The Afterlife according to Judaism
Last Yom Kippur the author attended evening services at a Conservative synagogue and wrote about it for the column. A week later, in a letter to the editor, a reader asked why the rabbi had not been asked one of the columnist’s usual questions: “What happens when we die?”
The columnist replied to the letter the next week by saying that he had been unable to speak with the rabbi after the service but had called him on the phone. According to the writer, the rabbi had said that “we don’t know,” that “Judaism has a range of beliefs” which he then listed, and that “it’s really wide open.” Among the rabbi’s list of actual beliefs held in Judaism was the belief “that once you’re dead, you’re dead, and there’s nothing afterwards.”
I am neither a rabbi nor a theologian. However, I considered it worth sending the following letter to the editor:
‘I found misleading [the] response to the question “What happens when we die?” quoted . . . in last week’s Letters column.
‘It is true, as [the rabbi] says, that “Judaism has a range of beliefs,” but “once you’re dead, you’re dead, and there’s nothing afterwards” is not one of them. No doubt there are Jews who have departed so far from traditional Judaism as to believe this. However, it has not been one of Judaism’s “range of beliefs” since ancient times when that opinion of the Sadducees was repudiated (Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a–91b).
‘The rabbi’s “simple answer” (“we don’t know”) is correct so far as the details of the afterlife are concerned, which, in any religion, must be imagined based on faith rather than knowledge. But missing from his response was any mention of Judaism’s unwavering assertion that all things, including the condition of our souls in the afterlife, lie in God’s hands. Whatever particular images of life after death Judaism does have—resurrection, purgation, temporary hell, reincarnation, the world to come—Judaism teaches that we, like everything in the universe, exist within the will of the Creator.
‘Hence, it cannot be that even in death we could fall into total nothingness out of the mind of God, which, being eternal, must hold us eternally if it holds us now. “There’s nothing afterward” is therefore not a possibility that Judaism (as distinct from doubting individuals) admits.
‘In case . . . the letter writer is more than merely curious but, like many of us, is seeking some authority for hope, he may appreciate knowing that in traditional Judaism, among the blessings recited three times every day, is one which acknowledges that God “brings the dead to life.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) also records the following exchange: To a skeptic who asked “If even the living die, shall the dead live?” Rabbi Gebiha son of Pesisa replied, “if what did not live lives now, surely what lives now will live again.”’
To my letter I will add the following brief commentary:
There are certain limits beyond which the human mind cannot go. We cannot actually imagine ultimate realities like infinite space, or eternity, or the cause of the universe, or the true nature of God, or the true state of our souls apart from our bodies. All our images of such concepts are dependent on imaginations fed by experience in bodies in the finite world of time and space.
Hence all images of the afterlife—nothingness; reincarnation; the wheel of karma; conversations with Socrates; hell, purgatory, or heaven; a new heaven and a new earth; mystical union with God; absorption into physical nature; absorption into the Tao; or my teacher’s wonderful notion that we spend eternity working out the consequences of all the alternative choices we did not make in life—are of necessity speculations to which the will may or may not be moved to attach itself in an act of faith.
The important thing to stress is this: the common modern belief in the nothingness of the soul after death is also a leap of faith. Those who hold that any doctrine of life after death is only wishful thinking because the soul is only a temporary function of the behavior of matter organized into a human body—an idea Plato addressed and attempted to refute in his dialogue called Phaedo—might want to ask why the cosmic order would arrange itself into the particular subtle complexity that makes wishful thinking itself possible and life after death a desirable wish.
Of course it is possible to answer “chance” or “accident” or “the laws of physics.” But these too are leaps of faith in concepts whose essence the human mind cannot penetrate. (Why should the laws of physics be what they are?) It is an illusion to claim that the belief that “there’s nothing afterwards” is any more reasonable or empirically founded than the others.
The idea that whatever is not physical does not exist, or that whatever physically exists does so by physical laws or chance only, is not a conclusion based on evidence but a premise based on belief. As such, it can claim no more authority in correct human reasoning than belief in God, divine purpose, and immortality. It is no more reasonable to imagine that we wish for heaven because the laws of physics exist than it is to imagine that the laws of physics exist so that we can wish for heaven.