To begin with, there is no such thing as a religion called Judaism. Actually, Judaism is a civilization, in which religion is one of its many dimensions. Within its religious area we find a number of mutually exclusive belief systems that are institutionalized or entitled as follows: Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reconstructionism, Reform, and Humanism.
There is also secular Judaism, and many of its adherents belong to Jewish community centers, organizations such as B'nai B'rith, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, various Zionist organizations, Yiddish-ist organizations that are openly atheistic (like the Workman's Circle, an atheist, Zionist, socialist group that was very active at the turn of the century, but still has a few members today), and I could go on for pages.
Why this long introduction? In order to establish some basic thought patterns. One is not a Jew by virtue of what one believes, but rather by virtue of ones feeling of belonging. In the Talmud, we find a passage that says, "An Israelite, even though he has gone off the path, remains an Israelite."
Let me spell out what I conceive as the purpose of religion. The human animal is the only one that is aware of its finite nature. We are finite in terms of living and dying, as well as finite in every mental, emotional, spiritual, ethical, social, physical, and economic aspect of our lives. (There are many others, but this is a good summary.) We do not like this finite state. The purpose of religion is described by the following: We are finite. We crave infinity. What can we do? What should we do? What will we do? How we answer those questions constitutes our religion.
Some choose orthodoxy (in Judaism and elsewhere). Some choose polydoxy. The choice is determined by our epistemology. In other words, what we decide truth is will determine our theology.
One of the founders of quantum mechanics (Nils Bohr) was said to have made the observation that the opposite of a shallow truth is false, but the opposite of a deep truth is also true. This leads me to believe that all we have is uncertainty, and that therefore, each of us must follow our own course.
With all of that as background, we can safely say that Judaism has no authoritative position on the issue of life after death. Within the Jewish religious community, embracing all of the movements that I mentioned above, there is a continuum that on one end states that in the world to come, the body will be resurrected and reunited with the soul, and together they will stand in judgment before the Throne of Glory. This applies not only to Jews, but to everyone. A key passage spelling that out is found in the Tractate Sanhedrin, "There is a portion in the world to come for the righteous of all nations." However, there is precious little discussion of the nature of life in the hereafter for Jews or for any other peoples.
On the other end of the continuum, there is a strong stand that states that when you are dead, you are dead, and that is what makes life worth living. That may strike some as odd, but it the strongly held view of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk who was the president of Hebrew Union College, the world's oldest Jewish rabbinic seminary for more than thirty years. There are many respected Jewish philosophers who take various stands between the two extremes. Some say the soul lives on, but not the body. Others believe that we are part of a general world soul. Still others take a more physical science position, that we are part of matter and energy that can not be destroyed. During the medieval period there were even some Jewish writers who stated belief in
To add to all of this disagreement, we must further note that less than one tenth of one percent of Jewish philosophical writings deal with the issue of afterlife. Judaism stresses life in this world. One of the most significant quotes in this regard is found in the Babylon Talmud, (Avot 1:3) "Be not like servants who serve the master for the sake of a reward". Jewish values deal with living this life, and letting the next life take care of its self.
Among the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity is the fact that Christians are obsessed with getting to heaven while Jews are preoccupied with making earthly life heavenly.In other words, Judaism – pragmatically – is more concerned with the “here and now” rather than the “hereafter.”Logically, that is easy to understand:any statement regarding another plane of existence is speculative only.There is no hard evidence to prove or disprove any view about the great beyond.Consequently, Judaism prefers to act on doing those things that are in the domain of the possible rather than debate those things that are in the realm of the imaginative.
Having said all this, it would be wrong to conclude that Judaism has nothing to say about an afterlife or that the concept is foreign to Judaism.Quite the contrary: belief in a “world to come” and its particular manifestations are discussed in the Talmud and Midrash, the Apocrypha, and Kabbalistic literature.But the actual details are subject to wide differences of opinion.
Positing a “world to come” offers an effective response to the thorny question of how evil exists in a world created by a good and all-powerful God.Rather than conclude that God is neither all good nor all-powerful, belief in an afterlife allows for treating the question as one to be answered in due course.What seems to be unjust in this world will be levelled in the next world.If, in this world, good people suffer, in the next world they will be rewarded many times over.And if, in this world, wicked people prosper, in the next world they will be punished many times over.
I would recommend reading Simcha Paull Raphael’s comprehensive book entitled Jewish Views of the Afterlife, published in 1996.
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