Is There Life After Death?

There is no dogma in Judaism about what awaits us after life in this world, but Jewish sages have speculated extensively and discussed two distinct, yet intertwined notions: spiritual immortality (the belief that each of us possesses a soul which continues to exist after our physical body dies) and resurrection of the dead (the belief that at some time in the future, time as we know it will end and God will resurrect the dead, restoring their bodies to previous health and vigor and breathing new life into them). Spiritual Immortality and Resurrection of the Dead were ideas not original to Judaism, but they have been interpreted and woven into the fabric of Jewish life, and are an integral part of Jewish culture and thought.

The Bible does not refer to life after death. Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that existence ends with death. In the Book of Genesis we read, "Dust you are and to dust shall you return" without any concomitant assurance that anything comes after death."In respect of the fate of man and fate of beast, they have one and the same fate... Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust," opines Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). So, too, do we read: "We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up (II Samuel 14:14). During the biblical period, Jews believed that after death one goes down into a pit called Sheol. According to Numbers 16:30 (also Ezekiel 31:14, Psalm 88:7 and Lamentations 3:55) it is below the earth. According to Jonah 2:7 it is at the base of a high mountain. According to Job 26:5 it is beneath the waters. Psalm 88:13 understands it to be a place of darkness (so, too, Job 10:21, 22) and Psalm 115:17 considers it a place of silence. The prophet Isaiah envisioned it enclosed by barred gates (Isaiah 38:10; so too Job 38:17). Psalm 115 confirms that "The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence" (verse 17). Psalm 88 provides this graphic description of death as the end of all existence:

I am sated with misfortune;
I am at the brink of Sheol.
I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit;
I am a helpless man
abandoned among the dead,
like bodies lying in the grave
of whom You are mindful no more,
and who are cut off from Your care.
You have put me at the bottom of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.

(Psalm 88:4-7)

There appear to be only two exceptions to the finality of death and both are people who escaped death altogether: Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (II Kings 2:11). It is for this reason that Elijah is envisioned as the one who will return to earth to herald the coming of the Messiah at the end of days.

The Bible also contains three accounts of what might be resurrection, but this is not entirely clear. In I Kings 17:17-24, Elijah revives a child presumed to be dead. Elisha performs a similar feat in II Kings 4:17-37. Even more unusual is II Kings 13:21 in which a corpse deposited on Elisha's grave comes back to life; presumable Elisha was so unhappy about its placement on his grave that he gave it renewed life in order that it might remove itself from his vicinity. These accounts certainly read much like accounts of resurrection, but it is not altogether clear that this is what was intended.

Many have claimed that the biblical prohibition against necromancy (foretelling future by communicating with the dead) does not imply belief in life after death. The prohibition is based upon rejection of the underlying notion: the suggestion that the dead have any power. When Philistine army threatened to defeat him, Saul prayed to God for guidance. God did not answer, so Saul forced the witch of En-dor to raise the prophet Samuel (then dead), against his own law forbidding necromancy (I Sam. 28:9). (See also the account in I Sam. 28:13-15.) One explanation is that this power was in God's hand's alone. Only God has power to revive the dead (this explains Elijah and Elisha's resurrection of children, etc.).

Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is a prophesy of the restoration of national life, not a reflection of the belief in personal resurrection. It is an allegory, not a literal description of resurrection:

And [God] said to me: O Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed." Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the Land of Israel. [Ezekiel 37:11-12]

During the period of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Hellenism gave rise to speculation about life after death, and brought with it beliefs which came to be discussed and considered at length in Jewish circles. Speculation reached fever pitch during time of Maccabees and became increasingly apocalyptic during Roman period.

