A reader asks:
Is the Jewish perspective that mortality is a bummer? If so, that is not very comforting, and it doesn’t seem useful… What does Judaism say about death?
GREAT question! There is no single “correct” Jewish teaching about what happens when we die. In every era of Jewish thought, there have been a number of thoughts circulating on the subject. In Biblical texts, people are thought to “go down to Sheol” when they die (Genesis 42:38.) Sheol is a dark place full of dust, thought to be somewhere underground.
At some point in the Second Temple period (500 BCE – 70 CE) Jews began to speculate on a resurrection of the dead. We can see this in the books of Isaiah and Daniel, for instance, “Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades.” in Isaiah 26:19. However, references to this in rabbinic literature are vague and contradictory. Some references seem to be to an “end of the world” resurrection, and some to a resurrection that will take place with the coming of Moshiach, a military leader who will revive the nation.
Modern Jewish thinkers occupy an entire range of possibilities. On the Orthodox end of the spectrum, there is a belief in an immortal soul and at some future point, a resurrection of the body. Many liberal Jews believe in an immortal soul, but without specifics about where or what it is. Some mystical Jews believe that souls are immortal, but that they may occupy different bodies over history (a sort of Jewish reincarnation.) Some Jews believe that life is limited to this life, and this life only, that when we die, that’s it.
One thing that all forms of Judaism agree upon: there is no Hell such as that described by Christians or Muslims. Ideas about Heaven range from the rabbis’ vision of a heavenly Study Hall to some vaguely pleasant future existence.
The truth is, Judaism does not focus on the next life in the way that Christianity and Islam do. For Jews, this life is the immediate concern. The next life, if there is one, we leave in the hands of the Eternal. Our concern is this life.
Hearing this, sometimes Christians ask what incentive Jews have to be good, since we neither fear punishment in Hell nor look forward to a specific set of rewards in Heaven. What a Jew seeks is a meaningful life, and the way to give our lives meaning is to live this life as well as we can. A life of Torah is a life spent trying to make this world better. Jews differ on exactly the best way to go about doing that, but it is the thing that we all have in common.
So is mortality a bummer? Yes, in the sense that this life is full of good things that will come to an end when we die, and relationships which will be forever altered by that death. But mortality also gives us a sense of urgency about doing good in this world, and about giving our brief lives meaning. Death presses us to make the most of our lives.
You can get a sense of the vagueness of Jewish belief about afterlife in the prayer El Male Rachamim, God Full of Mercy, which is chanted at every Jewish funeral. Whether one takes the images as literal or as metaphor, they suggest that the end of life is a return to the Unity that is the Eternal God, but that the dead also find immortality in the hearts of the living.
God filled with mercy,
dwelling in the heavens’ heights,
bring proper rest
beneath the wings of your Presence,
amid the ranks of the holy and the pure,
illuminating like the brilliance of the skies
the souls of our beloved and our blameless
who went to their eternal place of rest.
May you who are the source of mercy
shelter them beneath your wings eternally,
and bind their souls among the living,
that they may rest in peace.
And let us say: Amen.