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Do Jews believe in an afterlife?


Some Jews do; some Jews don't. The Torah makes no mention of what happens after death, only that we join our ancestors. Its emphasis is on life and living. While our ancient teachers taught about the world to come and how the soul lives on after death, they nonetheless encouraged humans to "walk before the Lord in the land of the living" (Psalms 116:9).

I find it harder to believe that this life is all there is than to believe in an afterlife. Reward? Punishment? Seems to me we get plenty of both right here and now. When Rabbi Chanina tried to console his very sick colleague Rabbi Abba, he assured him that his suffering here and now would earn him a greater reward in the afterlife--to which Rabbi Abba responded, "I can do without this suffering or its reward, thank you very much."

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA


Most people I know believe that this is the only life we'll ever know. They think that death means the demise of our physical being, and they don't put any stock in some kind of everlasting spiritual survival in a world to come. Nor do they place any bets on some kind of delayed system of reward and punishment to make up for the injustices of this world. Life is to be lived and appreciated in the here and now.

Yet this down-to-earth orientation doesn't negate the possibility of an afterlife. Only it is an afterlife that continues where we have spent our lives. We all know the idea that we live on in our deeds and the ripple effect they spread out into the world. Likewise, we live on in the memories that people hold dear and cherish. And of course, we live on in our descendants who bear our names. More subtly, we also live on in the quirky mannerisms that we bequeath to the next generation. We laugh or tilt our head in a certain way that is likely to get replicated and be recognized in our offspring.

How often also do we catch ourselves saying not only "just what my mother would have said" but with the same tone? Despite our determination to be our "own person" we inevitably internalize messages that have been passed down to us and now live on through us.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY


Two famous explanations of why we say Kaddish are: (1) the daily discipline supports the living through the grieving process; (2) the Kaddish's description of a realm of perfection beyond words helps the soul of the deceased travel to the next world. We have no way of telling the difference between these two views. Our experience of a relationship with the deceased is our main source of information about the soul's journey after death.

Jewish tradition affirms a variety of beliefs about the afterlife. All are grounded in our sense of connection with important people in our lives who have died. For example, we may meet someone we feel we have more to say to in our dreams. Such meetings support the view of Moses Maimonides that people live on in spiritual form, available to reunite with us in a universal spiritual resurrection. If we have had a difficult relationship with someone, we may go through a process of coming to terms with their misdeeds and their effect on us. This process supports the talmudic view that some souls travel through purgatory. We do not know which view is empirically true, only which is consistent with our experience. In either case, Jewish tradition provides a year of community support during these powerful transitions.

Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan

Or Shalom

Vancouver, Canada


Congregants asking about an afterlife are usually seeking reassurance that a loved one is not entirely gone. In my pastoral role, I respond, "Yes, she lives on, through her influence on you and others, and through the difference she made on earth, which spreads like ripples on still water, starting clearly then slowly diminishing, but never disappearing entirely. And beyond that, who knows? Perhaps her soul is indeed still out there: hovering, loving, whole and happy at last."

For further exploration, I always suggest Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Paull Raphael. The author outlines just how radically these views vary across centuries and continents. In short, Jewish views are resources, not dogma. The 13th-century scholar and poet Immanuel of Rome's Dante-esque yet deeply Jewish "Hell and Paradise" is great as myth, while rationally I'm with the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen's notion of "social immortality," where legacy alone defines one's afterlife. Once we know for sure, it'll be too late to tell. But in memory and deed, and perhaps in spirit, as Raphael suggests, "Between the world of the living and the world of the dead there is a window, not a wall."

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD


I sometimes dream about my grandmother Rose Finkelstein, z'l. I awake in the morning contemplating what Nanny Rose came to tell me. I want to believe that she lives on in a different space but knows when I need her guidance. I want to believe that her nighttime visits guide me as she did when she was alive.

It isn't unheard of in Jewish tradition to speak about an afterlife. Our liturgy and texts often make mention of a "world to come." In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Jacob said, "This world is like a foyer to the world to come. Prepare yourself in the foyer so that you may enter into the banquet hall" (4:21). Despite these allusions, we are urged to keep our focus and energies on this life we are living now. We are God's partners in striving for the perfection of this world. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, "True, this world is only a 'vestibule to the world to come,' where we must prepare ourselves before we enter the 'banquet hall.' Yet, in the eyes of God, the endeavor and the participation are greater than the achievement and perfection."