Why is the notion of life after death so attractive? Perhaps because it solves the eternal problem of theodicy: God's justice. The Torah affirms that God rewards and punishes members of the Covenant on the basis of their faithfulness to the obligations stipulated in the Torah. (It was assumed that God rewards and punishes all people based on their basic decency.) If they are loyal, they will be rewarded. If they violate the covenant and commit idolatry, they will be punished. This belief was sorely tested when the Assyrians marched through the Land of Israel, decimating community after community and perpetrated unprecedented atrocities on the Jewish people. No matter how evil they might have been, no one deserved such brutality. And there was no avoiding the flip side: The Assyrians were the victors, unpunished for their cruelty. The Book of Job was written after the Destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE) but prior to the Hasmonean period, during when the people no longer subscribed to the belief that God rewards the righteous and punishes the evil; but before notions of afterlife were in vogue. Hence we find the author of Job asking difficult and troubling questions: Is God just? How can God's callous disregard for the righteous be justified? The notion of life after death provided a cogent religious explanation of why bad things happen to good people: "You know that the bestowal of reward upon the righteous will be in the time to come" (Pirke Avot 2:16).

The Pharisees believed that each human is possessed of an immortal soul, immaterial and ethereal. After death, the soul lives on with God and is rewarded or punished according to how a person lived his/her life. The idea of spiritual immortality was originally separate from the idea of resurrection of the dead, a notion that found its way into Pharisaism, as well. The Pharisees and their descendants, the Amoraim, combined these two ideas -- spiritual immortality and resurrection of the dead -- in a unique Jewish way: They explained that when one dies, the soul separates from the body and returns to God, where it resides. When the messiah comes, times and history as we know them will end. The dead will be resurrected and their souls returned to them. Then each person will stand in judgment before God, to be rewarded or punished according to his/her behavior during life.

The Sages argued that resurrection of the dead derives from Torah:

Rabbi Meir said: Where can we see that resurrection is derived from the Torah? In the passage: "Then will Moses and the children of Israel sing this song to the Lord [Exodus 15:1]. It does not say "sang" but rather "will sing". Therefore, resurrection is deducible from the Torah. Again, Rabbi Joshua b. Levi asked: "Where can we see that resurrection is derived from the Torah? In the passage Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will be still praising you [Psalm 84:5]; it is not stated "they have praised You" but rather "will be praising You"; therefore, resurrection is derived from the Torah [i.e. Psalms]. [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 91b]

Much attention was paid to the world-to-come because the reward that would accrue to those who had acted righteously in this world encouraged people suffering persecution at the hands of the Romans to keep their covenant with God. The Sages went so far as to claim that belief in resurrection of the dead was necessary to earning the reward of the world-to-come:

All Israelites have a share in the world-to-come... [However], these are they that have no share in the world-to-come [in spite of the fact that they are Israelites]: one who says there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Torah, and [one who says] that the Torah is not from Heaven [i.e., divinely revealed], and an Epicurean [maybe one who denies divine providence and retribution in this life and the other]. [Sanhedrin 10:1]

While rabbinic Judaism subscribed to a notion of life after death and resurrection, it tolerated a great deal of speculation concerning the particulars, as well as a wide range of views concerning how this would all come to pass. Much less was said about punishment, and the concept of hell was never extensively developed in Judaism. Its origins are in a specific site, the Valley of Gehinnom (from Gei Ben hinnom) a valley that was the site of a heathen cult whose rituals included burning children (see the description in II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31). The Talmud paints a graphic and frightening picture of what happens in Gehinnom, but overall it receives only modest attention:

Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body, and wrongdoers of the gentiles who sin with their body, go to Gehinnom and are punished there for 12 months. After 12 months, their body is consumed and their soul is burned and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous. [Rosh Hashanah 17a]

In contrast to the opinion expressed above, Rabbi Akiba argued that punishment is not eternal; it is limited to one year: So, too, the Talmud affirms that the judgment of the wicked in Gehinnom shall endure only 12 months [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eduyot 2:10]. Eventually Rabbi Akiba's view was adopted.

