On the afterlife

This is why the Torah is not a contemplative book. Its content is made up of very real stories of very mortal human beings and the laws that deal with the minutiae of their lives.

Inscribing a Torah scroll (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Inscribing a Torah scroll
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Most Jews today don’t realize that the afterlife is a rather minor part of Judaism. Unlike its daughter religion, Christianity, Judaism is an olam hazeh (this world) oriented faith. This means that Judaism is grounded in this world. Its whole aim is to create a perfect world in this lifetime. There is no goal to “go to heaven”; we are to make this world “heaven.”
This is why the Torah is not a contemplative book. Its content is made up of very real stories of very mortal human beings and the laws that deal with the minutiae of their lives.
The Torah begins with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There is no description of this God, nor is there any discussion of what this God was doing before Creation. While other mythologies and cosmogonies are filled with stories of the gods eating, drinking, making love and making war, our God’s biography is a complete mystery to us. In fact, the Torah is completely silent on what it is that God does, save for His interaction with man. And while those other myths depict man as a minor afterthought or by-product of Creation, only the Torah places man as the apex of Creation, as if the whole of Creation was for this being.
The wonder of all this is probably best described by the Psalmist, who asks:
“When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers,
The moon and the stars, which Thou hast established;
What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?
Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels,
And hast crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:4-6).
In stark contrast to the majesty of the heavens, the Psalmist is incredulous at the idea that God would concern Himself with this puny naked ape. And yet, that is exactly the concern of God. Why that is so remains a mystery till this day.
It is this very focus and concern for man that makes the afterlife secondary in Judaism. After all, man is only man, in this world. The very word for man in Hebrew, Adam, comes from the Hebrew word for earth, adama. It is the combination of the earthly body with the God-infused soul that makes us man.
The quote, erroneously attributed to C.S. Lewis, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” is the Christian antithesis of Judaism. That is why Judaism has no vows of poverty or celibacy. Judaism realizes that both sex and wealth are essential elements of our humanity. Judaism is an embrace of this world and our physicality. The mitzvot command us to use physical objects and, through them, serve God. Abstention from the physical is anathema to Judaism. We have no monks. Even the Nazirite, who voluntarily abstains from the physical, is allowed to do so for only a definite set time and, even then, is required to bring a sin offering after his Nazirite period. This is a subtle reminder to him that while his abstention was necessary for him to achieve a certain spiritual aim, it still wasn’t the ideal.
This idea of physicality can be seen also by the requirement of the high priest to be married. So serious is this requirement that the Mishna actually discusses the possibility of having a woman standing under the huppah on Yom Kippur eve ready to marry the high priest, lest his wife die right before the holiday, making him unfit to perform the Yom Kippur ritual.
ALL OF this brings us to the topic of the afterlife. Most Jews today would be surprised to know that the concept of a heavenly reward or punishment is completely absent from the Hebrew Bible. The tidy scheme of reward and punishment mentioned in the Bible is very this-worldly. You do the mitzvot, you will get rain for your crops and economic success and fertility. If you don’t, you will be driven off the land and you will physically suffer.
This is why death is such a tragedy in Judaism. If heaven is so great, why do we mourn one’s passing to the next world?
This does not mean that there is no afterlife. While the Hebrew Bible is, as we said before, silent on topic of heavenly reward and punishment, it does hint at a posthumous existence.
The reality of our lives is that good people suffer in this world and bad people prosper. It seems to upend the entire biblical promise. The rabbis explain that after the destruction of the Second Temple, we are no longer privy to the closeness of God that reward and punishment in this world is evidence of. Instead, the real reward and punishment that awaits us is in the afterlife. This solution dampens the injustice of our lives and allows us continue to believe in the justice of our existence. It’s been said, “We refuse to believe in a God that allows both Hitler and his victims to share the same fate.”
But that does not motivate us as Jews. Our motivation as Jews to keep the commandments is because God commanded them. Finished. That’s it. Any added benefit is just that – an added benefit. In other words, the value of Shabbat and kashrut is Shabbat and kashrut. We don’t keep these precepts in order to reap some heavenly reward; we keep them because of their inherent value to live in concert with the divine command.
As to why the Torah does not describe or even mention the heavenly reward, the answer is that it is not the point of why we fulfill the commandments, nor is it even possible to describe. Any spiritual reward or punishment would have to be so out of our scope of understanding as to make any attempt at description futile. Try describing color to a blind person or the flight of the birds to a fish.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.