n 2004, on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, correspondent Nina Totenberg declared, Jews do not believe in an afterlife”to which talk-show host Michael Medved shot back that the claim is a slander to all believing Jews everywhere.
So, which view is correct? Both, as it happens. Survey data from opinion polls consistently reports that most American Jews do not believe in an afterlife. Yet, a survey of the sacred and significant texts of Judaism reveals that every important Jewish religious thinker, from Talmudic times to our own, has depicted belief in an afterlife as a fundamental feature of Jewish faith. Judaism affirms belief in an afterlife; most American Jews do not.
An analysis of survey data shows that about 80 percent of American Christians believe in an afterlife, and that about 65 percent of Americans who affirm no specific religious faith (including atheists and agnostics) also believe in an afterlife. Of all groups surveyed, belief in an afterlife has been consistently the lowest among American Jews: 46 percent in polls done in the late 1990s. Still, of all groups surveyed, belief in an afterlife has increased the most among American Jews: from 19 percent in the 1970s to 46 percent in the 1990s, an increase of 142 percent. As Jewish-American baby boomers continue to age, a further increase is likely.
Human beings have always asked what is next. Is this life all that there is? What can I expect when my life ends? Is death the end, the annihilation of all that I am? Or, as Tolstoy poignantly put it: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by the inevitable death that awaits me? Historically and theologically, Judaism has affirmed that though death is inevitable, something of ourselves can survive our physical death, that some form of individual self-perpetuation is available beyond the grave.
Unlike other religions and philosophies, Judaism never has avoided the inevitability or the reality of death. Already in Genesis, the first human being is told: Dust you are and to dust you will return. Ecclesiastes states that A season is set for everything: a time to be born and a time to die.
In contrast, much of Western civilization has sought to deny the reality of human mortality. The early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, characterized the history of philosophy as an attempt to distract us from its [death’s] perennial dominion, to rob death of its poisonous sting. We readily use euphemisms to disguise death. The deceased is not referred to as one who has died, but as one who has passed. The grave is called a resting place for one who is asleep or on a journey. The corpse is taken to a parlor, a funeral parlor, where cosmetic techniques make it look life-like. Yet, as we age, moving closer to the end of life than to its beginning, the reality of our own mortality inevitably begins to haunt us. As our forbears, we feel increasingly compelled to ask: What’s next?
Children preparing for Bar and Bat Mitzvah are taught the traditional blessing to be recited after the reading of the Torah that says, eternal life (haye olam) you [God] have implanted within us. It does not say that God has assured us eternal life, but that like a seed implanted within the soul, God has implanted within us the potential for life after death, for self-perpetuation. The task in life then is to nurture and to develop this seed. Belief in the afterlife is not a way of escaping the responsibilities of life in this world”as some claim, but is rather a challenge to imbue life with a meaning that will outlast it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: Survival beyond death carries, according to Judaism, demands and obligations during life here and now. Conditions are attached to the hope of survival . . . .Eternity is not an automatic consequence of sheer being . . . .It must be achieved, earned. How a person lives his or her life determines what of ourselves can be perpetuated beyond death. As William James put it, Spend life in a way that will outlast it. The kabbalistic teaching about the halluka- the heavenly garment, illustrates this view.
According to this teaching, every deed we do during life weaves a stitch in a heavenly garb. The nature of the deed determines the nature of the stitch. A good deed weaves a beautiful stitch. A bad deed weaves an ugly stitch. After death, each person is cloaked for eternity in the garb woven from his or her deeds during life. The life each person has led determines the size and the appearance of the garb that he or she will wear for eternity. In this view, the spiritual and moral quality of each of our lives is perpetuated in the life after death. The imprint made by our deeds on others, society, and culture, can survive us.
For the eleventh-century Jewish philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakudah, the belief that there is no afterlife”no ultimate accountability for the way we have lived, no possibility for self-perpetuation beyond our years on earth”readily leads to nihilism, hedonism, escape from moral responsibility and obsession with trivialities. Bahya’s Duties of the Heart and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s eighteenth-century, Paths of the Upright , have been the two most influential works of Jewish ethical literature. Stating the dominant, representative view of Jewish religious literature about the afterlife, Luzzatto writes, The purpose for which human beings were created is realized not in this world but in the World to Come. Human existence in this world is but a preparation for existence in the World to Come which is the goal. For Ibn Pakudah, Luzzatto, and others, life in this world should focus on developing our spiritual, moral and creative potentialities during life to prepare for the next step, to help ensure some form of self-perpetuation in the World to Come.
But, what is the nature of the World to Come, the afterlife, according to Jewish religious teachings? That there is an afterlife is a longstanding presupposition of Judaism. Two of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of the Jewish faith relate to an afterlife. Many Jewish prayers, customs, and practices presume such a belief. The traditional Jewish liturgy contains countless references to life after death. For example, in the Amidah prayer recited three times each day, God is blessed for reviving the dead. Other prayers and practices such as yizkor (prayers in memory of deceased relatives) and yahrzeit (remembrance of the deceased on the anniversary of his of her death), and many practices observed during and after funerals, articulate belief in an afterlife.
The afterlife may well be a different dimension of existence that transcends time and space. For human beings to try to grasp the nature of the afterlife would be like a person blind from birth trying to describe color. About the nature of the afterlife, we have speculation, faith and expectation, but no experience.
