Over the years I have received many challenging and highly unusual questions. As mentioned in my earlier email announcing various changes in my weekly essays, I will share my responses to some of these inquiries.
It is important that the readers realize that these are my personal answers, only reflect my own thoughts on these matters and do not always represent what is often termed ‘normative (Orthodox) Judaism’. Some people may call my responses heretical. But let us not forget what Andre Suares once said: “In a dead religion there are no more heresies.”
Oftentimes I will give short answers to these questions without any citations or sources, rather I will share some insights and speculations. At times I will not offer a final answer. Instead, offering my discussion as an incentive for further study and contemplation by the reader. At the end of each discussion, I will reference only a few sources for those who want to study the matter further. However, part of what I write has, as far as I know, not been expressed anywhere.
Question: Do you really believe in the World to Come, the “Hereafter”, also called Olam Haba?
Answer: I personally believe that a human being’s life does not come to an end with death, but I do not believe that this is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith, in spite of the opinion of some Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides who claim this to be the case. In fact, I believe that to consider this a fundamental tenet harms the integrity of Judaism.
In Tanach there is no clear mention of any “afterlife”. Some may argue that it is alluded to, while others seem to deny this. Tanach is wholly ‘this world’ orientated. It teaches that all blessings, rewards, and punishments take place in this world, not in any other world.
It is surely true that in (nearly?) all of rabbinical literature there seems to be a clear belief in the existence of a Hereafter, although there are no definite views as to what this is. The question, however, is how the Sages were so sure about this, while the Tanach is deathly silent on this topic. Did the Sages know about the Hereafter by means of an inner voice, intuition, or a kind of prophecy? If they were sure about its existence, why, then, is the belief in the Hereafter not clearly mentioned in Tanach?
God Does Not Need a Hereafter
It is important to consider the following: it is possible that God, the ‘Wholly Other’, decided to create this universe, our world and humankind for reasons only known to Him, such that no ‘afterlife’ is necessary. It is important to realize that an afterlife does not need to exist so as to believe in Him. One has nothing to do with the other.
The Hereafter does not prove that God exists as much as this world does not prove His existence. Our world only seems to suggest His existence.
I sometimes wonder whether Rav Nachman of Breslov (Likkutei Moharan, 119) was correct when he called our world “Gehinam”, often translated as “Hell”, because of the many terrible things that happen in our world. Perhaps our world should be called “Olam Haba” or Gehinam that is preceded by “Olam Hazeh” where we found ourselves before we were born? This idea is surely most eccentric but worthwhile contemplating!
All this is related to one basic question to which the Torah does not give an answer: Why did God want a universe with its millions of stars, blackholes and baby universes to exist? Why did He have a need for this? To bestow His goodness on man? Why? To respond that this is the case in order to enable human beings the opportunity to receive reward is not a real answer, since the question is why human beings need to be created so as to be rewarded. Does God really need to create human beings so as to convey His goodness? A human being would probably be better off if she/he would not to be created at all since then he/she would not have to deal with pain, illnesses, war, holocausts, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other forms of evil. Not creating man would be a greater expression of His goodness!
Secondly, millions of stars, black holes and baby universes are unnecessary so as to make it possible for human beings to receive their reward.
An Inner Voice and a Station
I have to admit that the reason I believe that there is life after death is that an inner voice tells me so, and I have a hard time believing that with my death there is nothing left of me – but this may be more an emotional response than a rational one.
Another reason I believe that there is an afterlife is that it seems that our world is a kind of station where one arrives at birth, travels through for a certain number of years and leaves again at the time of death. But again, this is only an impression and cannot function as hard proof. Furthermore, ‘near-death experiences’ may be nothing more than the result of brain images that form as the brain almost completely ceases to function.
I am, however, aware that famous philosophers have tried to prove that the soul of the human being cannot be destroyed and continues to ‘live’, whatever that may mean. But these arguments are surely open to criticism.
I also hope that there is an afterlife so that people like Hitler will be punished infinitely. But this again is more an emotional response than a rational one.
No Need to Get Rewarded
Personally, I do not need to get rewarded in the other world for trying to be religious and observing mitzvot in this world. The concept of reward implies, after all, that I am religious because I want to get rewarded. A ‘tit for tat’ philosophy that I find a little immature and disturbing.
For me, the reward is the doing of the mitzvah itself or living with a religious outlook on life that gives me much satisfaction and adds deep meaning to my life.
Whether I will receive reward in the other world does not speak to me and does not play any role in my life, for I believe that not observing the mitzvot is punishment itself. The awareness that I ‘sinned’ by transgressing the commandments is far worse than being ‘sentenced’ at a later date. After all, by sinning I have lost out in ways I cannot describe; it totally unsettles me . That is worse than being ‘burned’ somewhere else.
I admire the Jewish Tradition for the way it treats the dead, buries it and gives it full honor, because it shows enormous respect for the human being even after one has died.
Whether this is related to the Hereafter is of secondary importance.
For extra reading:
Mishna Sanhedrin, 10:1:2; Talmud Berachot 18a-19a.
Saadia Gaon, Beliefs and Opinions (“Emunot veDeot”).
Maimonides, Treatise on the Resurrection (“Iggeret Techiyat HaMetim”).
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 8.
Moshe Chaim Luzatto, The Path of the Just (“Mesillat Yesharim”), pp 1-19.
Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man, pp 229.
For excellent overviews:
Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, Portland, Oregon, 2004; Chapters 9 and 10.
Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith, An Analytical Study, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1964; Chapter 14.