Shabbat Symposium Wrap-up: Touring the Jewish Afterlife

This past Shabbat, a small crowd gathered following kiddush for a guided discussion examining various Jewish beliefs and approaches to the afterlife. Some topics included depictions of the underworld in Tanakh, resurrection and the World to Come in the Talmud, and reincarnation in Kabbalah. A complete source sheet can be accessed here.

A few quick highlights:

  • The term “She’ol”, or underworld, occurs 65 times in Tanakh, but only six times in the Torah itself– four of them are in the Jacob story when he is mourning Joseph.
  • The Talmud has several debates over which people make it to the World to Come. The general consensus is that both righteous Jews and non-Jews are rewarded after death.
  • One Talmudic commentator resolved the problem of Jews buried in Diaspora making their way back to Israel in the messianic age by saying “the resurrected will roll underground.” When another rabbi objected that this would hurt, the first rabbi responded, “The Almighty will create tunnels for them.”
  • The Talmud contains varied descriptions of what Gan Eden (Heaven) and Gehenna (Hell) might look like– ranging from a lavish banquet, to a heavenly study hall, to a purely spiritual existence basking in God’s presence. Gehenna is described as being thoroughly unpleasant, but also having many sub-categories designed to “purify” souls for specific misdeeds.
  • The rabbis of the Talmud established the belief that most wicked souls are only punished in Gehenna for a maximum of twelve months; following this, the custom is to observe Kaddish for only eleven months, to avoid the perception that one’s relatives were wicked.
  • The afterlife hasn’t been without controversy: Saadia Gaon, a medieval commentator, considered reincarnation to be “nonsense.” Maimonides so downplayed resurrection that he was publicly criticized for it and had to write a treatise acknowledging it to be an important Jewish belief.
  • Dante had a Jewish contemporary named Immanuel ha-Romi, who wrote vivid depictions of Heaven and Hell for his Jewish readers.
  • Early Reform rabbis eliminated references to the afterlife in their prayerbooks, but in recent years liberal liturgy has begun including these references again to offer worshipers a wider choice.

Many thanks to those who attended this month’s symposium! If you’d like to teach a class or have an idea for a topic, please get in touch with Rabbi Mark or Andrew Nusbaum.

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