Q: Is there life after death?

A question that often recurs is whether Jews believe in an afterlife. It is a question of much fascination to people today, though the Bible says little about what happens after a person dies, and Jewish tradition does not provide many clear-cut answers either.

In caves all over Europe and Africa are remains of our ancient ancestors, with disintegrated tools and clothes their only company. The earliest human rituals are burial rituals, and they prepare the corpse for another world.

Belief in life after death is as old as humanity. But does Judaism believe in it? And if so, what kind of world do we expect?

The Bible is discreet on the matter. (Yet biblical Jews knew about the idea of life after death. How do we know that? Answer at the bottom of the column.)

There are some hints at life after death. At least two biblical characters--Enoch and Elijah--do not die. At the end of his life, Enoch "walks with God," and Elijah is carried off into the sky. In the book of Samuel, Saul, with the help of a witch, brings Samuel back from his place in sheol, a shadowy underworld where Samuel seems to be resting. But on the whole, the Bible does not spend much time on the next life. This life, it seems to be saying, is complex enough.

The Bible has a point. When people begin to dabble in mysteries, they sound confused.

Mark Twain writes in "Letters From Earth" that people imagine that after they die they will lie forever on green fields and listen to harp music; they would not want to do that for five minutes while alive, writes Twain, yet they imagine they will be happy doing it for eternity!

But the human spirit will not so easily give up wondering. Judaism evolved two ideas about what happens to us after we die.

The first involves physical, bodily resurrection. This idea can be traced biblically to the Book of Daniel, Chapter 12. Resurrection implies we will one day awake not as disembodied spirits but with actual bodies.

Bodies rising from the grave might conjure visions of a horror movie. Yet defenders of resurrection project a hopeful renewal of life. The Talmud argues that if God can fashion human beings from nothing, God ought to be able to re-fashion them from dust. Moreover, part of who we truly are includes our bodies. We are not ghost-like creatures rattling around in cages of flesh; our bodies are integral parts of ourselves. When our bodies change, so do we: Just ask any adolescent. So when we are in perfect form, should we not be reunited with our bodies?

What age we will be when resurrected, or how an injured body will be healed, are open questions. The difficulty of this and related issues lead many to prefer a less "embodied" afterlife, a belief in the immortality of the soul, not the body.

This idea also exists in Judaism. Souls are the durable part of us, and it is the soul that lives on.

Some have argued that it lives on in repeated incarnations (gilgul neshamot--which means the circle, or cycle, of souls). But most have contended that there is another world--Olam Haba, the World to Come--where souls dwell in peace with their Maker.

In the words of Rav, a Talmudic sage: "The world to come is not at all like this world. In the world to come, there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no commerce, no envy, no hatred, no rivalry; the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the radiance of the Divine Presence."

There are sources in Judaism that contradict this, seeming instead to argue that death is an end. Arguing for life, the Psalmist sings to God, "The dead do not praise you" (Psalm 115:17). And in the Talmud, one opinion is that talking about one who is dead is like talking about a stone--that is, the dead cannot hear us (Berachot 19a).

But it is only in modern times that Jews have largely lost faith in life after death. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, a jumble of beliefs in the afterlife prevailed: The World to Come, the advent of the Messiah, the reward and punishment of people after death.

Today, immortality is often recast. Some people argue that immortality is having one's influence endure. Being remembered is itself all the immortality we can hope for in this world. Still for others, memory is a less satisfactory result than immortality in its purest form. As Woody Allen once wrote: "I do not want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

The problem of how we live on will not go away. It is a central preoccupation of art and literature, East and West. The specter of death is behind Western literature from the beginning. Western literature opens with the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian hero who searches for immortality. The theme runs through Homer, Shakespeare, and Dante, all the way to today's novelists and poets.

It may be true, as Confucius said, "We do not know anything about life; what can we know about death?" But so much of our sense of the meaning of life is bound up with our beliefs about the meaning of death that we cannot stop searching.

An old folktale asks us to imagine twins lying together in the womb. Everything they need is provided. One of them believes, "irrationally," that there is a world beyond the womb. The other is convinced such beliefs are nonsense. The first admits he cannot imagine what such a world might be, but he nonetheless holds fast to the belief that it exists. The other can barely contain his contempt for such foolish ideas.

Suddenly, "the believer" is forced through the birth canal. All the fetus knew is gone. Imagine how the fetus left behind must view this--that a great catastrophe has just happened to his companion. Outside the womb, however, the parents are rejoicing. For what the sibling still in the womb has just witnessed is not death but birth. This is a classic view of the afterlife--it is a birth into a world that we on earth cannot begin to imagine.

The Jewish tradition teaches that human beings do not ultimately perish. We contain within us sparks of the Divine. In some form we cannot know, and cannot understand, the Divine endures.

(Answer to the question of how biblical Jews knew about the idea of life after death: Because the Jews emerged from Egypt, where the cult of the afterlife--mummification, pyramids, cities of the dead--was very strong.)

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