DARE TO ASK: The Jewish view on life after death
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
Do Jewish people believe in a life after death in heaven?
Dan, 49, Catholic, Mount Prospect, Ill.
Absolutely. After death, the soul goes to heaven or purgatory (no eternal
damnation in Judaism).
Ed, 25, Jewish, New York
I feel considering an afterlife in your actions is wrong. For example, if I
give food to a homeless person, I do it because God says I should give tzedakah
(charity). If I did it because I was trying to assure my entrance to heaven, it
would make my gesture seem selfish and less meaningful.
Thomas, 27, Jewish, Richmond, Va.
I've been told by a leading scholar of the Old Testament that the afterlife
is an invention of Christianity. A very successful one, I might add!
Dan S., 66, Jewish, Boston
In general, Jews are much more interested in social justice -- their concept
is of doing God's will to perfect the world.
Raymond, 68, Jewish, Portland, Conn.
Life, and living properly, is simply expected. It's not an optional thing,
and no "reward" is a necessary enticement. By the same token, if one chooses to
not live up to his or her obligations, no threat, no matter how dire (read:
hell), would be a deterrent.
Rebecca, 25, Jewish, Miami
"Jews as individuals believe everything from absolute clarity that there's an
afterlife to 'Are you crazy? When you're gone, it's over,'" said Rabbi Brad
Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and
Leadership in New York. "Jews, like all people, claim different parts of their
traditions to help give them a sense of grounding and comfort."
An erroneous assumption is that Jews worry about this life while Christians
worry about the next life, said Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and co-author of
Embracing Life & Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care (CLAL).
"It's irresponsible to say a Christian focus on the hereafter distracts from
a commitment to making this world a better place, or to say that Jews focus only
on the here and now, when we have plenty of literature that affirms that when
it's over, it's not over."
The Talmud, in fact, discusses Olam Ha Ba (the World to Come), often referred
to as the Garden of Eden, where body and soul reunite and one reaps what one has
sown. Some interpretations say the more righteous receive a bigger share of the
"To simplify: Jewish life says focus on the here and now and the afterlife
will take care of itself," Hirschfield said. "Christians say use the afterlife
as a model and the here and now will be just fine. Both are beautiful ways to
look at life."
But they're not very funny ways to look, now are they?
So, how about this:
In Jewish Literacy (William Morrow), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that some
Jewish folklore discusses a heaven in which Moses "sits and teaches Torah all
"For the righteous people, this is heaven," he writes. "For the evil people,
it is hell."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information.