What will Judgment Day be like? Again, the Talmud can only offer speculation. The School of Shammai offered this description:

There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment: one of thoroughly righteous people, one of thoroughly wicked people and one of people in between. The first group will be immediately inscribed for everlasting life; the second group will be doomed in Gehinnom, as it says, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" [Daniel 12:2], the third will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, "And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name and I will answer them" [Zechariah 13:9]... [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a]

The School of Hillel, Shammai's "cross town rival" school, the majority of whose halakhic opinions were followed ultimately, offered a characteristically more merciful view: those in between would be given the benefit of the doubt and sent to paradise rather than to Gehinnom on Day of Judgment. Rabbi Hanina also set limits on the notion of divine retribution in the world-to-come when he said that all who go down to Gehinnom will go up again, except the adulterer, one who puts his fellow shame in public, and one who calls his fellow by an obnoxious name [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metzia 58b].

Moses Maimonides, echoing the Tosefta to Sanhedrin, maintained that the pious of all the nations of the world have a portion in the world-to-come [Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:5].

What is Heaven Like? This was a source of imaginative speculation. One suggestion is that the righteous will sit at golden banquet tables [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit 25a] and another opines stools of gold [ Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 77b]. Lavish banquets are described [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra 75a]. Another sage suggests that the three central activities of life in the world-to-come are celebrating Shabbat, enjoying sunshine and sexual intercourse [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 57b]. Rav (who lived in the 3rd century of the Common Era) holds an entirely different view. He taught: In the world-to-come there is neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of the Shechinah [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 17a].

What About the Body/Soul Dichotomy? Judaism never accepted the idea that our bodies and souls are fundamentally different, even as the Rabbis taught that the soul continues on after death. While a person is alive, the body and soul are completely integrated. They told this midrash to explain:

This may be compared to the case of a king who had an orchard containing excellent early figs, and he placed there two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. He said to them: "Be careful with these fine early figs." After some days the lame man said to the blind one: "I see fine early figs in the orchard." Said the blind man to him: "Come let us eat them." "Am I then able to walk?" said the lame man. "Can I then see?" retorted the blind man. The lame man got astride the blind man, and thus they ate the early figs and sat down again each in his place. After some days the king came into that vineyard and said to them: "Where are the fine early figs?" The blind man replied: "My lord, the king, can I then see?" The lame man replied: "My lord the king, can I then walk?" What did the king, who was a man of insight, do with them? He placed the lame man astride the blind man, and they began to move about. Said the king to them: "Thus have you done, and eaten the early figs." Even so will the Holy One, blessed be God, in the time to come, say to the soul: "Why have you sinned before Me?" and the soul will answer: O Master of the universe, it is not I that sinned, but the body it is that sinned. Why, since leaving it, I am like a clean bird flying through the air. As for me, how have I sinned?" God will also say to the body: "Why have you sinned before Me?" and the body will reply: "O Master of the universe, not I have sinned, the soul it is that has sinned. Why, since it left me, I am cast about like a stone thrown upon the ground. Have I then sinned before You?" What will the Holy One, blessed be God, do to them? God will bring the soul and force it into the body, and judge both as one. [Leviticus Rabbah 4:5]

The Rabbis also speculated at length concerning the mechanics of resurrection. How would it happen? Rabbi Hiyya ben Joseph said: The dead will come up through the ground and rise up in Jerusalem... and the righteous will rise up fully clothed [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 111b]. Scholars have pointed out that creation ex nihilo argues for God's ability to resurrect the dead, but a careful examination of the first few verses of the TaNaKH (Hebrew Scripture) reveals that the Bible says nothing about creation ex nihilo. What is more, the Biblical view that God's creation was a matter of bringing order to the chaos of the universe can also be understood to support resurrection of the dead, if one is so inclined. The philosopher Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas (1340-1410 C.E.) suggested that God could create a body exactly like that which had lived on earth, endow it with the same same soul, and keep it in storage for the time of retribution; this notion mitigates the need for physical resurrect (but certainly makes one wonder about the storage problem created by such a scheme). There are certain inherent inconsistencies to resurrection of the dead, and Saadia ben Yosef al-Fayyumi (892-942 C.E.), the head of academy of Sura in the 10th century, offered this hypothetical and solution. It is evident that he was struggling to work out the inconsistencies in the notion of resurrection of the dead:

Suppose a lion were to eat a man, and then the lion would drown and a fish would eat him up, and then the fish would be caught and a man would eat him, and then the man would be burned and turned into ashes. Whence would the Creator restore the first man? Would God do it from the lion or the fish or the second man or the fire or the ashes? Answer: the parts of the body are kept aside by God and not mixed with others. They remain separate until the time of resurrection.

