Does Judaism Believe in the Afterlife?



by Rabbi Evan Moffic 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. 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).”
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Novelist Dara Horn: “My mother,” she writes, “came from a very assimilated family, not very involved in the Jewish community. But they sent her to Hebrew school, and she was inspired by one of her Hebrew school teachers. He ended up becoming a professor at NYU and she did her doctorate with him.”

It is because of this man that my mother taught me Hebrew. It is because of this man that I am as involved as I am in Judaism. He had a profound influence on me, even though I did not know him or have any biological connection to him.

Dara Horn is not alone. All of us manifest the lives and influence of those who came before us. The way we live now shapes the way we live on.

Do you believe in an afterlife? Why do you think Judaism has so many different perspectives?

Rabbi Evan Moffic serves as rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. He loves synagogues and the way they bring together members of every generation to study and experience Jewish wisdom and tradition.

Originally posted at Simple Wisdom

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6 Responses to “Does Judaism Believe in the Afterlife?”

  1. JanetheWriter

    Although I’m not sure that I “believe in an afterlife,” the concept is a comforting one.

    As I remarked in a post I wrote earlier this week, in my mind, Jane Evans is spending her time in heaven lounging on her boat and enjoying the sunshine.

    And my mother, I like to think, has spent nearly two years studying in yeshiva shel mallah with the great Torah scholars, including Gunther Plaut, who recently joined the group.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    It all depends what you mean by an afterlife. As someone who regularly recites “mechayeh meitim” rather than “mechayeh hakol,” I believe that it is not so much God who gives life to the dead as God’s creatures who do. I “talk” regularly with my parents (1901-1956 for my father, 1902-1982 for my mother). I typically know what they would do or say in a given situation, and am guided by that knowledge.

    I have tried to be the kind of parent and grandparent that will give me an afterlife, but I don’t expect to be aware of it if it happens.

    But if I’m wrong, I plan to study at the same table as Diana Herman.

    • avatar

      Larry, it is my totally unsubstantiated opinion that you will, indeed, be “aware of it”. I wish you could entertain that notion not just because I happen to believe it reflects ontological reality, but also because it’s very comforting.

      It seems to me that even among recognized scholars of Reform Jewish history, there is a misunderstanding as to what the normative belief about the afterlife was in historic Reform Jewish thought. In a sense, the language of early Reform theology and liturgy, particularly as expressed in the Union Prayer Book, is wonderfully and daringly humanistic–it asserts that the dead live on primarily in the memories, deeds, and influences they leave behind. However, it is clear from a careful reading of the UPB and the major theological and philosophical works by the Classical Reformers that they (with a few notable exceptions) believed in both a spiritual afterlife and a personal God who makes it possible. Kaufmann Kohler often wrote that he expected to see his loved ones and friends (including Solomon Schechter, by the way) in the “great Academy on high”, to which the righteous were “summoned by God”.

      Obviously, the early Reformers did not have a monopoly on truth, and there is no reason to believe something just because they did. However, it ought to be known that these things were believed by extremely liberal, even radical individuals who regarded themselves as rationalists, and are criticized to this day for being hyper-rational. How ironic that a Movement which has returned to the non-rational practices the Reformers rejected often dismisses traditional claims of a personal God and a spiritual afterlife as “irrational” or “unsustainable”. I would urge such people to try to have a little imagination–not in the sense of imagining things that aren’t real, or wishful thinking–but in the sense of being open to very real possibilities.

      Reform Judaism has never been monolithic (thank God)–there were in the Classical period, as there are now, Reform rabbis and lay people who believe in a traditional theistic and eschatological cosmology, as well as many others who are virtually Spinozan, and everything in-between. That diversity is to be welcomed. I only bristle when I hear the humanist view of the “afterlife” held up as a venerable contribution of historic Reform Judaism to the modern mindset, when it is clear that the picture was and is far more nuanced than that.

    • avatar

      that’s prayer at its best. the words on the page evoking different thoughts or different people. universal in that everyone is saying the same words, yet personal in that they speak to us as individuals.

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