I must begin with a caution: there is no single Jewish position on this question (or most other things). There are many different answers which vary both between and within groups (for example, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Lubavitch, Modern Orthodox, Breslov, etc.). In this specific case, given that there is no way to know what is correct, there is no position in which belief is required, so there may be as many answers as there are Jews at a given moment.There have been some times and places in which Jews had a stronger or weaker connection to the idea of an afterlife, but that is something that has varied and fluctuated with circumstances, and there is no universal “Jewish view or position.”
Judaism generally does not have a set of dogmatic principles to which one must adhere. Other than the Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one/unique/alone/singular/beyond all) - the creedal statement in the one God (for those who believe in and accept the existence of God) - there is little that is obligatory in the way of belief for Jews. Judaism is not defined by faith or belief. The lack of obligatory beliefs extends to any concept of what happens following death. Consequently, there are many ideas and views, and none is right or wrong.
The bottom line is that no one living can know the answer to this question; so whatever opinion(s) a person finds comforting is(are) perfectly acceptable to have. That means there are Jews who think that nothing happens and that death is the end. Others feel that there is a system of returning to learn the lessons we need to master, sort of a karmic reincarnation. Still others hope that there is an immortal soul that returns to its creator. I don’t recall any Jew with whom I have spoken who had a view that one would carry on in 'heaven', living as they did here on earth in this life, but it is possible that such opinions exist. Basically, whatever possible ideas there may be, it is likely that there is at least one Jew who holds that idea.
I can tell you that I am not aware that any Jews who hold the idea of ‘hell’ as a destination after death; the general view is much more along the lines that hell is what some people experience here on earth during life as a result of what other people do to them, or what they do to themselves.
Even the Tanakh (the Jewish bible, also known as the Hebrew Scriptures) does not speak meaningfully to afterlife. There are only four parts of the text that reference it, two of them are in the context of visions or dreams (Isaiah and Ezekiel), and one is in a non-prophetic work which is emulating the style of the prophets (Daniel). Only the encounter of Saul with the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28) seems to speak of afterlife; but there the dead (Samuel) knows nothing of the world he has left, nor of the world in which he finds himself, and rebukes Saul for disturbing and asking of him, a dead man, for any knowledge. In short, even in the one passage that might be interpreted to speak to life beyond death, it tells us that that existence, such as it is, is not life.
This is not a question that most Jewish people spend a great deal of time contemplating, unless they are facing their own mortality. The tendency among most Jews, it seems to me, is to accept that this is unknowable, that speculation is fruitless, and that it is better to simply learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and to get on with life. The focus is on here and now, this world, and what we can do to better it.
The best way to respond to this question is by referring you to my previous response to a very similar one:
Is there Olam Habbah? How do I measure whether I'm living up to what God/I expect of me? Is there a God/personal God in the traditional sense and if so what is his/her nature?
The following is my response to the above question:
In answering your several sincere questions, it is possible to take several different approaches. My usual approach is from my most personal inner self.
I am very much a believer in all of the areas asked. My answer very simply is, "Yes." Yes, I believe that there is an Olam Habba--the Next World. Yes, I believe that G-d approaches and judges us in terms of Torah and mitzvot. Yes, there is a G-d in a universal and personal sense. And, yes, G-d has a nature, but it is beyond our understanding.
Now, how do I or for that matter anyone else come to my decisions in any of these areas? It is a combination of nature and nurture. I have certain innate traits and I have been raised in a certain way.
When I am asked a question, I believe that I am asked because I am an exponent of Jewish Faith. I am an important cog in a very large mechanism. I have been raised and nurtured as a Jew and have been exposed to the greatest Jewish believers, scholars and practitioners of Judaism. Most important of which is my mother, of blessed memory.
I do not believe that one should turn to a rabbi for their personal view only, but rather for their learned response that reflects the heritage and tradition of a people. I believe that too many rabbis are at odds with their own faith and reflect in their answers positions, which are in no way part of the heritage of Israel. This is sad and often helps to impoverish our people, who are in sincere quest for real answers.
I suggest looking into the traditional Jewish prayer book—Siddur. It addresses in a most straightforward way that questions that you have asked. My favorite siddur is the most famous edition of The Authorized Daily Prayer Book with commentary by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz. This is not easy to find, but should still be available in a used bookstore, online or in a good Jewish library.
My favorite current siddur is the Koren Sacks Siddur. The text and commentary are superb.
In summary, according to the Jewish Faith; yes, there is an Olam Habba. Yes, the Torah and Mitzvot are the measure by which G-d decides (with a very heavy dose of love and forgiveness. Yes, there is a G-d who is universal and personal. G-d's nature is impossible to comprehend and to define, but is in the end loving.
We read in the Mishna (circa 200 CE) in the Tractate Pirkei Avot (Sayings of Our Ancestors) a number of statements affirming the existence of an Olam HaBah – A World to Come. Teaches Rabbi Jacob; “This world is like a foyer leading the world to come. Prepare yourself in the foyer, so that you may enter into the inner chamber (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” And teaches Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kappar; “The ones who were born are to die and the ones who have lived are to be brought to life again, and the ones who are brought to life are to be summoned to judgment… (ibid 4:29).”
For more than 2,000 years this belief in an afterlife and its combined concept of judgment has been an important part of Jewish thought. Our tradition has always taught that the righteous of all peoples have a place in this afterlife. Our vision of this eternal life is not exclusive. Nor is it clearly and definitively imagined in its detail. Jewish thinkers in every age have speculated as to the particulars of this world to come. The great abundance of different imaginings as to the nature of eternal life reminds us that we will not be able to comprehend this future existence until the end of our days – may they be blessed and long.
Along with this belief in a world to come, Jewish life has always emphasized the greater importance of this world – of the here and now.
The same Rabbi Jacob who calls this existence a “foyer” says; “Richer is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than all of life in the world to come; and richer is one hour’s calm of spirit in the world to come than all of life of this world (ibid 4:22).” With this paradoxical statement I believe that Rabbi Jacob is encouraging us to be in the moment, to make the most of our time in this world by focusing on the here and now. Yes, he is saying, there is an afterlife, but before you get there remember that each hour of life is an opportunity to bring goodness into this world. While we are yet living, the existence of the world to come should not be of ultimate importance.
I find this viewpoint to be exceptionally meaningful and important. The promise of an afterlife is a powerful force. This assurance has inspired many to acts of great goodness but it has also led to much troubling evil. All too often in days past and in our own day brutal acts have been justified as being ways to paradise. Judaism, in focusing on acts of goodness in this world, in believing in a hereafter open to the righteous of all faiths and in encouraging a multiplicity of viewpoints as to the nature of life eternal has made this belief a blessing for one and all. Rabbi David Rose
Copyright 2020 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.