Even fire, which causes things to be burned so quickly, merely effects the separation of the parts of a thing...causing the dust part to return to ashes....It does not however, bring about the annihilation of anything. Nor is it conceivable that anyone should have the power to annihilate anything to the point where it would vanish completely except its Creator, who produced it out of nothing.

Since then the matter can be thus explained, in view of the fact that none of the constituent parts of the human being who has been devoured could have been annihilated, they must all have been set aside, wheresoever they may have taken up, whether it be on land or sea, until such time as they are restored in their entirety. Nor would such restoration be any more remarkable than their original creation.

Moses Maimonides (known in the Jewish world as the Rambam) promoted eternality of intellect and in his emphasis on the spiritual, ethereal nature of the world-to-come, one could reasonable ask whether he truly believed in resurrection of the dead in a literal sense.

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. [Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8]

When accused of not believing in resurrection, the Rambam wrote in his own defense:

What may, in all likelihood, have led men to misjudge us is the fact that while we dilate on the dogma of immortality, offering appropriate illustrations from scriptural and rabbinical authorities, we are, on the contrary, very brief when alluding to resurrection and content ourselves with the mere assertion that it is an essential creed of our religion... It is faith and not reason that can persuade us that [resurrection] will occur... No proof can be advanced in support thereof. How then could it be expected that we should have discussed it at length? ['Treatise on Resurrection"]

By the time Shesher ben Isaac of Saragossa (1131-1209 C.E.) lived, the notion of reincarnation (gilgul haneshamot, migration of souls) had become popular and many parts of the world. Some Jews, as well, were quite taken by this idea. The whole notion of resurrection clearly bothered Shesher ben Isaac, and perhaps he was responded to new ideas of reincarnation, as well, when he wrote in exasperation:

I ask this fool who maintains that the souls will return to the dead corpses and that they are destined to return to the soil of Israel: Into which body will the soul return? If it is to the body from which it has departed [then this will] already have returned to its elements thousands of years earlier... If, however, this soul is to return to another body which God will create, then it is another man who will be created in his own time and has not been dead.

While we are not certain how early the idea of reincarnation found its way into Jewish thinking, Anan ben David (8th c founder of Karaism) reportedly believed in reincarnation. By the 12th century of the Common Era, transmigration of the soul was assumed in Kabbalah. The Zohar, a seminal work of Kabbalah notes:

It is the path taken by man in this world that determines the path of the soul on her departure. Thus, if a man is drawn towards the Holy One, and is filled with longing towards [God] in this world, the soul is departing... is carried upward towards the higher realms by the impetus given her each day in this world. [Zohar, II, 99b]

At first glance, reincarnation solves a fundamental theodicy question: How and when do the evil, who appear to prosper in this world, get punished? The answer offered by reincarnation is that after death, a sinful soul is implanted in another body to give it an opportunity to atone for sins committed in a previous body. Conversely, suffering is a consequence of acts committed in a previous incarnation. These ideas are neither logical nor compatible, but they offered comfort to a great many people. They also answered some other questions: Why do some people act like animals? Because they have a soul which once abided in a beast. Why is a woman barren? Because her soul formally resided in a male. Why does a child die? To punish the soul, which previous resided in a sinner. Why do some people choose to convert to Judaism? Because their souls previous belonged to Jews. Transmigration , as the Kabbalah explains it, serves the purpose of punishing souls that were sinful and providing them with an opportunity to purify themselves. Righteous souls require 3 reincarnations, while wicked souls require as man as 1000 reincarnations. There are three types of reincarnation: (1) gilgul: during pregnancy; (2) ibbur: "old" soul temporarily enters body of another during its lifetime; (3) dybbuk: evil soul temporarily enters body causing mental illness must be removed by exorcism by a baal shem. Among those who believed in transmigration of the soul are: Rabbi Menassah ben Israel (1604-1657 C.E.) who claimed it was an infallible dogma of Judaism that no one would challenge (this is patent nonsense); Abraham bar Hiyya (Spain, first half of 12th century) taught this doctrine, saying if a person is ignorant but righteous, his soul returns once or twice more, until it obtains knowledge and wisdom; and Moses Teitelbaum (1759-1841) a Hungarian hasid who believed the soul returns to earth in another body to set right sins committed in a previous existence.

