Appendix A: The Jewish Afterlife

In patriarchal and Mosaic times, the Bible said nothing about the fate of individuals after death, but only about the collectivity; the story concerned the redemption of the Israelite nation at some future time when God will save the world. There was no notion of an individual relationship with God, though there were biblical references to necromancers who could commune with ghosts and there was a custom of feeding the dead through openings in the graves. The soul of each dying person joined his ancestors in the family tomb. Their future was a joint destiny.

From the twelfth century BCE, there were fuller descriptions of the afterlife journey of the soul in Sheol. This was a gloomy underground realm much like the Greek Hades, where the customs of life on earth were reproduced. Originally, Sheol was not hell or a place of punishment; good and bad souls alike went there for eternity.[1]

During the sixth century BCE the Jewish people were suffering, just as were other Axial Age people in Greece and India, and they too were searching for a religious explanation for their misery. Already, Assyria had vanquished the northern kingdom of Israel, and now Babylon crushed Judah, so that many of "Jerusalem"'s prominent people were in exile. The prophets' response to this suffering was to ethicize the afterlife -- just as Indians ethicized reincarnation. At first (as in Isaiah 14:9) this meant that henceforth the Israelites' enemies would be punished collectively by being sent to Sheol. But then, Jeremiah abandoned this type of judgment, announcing that now each individual would stand in a direct relationship to God and be judged for his or her own sins or accrued merit, rather than collectively. Only wicked individuals would die and be sent to Sheol as punishment. However, in neither Jeremiah nor his contemporary Ezekiel is there any indication that the righteous could expect a life beyond the grave, though they could expect rewards in this earthly sphere.[2]

As we have seen in the case of Job, who lived during approximately that period, such promises of good fortune were not always fulfilled. Job, a righteous, God-abiding man, encountered the worst possible calamities and challenged God to explain the obvious injustice imposed on him -- a question that crystallizes the theological conundrum known today as the problem of theodicy, the justification of God's ways to humankind. With the Book of Ezekiel, also in the sixth century BCE, individual moral retribution is specified explicitly.[3] As individuals, even Israelites may be punished.

During the final centuries of the biblical era (which ended in about 200 BCE) Sheol changed once again -- this time becoming a temporary place for the righteous to rest and await the eventual kingdom of God. This involved a new doctrine: resurrection. After waiting indefinitely in Sheol, the righteous would eventually be resurrected from the dead to participate in the redemption of the Israelite nation and the new social order that God would bring. This religious doctrine, which was influenced by Zoroastrianism, paved the way for the idea of heaven and hell that would appear in later Judaism.

In 70CE "Jerusalem" was destroyed, along with the Temple, the centre of Jewish religious life, this time by Romans. Now it became necessary to find new ways of maintaining Judaism. The spiritual leaders of the time, the rabbis, transformed religious life by emphasizing prayer and the study of the Torah. They developed a body of literature called the Midrash, which tended to be mythic in style and often dealt with the fate of the soul after death. There were references to "the World to Come," an obscure realm that somehow is completely different from this physical world. Evidently it refers to a resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

Later, the medieval Midrash discussed the experiences of the soul immediately after death, and described the tortures of Gehenna, the realm of punishment, and the pleasures of Gan Eden, the heavenly Garden of Eden.

Most modern Jews are astonished to learn that the doctrine of reincarnation plays a part in their theology. Mystical teachings had always been part of Judaism, but did not become historically significant until the twelfth century CE, when the Kabbalah movement introduced a new mythos that, for the first time, included gilgul, the doctrine of reincarnation.[4] Most rebirths were believed to take place within the deceased person's family. The Kabbalists also kept the older belief in the resurrection of the dead, while adding a spiritual dimension to it. The concept of divine retribution was retained, but the notion of the Jewish afterlife acquired psychological dimensions that included descriptions of near-death experiences.

Today, all sects of Hasidic Jews accept the notion of reincarnation, as also do numerous groups in the Jewish renewal movement.[5]

While in previous periods the Kabbalists were a minor movement within Judaism, there is an upsurge of interest in their teachings today, especially among the educated Jews who become, like Joel, preoccupied with the spiritual questions of our supposedly new "Axial Age." The exploration of Jewish eschatology was not, however, the path that Joel would follow in his quest for meaning. Instead, he was more influenced by Chris.


[1] I draw throughout this section on Simcha Paull Raphael, op. cit. See especially pp. 19-20.
[2] Raphael, pp. 62-3.
[3] Ezekiel 18:20.
[4] Raphael, pp. 314-20.
[5] Prominent Rabbis who believe in reincarnation have included (today) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Talmudic scholar, and (in the past) Reb Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt (an ancestor of a rabbi by the same name of our generation), who was said to be able to remember all his previous incarnations. When reading aloud the liturgy about the High Priest of the "Jerusalem" Temple, he would say, "Thus did I say," not, "Thus did he say." (See Raphael, pp. 327, 354 and Rabbi Yonassan Gershom's web site