What awaits us after we die is immaterial. As Jews, as God's partners in creation, we have an obligation to do our part in living meaningful, ethical, productive lives here and now.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Union for Reform Judaism

Fresno, CA


Simply put, yes--Judaism does assume that there is a world beyond this world. For example, the second blessing of the traditional Amidah prayer describes God as michaye hamateem--God who resurrects the dead. Maimonides made belief in the afterlife one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. When I speak with students or congregants, I like to explain that there is life after life, but we cannot know exactly what it consists of because our human understanding is limited. Two excellent books written by Conservative rabbis can help the interested reader understand Jewish views of the afterlife. The Death of Death, by Rabbi Neil Gillman, explores the argument that while early books of the Hebrew Bible include little evidence of firm views on any kind of afterlife, later sources definitely discuss both eternity of the soul and bodily resurrection. Does the Soul Survive?, by Rabbi Elie Spitz, explores both his own experiences and classical Jewish texts. Spitz is certain that the soul survives long after the body dies.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz

Temple Beth El

Springfield, MA


Belief in the afterlife--a world to come in which the righteous get their true reward and the wicked get their deserved comeuppance--is a central teaching of traditional Judaism. This belief stems from the conviction that a loving God would not allow injustice to win.

When the facts of life did not fit the Bible's emphasis on reward and punishment in the here and now, this faith in the afterlife was emphasized. In the Middle Ages, when Jews suffered so much while enemies ruled the world, the stress on the world to come grew stronger. Some religious teachers taught that this life is "unimportant," and that one should live only to be worthy of eternal bliss. This view spilled over into asceticism and less respect for the body and material activity.

Early modernizers reversed direction. They validated Judaism and dismissed Christianity by insisting that Judaism is interested only in doing good in earthly life. Christianity was criticized as otherworldly, repressive and dreaming only of getting to heaven. It was described as cruel for condemning people to eternal damnation. This modern one-sided emphasis on mortal life robbed Jews of the profound consolation of eternal life and justice for all who suffered unjustly and innocently.

What is needed is the classical Jewish ability to hold both sides of a tension. Such a Judaism would inspire people to find God in the secular, to unite body and soul, to work for tikkun olam (repairing the world) in the here and now. At the same time, it would uphold the reality of the spirit and the immortality of the soul. This faith offers the consolation of a final reunion--with those we have loved and lost and with the El Maleh Rachamim, the Infinite God of Compassion.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Riverdale, NY


The Hebrew Bible alludes to the existence of an afterlife in several places. There is little doubt that Jews in biblical times subscribed to a belief in some kind of life after death. After all, there was no nation on earth without such a conviction, and there is no indication that the Jews differed from their gentile neighbors in this regard. The nature of the afterlife as understood in Judaism, however--as with the nature of God and the nature of the human soul--is purely metaphysical, shrouded in mystery and thus deemed inaccessible to our limited intellects. When dealing with such esoteric subject matter, the Bible's approach is to keep its verbiage to a bare minimum rather than offer grossly inaccurate anthropomorphic descriptions. Whereas the Talmud and Midrash tend to offer more colorful depictions of the world to come, these are understood by our tradition to be elaborate metaphors rather than representations of literal truth. The essence of our belief is that the purely spiritual component of a human being does not perish with the death of the body; instead, it continues to perceive and enjoy the infinite wisdom of the Creator for all eternity.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Magen David Sephardic Congregation

Rockville, MD


Consistent with its "this world" orientation, Judaism believes in an afterlife, but remarkably, it is here on this earth. While Judaism embraces a belief in Eden, heaven and paradise, these are all transitory places where the soul goes after death until it is ultimately reinvested in a body when the world achieves a perfect state in the Messianic era. This topic, which constitutes a monumental and fascinating disputation between Maimonides and Nahmanides, is a subject to which I devoted an entire book, entitled The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb.

But in a wider sense, everyone--atheists and agnostics included--believes in an afterlife. Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, I debated atheist Christopher Hitchens and made the point that none would dispute that a man's good acts live on as an eternal legacy after him, which is why Judaism has always emphasized the importance of positive action. But just as the Talmud says that the patriarch Jacob never died because his children continue the tradition he taught them, the same can be said of Martin Luther King Jr., whose commitment to racial harmony we continue to embrace, or of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose pioneering work in returning Jews to their heritage continues to influence every strand of world Jewry.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Englewood, NJ
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Title Annotation:ASK THE RABBIS
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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