Wednesday, September 21, 2011
By Susan Esther Barnes
Recently, someone asked me, “Jewish people don’t believe in life after death, right?” I can certainly see how someone would get that impression.
When I’m channel surfing, sometimes I come across Christian songs or programs, and they seem to talk a lot about the afterlife. It seems like they’re always admonishing you to accept Jesus and be good or you won’t get into heaven, or they’re looking forward to their reward in heaven, or, on occasion, they mention non-Christians or sinners going to Hell. It’s pretty clear they believe in an afterlife.
Jews, on the other hand, don’t talk about the afterlife much. I can’t tell you when was the last time I heard a sermon that even mentioned life after death (if ever), which is saying something, since I generally hear about three sermons a week (two in synagogue and one via podcast).
Like many subjects in Judaism, there are different opinions about what happens after we die. Some people think once you’re dead, that’s it. It’s over. Others think the spirit lives on in some form or other, and some believe we will be resurrected when Moshiach (the Messiah) comes.
Rather than focusing on the uncertain afterlife, most Jews instead focus on the current world. It is our job in this world to perform God’s mitzvot (commandments), and to try to make this world a better place. We’ll worry about what happens in the afterlife, if any, if and when we get there.
Part of the uncertainty arises because the Sefer Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, doesn’t have much to say on the subject. It does mention Sheol a few times, which seems to be a pit or underground place, and it generally refers to someone going “down to Sheol,” but Sheol isn’t described in any detail.
According to Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition posted at MyJewishLearning.com, Ecclesiastes and Job “insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil,” so it isn’t like the Christian version of Hell which is only for the bad folk.
Later, rabbis began to use the term olam haba (world to come) to refer to the afterlife. This is generally understood to be the place we go after Moshiach comes and the dead are resurrected, and it may be kind of like Heaven.
So what happens in between?
There is a belief that when a person dies, their spirit hovers near the thing that is most familiar to it, namely, the body that so recently housed that spirit. That is one of the reasons why we have a person sit with the body of a dead person for the entire time between death and burial. We don’t want the spirit to think the body has been abandoned. It is also one of the reasons why we treat dead bodies with care and respect.
In theory, once the body has been properly buried, the dead person’s spirit is relieved that the body has been well cared for, and that the body has been returned to the earth. The spirit is then free to move on to whatever comes next.
Of course, none of us can know what, if anything, happens after death, until we experience it. I like that Judaism doesn’t claim to have all the answers to mysteries like these. I like that, rather than dwelling on the unknowable afterlife, we focus on this life.
“L’chaim,” we say as a toast, “To life.” Jewish tradition tells us that if we save a life, it is like saving an entire world. “Choose life,” God tells us. Ask a Jewish woman if she has a necklace with a Hebrew word on it, and she will probably show you one that says chai – life. Life is the focus of this world.
As for death, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.