Reincarnation was rejected by Judah HaLevi, Moses Maimonides, Saadia ben Yosef, and Abraham ibn Daud and a great many others. It introduces a striking blend of illogic and moral problems into the already difficult issue of theodicy.

In the modern period, rabbis and scholars have offered a variety of alternative ways to think about what happens after we die. Here are a few to ponder:

Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote of the lasting influence of each individual on the world. This, he claimed, is our immortality:

Death cannot be and is not the end of life. Man transcends death in many altogether naturalistic fashions. He may be immortal biologically, through his children; in thought, through the survival of his memory; in influence, by virtue of the continuance of his personality as a force among those who come after him; and ideally, through his identification with the timeless things of the spirit. [Basic Judaism, p. 160]

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, like Milton Steinberg, promoted the notion of biological immortality:

Our bodies no longer live after death, but they are then transformed into other kinds of life. The energy and chemical elements from our bodies go into the soil, where they help make flowers grow and directly or indirectly provide food for plants, animals, and human beings. Thus, ewe, who come from nature, return to nature.

Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas wrote:

I was with my people when they were part of the exodus from Egypt I stood with them at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The pronouncements of Isaiah pound in my blood. The sayings of Akiba are sealed in the cells of my brain. The message of Maimonides is part of my mind. I experienced the Holocaust and shared in the agony of my people I participated in the birth of modern Israel and the ecstasy of my people I am a Jew, a corporate part of my people. I say this, no in arrogance, but in awesome humility. As a member of the Jewish people, I am immortal.

Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman:

We may not be sculptors, able to hew immortal statues out of immobile rock. Most of us, however, have the infinitely greater privilege (which we take too much for granted) of molding the spiritual life and destiny of the generations that come after us. Men and women whom we influence by the example of our lives, the children who are touched by the flame of our spirits&emdash; it is in them that we live on and find the flame of our eternal significance.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg promoted immortality through deeds. He tells the Talmudic story of the fox who wanted to get into a garden to eat some grapes, but the entrance was too small. So he fasted for three days and squeezed through the small hole in the fence. Then he feasted, but found he was again to big to get out. So again he fasted for three days and, as he left, he looked back and said: "O garden, charming art thou, delicious are they fruits! But what have I now for all my labor and cunning?" Greenberg comments: "So it is with man. Naked he comes into the world; naked must he leave it. After all his toil therein he carries nothing away with him except the good deeds he leaves behind."

The poet Hugh Robert Orr penned these lines:

They are not dead who live

in hearts they leave behind.

In those whom they have blessed

They live a life again,

And shall live through the years

Eternal life, and grow

Each day more beautiful

As time declares their good,

Forgets the rest, and proves

Their immortality.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler also believed that our deeds have lasting influence on the world and serve as our portion of immortality:

When Chananiah ben Teradion, noblest of Jewish martyrs, was burned at the stake wrapped in a Scroll of the Law, his pupils who witnessed his terrible agony cried out: "Our master, our teacher, what seest thou?" And he replied: "I see the parchment burning&emdash; but the letters of the Law, they soar on high." Even so it is with us. Our flesh will decay, our fingers will crumble into dust, but what they create&emdash; in beauty and goodness and love&emdash; lives on for all time to come.

Thus do our deeds bridge that fearsome chasm that separates the world of life from the world of death; thus does the work of our hands endure. Thus do we will immortality for the human race; thus do we answer the calling of our genes.


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