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Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife

Many scholars take the position that no book of the Hebrew Bible, with the possible exception of the late second century BCE Daniel 12:2-3, speaks about life after death.

reviewed by Israel Drazin, The Jewish Eye

Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife - by Leila Leah Bronner

Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife
by Leila Leah Bronner

Many scholars take the position that no book of the Hebrew Bible, with the possible exception of the late second century BCE Daniel 12:2-3, speaks about life after death, and are convinced that the various ideas about the after-life were taken from pagan notions. Daniel states that "those who sleep in the dust will awake." This may refer to the people as a whole who will be able to defeat their Syrian Greek oppressors and be a free nation again. Be this as it may, the second century BCE was the first time that this concept entered Judaism as a view of the Pharisees, and it was strongly objected to by the more conservative Sadducees.

Dr. Bronner, a professor at several prominent universities, takes an opposite view. She sees frequent references to an afterlife in the early biblical books, including the Five Books of Moses, and she details, with full quotes, what these sources say. She describes the growth of these beliefs in post-biblical discussions about life after death, the world to come, heaven, hell, judgment, resurrection, and reincarnation. She introduces readers to books such as the apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha. She discusses the views of rabbis, philosophers, and mystics.

She feels that the Torah is speaking about an afterlife when it mentions "Sheol" some sixty five times and when it uses synonyms like "the pit" and "the hidden place," although others define these terms as the grave. She sees phrases like "gathered to one’s people" and "sleeping with his fathers" as a "belief in some kind of existence after death," while others read them as beautiful metaphors for "he died." She also reads the belief in life after death in six verbs, depending, of course, on the context: awaken, arise, take, stand up, return, and live.

Everyone agrees that the afterlife is explicitly mentioned in the post-biblical books, written after 200 BCE, although different books offer different ideas. Dr. Bronner cites these opinions and the history of the times that prompted them, the hope that Jews would no longer be oppressed. She compares the Jewish versions to the Greek from where they were taken, especially the concept that only good people will have an afterlife; the Greeks gave it to everyone. She also discusses the afterlife as it appears in the Mishnah and Talmuds, infrequently. Remarkably, contrary to the belief held by most very Orthodox Jews, the Talmud does not say that a person should spend his day studying Torah and that he would be awarded for the study with the afterlife. It says instead that Torah should lead to proper behavior, and it is the proper behavior that assures an afterlife.

Many people think that the most unusual idea about the afterlife is the notion of reincarnation, also called "transmigration of souls," "metempsychosis," and gilgul, a Hebrew term meaning "circularity," the belief that when people die, their souls are transferred to another person, animal, vegetation, or even a rock. Reincarnation did not appear in Judaism until it was mentioned in the mystical book Sefer ha-Bahir, which scholars date to the twelfth century. It is a mystical notion, alien to rational Judaism. Nachmanides the mystic (1194-1270) liked the idea. It later became widely accepted and was expanded in the late thirteenth century mystical book Zohar. In the Zohar, reincarnation is sometimes a punishment, but it is also a process whose goal is purification.

People who do not behave properly live again after their death and are given another chance. Some believed that people were only given three chances. If they continued to fail, they were sent to hell. Others thought that more than three chances were given. Some mystics, such as the sixteenth century Isaac Luria, were convinced that multiple souls can inhabit a person because family members want to stick together. Many Jews, who do not realize the late appearance of the idea of reincarnation into Judaism and that it is mystical and not rational, incorrectly think that this is a basic Jewish teaching.

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