquet tables3 or at stools of gold,4 enjoying lavish banquets,5 or celebrating the Sabbath, enjoying sunshine…6

In A Spiritual view of Gan Eden: Rav (Abba bar Ayvoh) suggested that there will be neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but sitting enthroned, their crowns on their heads, enjoying the Shechinah (the feminine presence of God that dwells here on Earth).7

One view by another great scholar of Judaism Maimonides taught: In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies — like the ministering angels… The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.8

There is even one Rabbinic idea that when the righteous, the Tzaddikim, die, they will spend the rest of time studying Torah with Moses in olam haba.  It seems pretty clear that the concept of heaven is one that has been given a lot of thought and discussion for as long as the Jewish people have existed.  What does not seem clear is what exactly the Jewish heaven really is.  In my opinion, it is in our attempts to learn, discuss and even argue that we are able to search for and maybe even come to a conclusion for what this “Jewish heaven” really is.  Many of our great Tzaddikim taught that one did not have to be Jewish to enjoy in olam haba.  The righteous and good of all nations would enjoy their own piece of the world to come.

While tradition tells us that we should live our lives to be able to share in the world to come, Reform Judaism teaches us of the value of the work we are doing today.  This is not to say that we should forget or even not believe in what happens after we die.  We should focus our attention on improving our own lives and the lives of those in our global community.  Our sacred texts provide us with blueprints for how to live a good, righteous life here on earth.  Let us take the time to read, discuss and even argue so that we may find a way to create “Heaven on Earth.

1. Translation taken from JPS Tanakh.
2. Masechet Pirkei Avot
3. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit 25a
4. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 77b
5. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra 75a
6. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate B’rachot 57b
7. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate B’rachot 17a
8. Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8

Erin Boxt is a 5th year rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  Erin’s interests are social justice, interfaith dialogue and most importantly his beautiful wife and adorable daughter.  An avid “camp-guy,” Erin hopes to incorporate URJ Jewish camping in every way in his future rabbinate.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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6 Responses to “To Heaven or Not to Heaven: That is the Question!”

  1. avatar

    A great article and a great subject for progressive Judaism to spend more time on.

  2. avatar

    Except for last comment (!!wonderful) re Reform Judaism today and Tikkun Olam, I think you dodged the issue rather than addressed it.

    (not on point, but on the comment blog page, they inserted the wrong hebrew quote for Abraham’s death)

  3. avatar

    Yes, this is something which should be discussed more seriously in contemporary Progressive Judaism. It is interesting that even though most streams of non-Orthodox Judaism are getting more and more traditional in their outward practices, fewer and fewer non-Orthodoc Jews still believe in a personal God or a spiritual afterlife. Yet, many of the early progressive rabbis and laypeople who rejected Halakha, Kashrut, and many outward markers of Jewishness emphatically DID believe in an afterlife and a real, present, personal, living, loving God. Why is there an inverse relationship between those beliefs and practices? If it is easy to be traditional in practice but Spinozan in belief, why is it not similarly easy or common to be traditional in belief but radically progressive in practice?

  4. avatar

    I like Soon-Rabbi Boxt’s response to questions about the afterlife — what do you think? I think I’ll either find out in due time, or I won’t, and in either event, it doesn’t matter.

    Bit, if this is something that SHOULD be discussed more in Progressive Judaism, it will be — maybe even here on this blog, stimulated by the current post. But I wonder how much most of us dwell on the subject.

    I don’t see Reform Judaism getting more traditional in its outward practices, as Mr. Friedman avers. Rather I seeing it creating new traditions in part by adapting practices already used in other Jewish denominations.

    Maybe one of the reasons progressive rabbis and laypeople today are less certain than previous generations about the afterlife and about a personal god is because they are progressive, and want more empiricism than their predecessors were ready to require.

    I don’t know what Mr. Friedman means by “radically progressive in practice,” but I’m assuming it’s a euphemism for the abandonment of time-honored Jewish ritual practices. There seems to be an assumption of a necessary connection between religious belief and religious practice, which in the real world of Reform Judaism, at least in the temples my friends and I go to, does not exist.

  5. Larry Kaufman

    The Union Prayer Book had us blessing God for having implanted within us eternal life. Mishkan T’filah gives us an option of blessing God for giving life to the dead — which many interpret as a reference to their bodily resurrection. I am someone who regularly takes the mechayeh meitim(gives life to the dead) option in preference to the seemingly preferred alternative,mechayeh hakol (gives life to everything) — even though I have no belief in an afterlife other than that invoked in eulogies by countless Reform rabbis, that the dead live on in our memories and in the ramifications of what they did while they are on earth.

    But, having said that, one of the tenets of Judaism that I most admire is that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the world to come. Although I don’t expect to experience, much less share in, a world to come, if I’m wrong, I’m glad that my non-Jewish friends will be there with me!

    • avatar

      I can’t BELIEVE they’ve brought back “mechayeh hameitim” in Mishkan Tefillah! I guess I hadn’t noticed that…unbelievable.

      To be honest, I have trouble understanding how someone who is not an atheist could deny the existence of some sort of spiritual afterlife, as expressed in the theology of the 1940 UPB. If a personal God exists (and the “if” is, for me, simply for the sake of argument), then how could there not be some kind of afterlife? Similarly, if the dead only live on in memories, and not in some spiritual form, how could there be a spiritual God? It doesn’t make any sense. Either BOTH a personal God and an afterlife exist, or neither exists. My guess is that most non-Orthodox Jews believe that neither exists. That is unfortunate, because there are ample possibilities to be considered in terms of sustainable belief in something resembling traditional concepts of God and the afterlife which do not conflict with a liberal worldview. Naturally, people don’t “have” to believe this–in Judaism, God is not seen as wanting to punish individuals for being mistaken as to God’s existence and nature, and action is vastly more important than creed. However, there are incredible possibilities for comfort and benefit to be derived from a relationship with God and the re-assuring belief in an afterlife. It’s worth exploring the possibilities…

      Baruch atah Adonai, noteah b’tocheinu chayei olam. Blessed are You, Eternal God, who has implanted within us eternal life. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be able to say “amen” to that?

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