Do Jews believe in life-after-death?

By Cantor Don Croll
Parashat Ha’azinu

At this end of this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, G-d tells Moses to “ascend Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land” before he dies; Moses will then be “gathered to his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:50)

One of the classic questions asked regarding Judaism’s beliefs in life-after-death is: “Where is life-after-death found in the Torah?”

This verse is one of the most famous references to the possibility of our belief in the afterlife.

Another Biblical inference of life-after-death is found in the story of Saul visiting the witch of Endor in I Samuel. King Saul sees the Philistines gathering for battle. He is afraid of the battle’s outcome. He needs to consult with Samuel, who had died. He goes to the witch of Endor and asks her to “bring up” Samuel, which she does. The first words out of Samuel’s mouth are “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” (From where was Samuel brought up?) Saul asks his question and Samuel replies, “G-d will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hand of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me.” Of course the question to ask is: Where is Samuel coming from?

Other references of a notion of resurrection appears in two late biblical sources, Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25-26.

Daniel 12:2 — “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence” — implies that resurrection will be followed by a day of judgment. Those judged favorably will live forever and those judged to be wicked will be punished.

Isaiah 26:19 —Oh let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust — for Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the Shades come to life!

The idea of heaven and hell may be the most ambiguous of all Jewish afterlife ideas. References to Gehinnom as a fiery place of judgment can be found in the Talmud, which claims that Gehinnom is 60 times hotter than earthly fire (Berakhot 57b). The myth of Hell started out as the burning garbage dump “Gehenna,” near Jerusalem. 

The earliest reference to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) — aka Heaven — and Gehinnomaka Hell — as a pair is probably the rabbinic statement of the first-century sage Yochanan ben Zakkai: “There are two paths before me, one leading to Gan Eden and the other to Gehinnom” (Berakhot 28b).

Then there is Sheol. There are several biblical references to a place called Sheol (Numbers 30, 33). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence.

There are some references of life-after-death and resurrection that can be found in our prayerbooks.

In the G’vurot section (second blessing) of the Amidah (standing prayer) is the text, “Atah gibor l’-o-lam Ado-shem, m’-cha-yei mei-tim atah, rav l’-hoshi-ah,” “You are Mighty forever, my Master, You are the resurrector of the dead.” I’ll never forget that when visiting my father’s grave with my mother, of blessed memory, I looked around at all the tombstones and remarked, “Where is G-d going to put us all at the time of the resurrection?” I was amazed with her rabbinic answer: “Who are we to question how G-d will do?”

By the way, in the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, one has a choice to either recite m’-cha-yei mei-tim, You are the resurrector of the dead, or m’-cha-yei ha-kol, You give life to all.

Though some Jewish scholars have tried to clarify these ideas, it would be impossible to reconcile all the Jewish texts and sources that discuss the afterlife.

The absence of the discussion of a life-after-death does not prove that the Torah and ancient Jews did not accept the concept. The Torah, unlike the contemporary Egyptian culture, stressed, as it should, that the focus of people should be on the betterment of life, one’s own life and society, not death.

Cantor Don Croll is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El Binah.

Leave a Reply