Saturday, August 11, 2012

Do We Jews Believe in Hell?

Nadene Goldfoot
I've been watching the History channel with their "Gates of Hell"  program and know that we Jews do not believe in such a place.  We have several opinions about the Hereafter and what happens to us when we die.

We have books such as the Bible or Old Testament, as Christians refer to it, which we call the Tanach, which includes the Torah, Prophets, writings of the 24 books of the Bible.  Then we have the Talmud, which can be a set of  21 thick books 18 " tall or printed into one book.  In this, the information about the hereafter speaks in metaphors and parables.  Gehenna is the word for hell.  This is where sinners roast for their misdeeds and is Gai Hinom, the Valley of Hinom, which is a small ravine in Jerusalem where idolaters used to burn their children in sacrifice to Moloch.  I can see why Moses and then Joshua were told to enter Canaan and take the land.  The Canaanites' end had come since they were sacrificing humans.  Anyone can see "Gehenna" today from a balcony room in the King David Hotel which overlooks the old city of Jerusalem.  This is where I met my 3rd cousin, Stanley Goldfoot when I made aliyah to Israel, in the dining room of this very stately hotel.

We believe that good people of all faiths have a share in the world to come.  We do not believe in everlasting damnation.  One view is that one year is enough punishment.  No Jewish teaching suggests punishment without end.

The world we live in is viewed as a hallway that leads to still another world.  The belief in an afterlife, in a world to come (Olam Ha ba) where man is judged and where his soul continues to flourish is in Jewish thought.  The belief is that all of Israel has a share in the world to come, and this is from the Mishna Sanhedrin 11:1, another  The Mishna became the cornerstone book for  the Gemara.  The Mishna and Gemara together make up the Talmud.  We read the Torah which is the teaching that tells man how to live.  It tells about every aspect of human life and how we should act and do in our human and social behavior, which can be applied even to today's life.

Judaism's regard for the Olam Ha Ba does not really believe in a Hell.  We had 2 thoughts about death.
1.  There would be a resurrection of the dead  When a man dies he is dead.  His soul is dead until after the Messiaic Age when it will be reunited with his body which is to be raised from the grave.  
2. The soul was immortal.  The body dies but the soul lives on forever after the death of the body.  Eventually the two combined and the story is that his soul lives on in Heaven until the time of resurrection when soul and body are reunited.  

Orthodox Judaism still accepts the combined beliefs.  There are prayers said for the soul of the departed and for the resurrection of the dead.  Reformed Judaism does not believe in the resurrection of the dead and only believes in the immortality of the soul.

Maimonides, our great teacher and physician,  also emphasized the spiritual bliss of the soul in the afterlife.  He did go along with the resurrection but felt it will only be a temporal one.  Eventually the resurrected will return to dust and the soul will remain immortal.  It is pointed out that the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul. Reformed Judaism's Platform states thus:  "We reject, as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehinnom and Eden( Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward."

Though nothing is said about a Hell, much is written about the goodness of where our soul will go.  "Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come;  yet better is one hour of blissfulness of spirit in the world to come than the whole life of this world."  This life is a gift from God, but this world is also a world!  You can say that Judaism is a this-worldly and an other-worldly religion.  It's a paradox.

The Hereafter is spoken of as "day that is all Sabbath" and as the "Heavenly Academy" where the righteous are taught Torah by G-d himself.  The Hereafter is spiritual bliss.  G-d in His goodness wishes man to earn his spiritual bliss.  He is placed on earth where he has a choice of good and evil.  We choose good, hopefully and by doing so comes nearer to G-d.  then he can enjoy G-d for all eternity and enjoy him by right, a right earned by pursuing the good in his life.  Eternity is said to be outside time altogether.  Eternity is a state, not a place.  We could say that we become Heaven, not that we are going to Heaven.

The whole purpose of man's creation is to "earn his keep" in the Hereafter.  Luzzatto said that true perfection lies only in communion with G-d.  Only by "arduous" effort can we earn that good.  Only through the performance of G-d's will which we learn about in mitzvot (good deeds such as visiting the sick) which are the precepts of the Torah, are we to achieve the true life and to rejoice in it.

We do not embalm.  The blood of the deceased is part of himself which must also be buried and not discarded as waste.  We do not have an open casket.  We don't want to be on display and are more concerned with honor and respect for the deceased.  We do not cremate."for dust you are and to dust you shall return.  I hear that this is beginning to be allowed, though.  Perhaps this is with Reformed.  We bury as soon as possible, usually the very next day, but not on a Sabbath.  Judaism goes along with autopsies when necessary with rules about it.

The Jewish tradition cherishes life.  We don't dwell on what happens when we die.  The Torah was given to Israel so that "you shall live" by the teachings and "not dies through them."  The dead cannot praise the Lord, so death has no virtue.  We are nevertheless realistic about death.  "for dust you are and to dust shall you return, "but the spirit returns to G-d who gave it", "the end of man is death".  We shall all die.  We have the goal of growing up with a good name and departing with a good name.

"It is enough to know that there is no way at all for us in this world to know or comprehend the GREAT GOODNESS which the soul experiences in the world to come, for in this world we know only material pleasures and it is something we desire.  We can't compare the good of the soul in the world to come with the physical goods of food and drink in this world.  The GOOD  is great beyond all our understanding and incomparable beyond all our imagination."  I see that our religion accents the positive and underplays the negative aspects of the reward and punishment system. The idea is to keep on trying to be a good person.  It couldn't hurt!

One last thought.  We do have once a year Yom Kippur where we ask G-d to forgive us for our many sins.  Our lives are weighed on a balance scale.  Our good deeds hopefully outweigh the bad acts.  This is why we are to ask forgiveness from our family and friends  before Yom Kippur is over each year for whatever acts of ours might have hurt them. G-d will forgive transgressions against Himself, but will not forgive transgressions against our fellow man unless amends are made and forgiveness is first obtained from the wronged party.

I have a feeling that the GREAT GOOD we will meet will be a direct ratio to the good we did on earth.  The idea is to do as many mitzvot as possible in your life.  They reflect the will of G-d.  What are they, you say?  Kindness is a good broad term.  Hillel, a great sage said "What is hateful to you, do not do to others."  Rabbi Akiva said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Be merciful, modest and perform deeds of kindness, said  Rabbi Elazar ben Aroch.  We have the major 10 Commandments and know that there are 613 of them altogether.  It would help to know the first 10, at least.

Resource:  Book: This is My God:  by Herman Wouk page 134-142 pocket book edition 1959, Dell
Book: what does Judaism Say About...?  by Louis Jacobs page 158-164
Book:  To Be a Jew by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin page 296- chapter 21 Death and Mourning

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