In this view of the afterlife, the body dies, but the soul survives. Consider an analogy of the soul and the body to an astronaut. In space, the astronaut is totally dependent upon his or her space suit for existence in space, but it is not so of the astronaut in the totally different atmosphere of the earth. Similarly, the body may be merely a capsule designed for life in this world. In the totally different atmosphere of the next world, it might not be required. Or, to use another analogy”can the caterpillar conceive of what life is like as a butterfly? For the caterpillar, a cocoon means death, but for a butterfly it means a new life, a new beginning, a radically different type of existence. Indeed, for some, the soul resides in the body; yet, for others, the body resides within the soul.
Passing down a name, genes, and family traditions is a way of continuing and of perpetuating our lives and those of our forbearers. The Ashkenazic (or European) Jewish custom of naming children for a deceased family member expresses this view. A deceased’s identity is perpetuated by granting his or her name to a new person, a new life.
But children and grandchildren perpetuate more than DNA. Children can perpetuate our values, wisdom, memories, deeds, dreams, and love. They can continue some of what we have begun but leave an unfinished song. They can serve as a link between the past and the future. They can provide us with a biological as well as a spiritual form of self-perpetuation and continuity. A midrash compares one’s children to one’s deeds. Like children, our deeds are generated by us. Like children, the effects of our deeds allow part of us to survive us, and provide meaning for a life well-lived. As Erik Erikson said: I am what survives me.
The doctrine of the resurrection of the body made its debut in ancient Jewish history. It became a central belief of the Talmudic and medieval rabbis. To those who doubted it, the Talmud rhetorically asks: If those who never lived can live, why can’t those who once lived, live again?
Initially, the doctrine of resurrection was a response to the problem of why bad things happen to good people. The earliest textual reference seems to be the well-known story in Second Maccabees of Hannah and her seven sons. After her sons are tortured to death, Hannah addresses their oppressor: You wretch. You release us from this life but the King of the World will raise us up because we have died for God’s laws, to an everlasting renewal of life. Resurrection of the body developed in response to the Jewish passion for justice. Justice unavailable in this world is guaranteed by God in the World to Come. Like other forms of life after death, the rabbis taught that resurrection either has to be earned by the performance of good deeds during life or that it serves as the redress for a life abruptly and unjustly ended by violence or disease.
In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, American Reform Judaism rejected resurrection of the body as an antiquated, obsolete idea, foreign to Judaism. Though resurrection of the body is not widely embraced today, even by many who believe in an afterlife, certain principles it expresses continue to resonate. It is an affirmation of the spiritual significance of the human body, and Jewish spirituality is not only about the soul but about the body as well. According to the Zohar, the body is the instrument through which the soul carries out the commandments. Without the body, the soul would be a mute vagabond spirit; spiritual life would be unattainable.
The emphasis in Jewish communal life on the community and its needs can readily deflate the significance of the individual. Resurrection teaches that each individual is inestimably precious to God in his or her individuality, that without individual self-perpetuation, there can be no communal continuity.
There is a curious blessing, recorded in the Talmud and recited first thing each morning as part of the daily liturgy: My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure. You it was who fashioned it. You it was who blew it into me. You it is who preserves it in me. And, you it will be who will take it from me, only to return it to me in time yet-to-be . . . .Praised are you, God, who restores souls to lifeless bodies. According to this prayer, resurrection occurs not only in the eschatological future but each morning when the sleeping person awakens.
Though early American Reform Judaism rejected the idea of resurrection, it affirmed the immortality of the human soul, an idea that apparently came into Judaism under the influence of Greek philosophy in late antiquity and that gained popularity in medieval times. The desire to perpetuate our essence, our soul, is an innate human trait, and such self-perpetuation is a form of life after death.
We often hear rabbis and teachers quote from the Pirke Avot , The Ethics of the Fathers. But few quote its comparison of this life to a vestibule, a waiting room, and the World to Come to a living room. From this perspective, the quest for meaning relates to what survives us, to what we perpetuate of ourselves. The path to meaning entails focusing our attention during life not on the ephemeral, the fashionable, the transient, but on the lasting, the enduring, on that which both transcends us and can survive us. What we do in this life effects our disposition in the World to Come.
Confrontation with the reality of our own mortality is not meant to stimulate morbidity, but rather to stimulate us to fashion our lives around that which we want to speak for us and of us when we are no longer here. How a person lives his or her life is the most important investment one will ever make on the ultimate future options exchange. This life offers each of us an opportunity to create enduring words, to perform enduring works, and to help perpetuate institutions whose work we value. As Dostoyevsky wrote, If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would be dried up. Contemplation of life after death can lead us to perform actions aimed at making life in the here and now more meaningful, more beautiful, and more saturated with significance.
As Heschel reminds us, Judaism affirms an afterlife as a matter of faith, but exactly what it may be, we cannot now know. Faith affirms life as a pilgrimage toward eternity, and draws us to the belief that God did not create the marvel of individual souls and personalities only to have them dissolve into oblivion at the time of one’s death.
Byron L. Sherwin is Distinguished Service Professor and director of doctoral programs at the Spertus Institute in Chicago.
His Space and Time
Each morning when he wakes he reaches for
His glasses and his watch, his space and time.
It’s an old habit, from beyond the shore
That parts him from that half-forgotten clime.But now he sees at once that he can see,
And knows that clocks don’t matter any more.
But how he came by this lucidity,
This vast yet focused all-aroundness, orThe sweet free hours, the lingering at whim
In this or that caf? or village-why,
It’s all a total mystery to him:How these small sunlit clouds throughout the sky
And those moist fall woods as the colors dim
Are now the only scales he measures by.