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What Happens When We Die?
Part Two of Two
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman ben Ya'akov © December 29, 2010 (last updated May 16, 2017)
What About Heaven?
Just as Hell is not a biblical concept neither is Heaven as conceived by the Nicene Church. There is no support in the Bible for humans turning into angels, playing harps while sitting on clouds and so on. There is no biblical support for the belief that the souls of humanity, righteous or otherwise, will ever leave the earth nor dwell in Heaven as conceived by the Church (one reference in John's Revelation to those who die at the very end of the age aside). Heaven is not our home. In the Olam Haba (i.e. "the world to come") we will still be living here on the good earth.
So, what did Jesus teach about the afterlife? We know the New Testament claims that his teachings were harmonious with the Torah (Matthew 5:18), when his teachings are correctly understood. Torah is our supreme source of authority as it apparently was his according to the four Gospels. As Jews we do not look to the New Testament for our teachings of course, however as discussed at the beginning of this study because the Christian ideas of the afterlife have made such a dramatic impact on the planet and even influenced Jewish thinking, it is to our benefit to understand their beliefs as well as Jesus' views on this topic. From Stern's Complete Jewish Bible:Matthew 22:23 That same day, some Tz'dukim ["Sadducees"] came to him. They are the ones who say there is no such thing as resurrection, so they put to him a sh'eilah ["doctrinal challenge"]:Accurate knowledge of the texts is our best safeguard against people who would put words in his mouth that he never taught (II Timothy 3:16). It is rare indeed to find a person who truly understands Yeshua's teachings!
24 "Rabbi, Moshe said [at Deuteronomy 25:5,6], 'If a man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow and have children to preserve the man's family line.'
25 There were seven brothers. The first one married and then died; and since he had no children, he left his widow to his brother.
26 The same thing happened to the second brother, and the third, and finally to all seven.
27 After them all, the woman died.
28 Now in the Resurrection -- of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all married her."
29 Yeshua answered them, "The reason you go astray is that you are ignorant both of the Tanach and of the power of G-d.
30 For in the Resurrection, neither men nor women will marry; rather, they will be like angels in heaven.
31 And as for whether the dead are resurrected, haven't you read what G-d said to you,
32 'I am the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitz'chak and the G-d of Ya'akov'? He is G-d not of the dead but of the living!"
According to the Gospel accounts Jesus (i.e. Yeshua) was a Parush (aka Pharisee aka a Rabbi) and he clearly believed in the resurrection of the dead, as do the rabbinim who are their spiritual heirs and our teachers. Jesus agreed with the other P'rushim on this and rejected the Sadducee contention that we only symbolically live on through our children but not continue on after this life. In the Olam Haba the dead will be restored to life according to Jesus and our rabbis. This is what is meant by the resurrection of the dead. Based on the New Testament's teachings, the Church changed Yeshua's teachings on many topics.
In order to understand what Yeshua taught about the afterlife let's first consider what the Rabbis believe:Traditional [i.e. normative Rabbinic] Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, it does not have much dogma about the afterlife beyond the conviction that there will be a resurrection. Their views leave a great deal of room for personal opinion and discovery. It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the Messiah, when they will be resurrected. (consider: JewFaq on this point).
The available evidence shows that first century Jews were divided on this issue of the resurrection however that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age (i.e. in the Olam Haba or world to come) with the possibility of some form of reincarnation. Gilgul ha'ne'shamot will be discussed below. The Sadducees rejected the continuance of life beyond the grave. Many Essenes and others believed in a largely undefined conception of reincarnation culminating in a resurrection in the Olam Haba, but again they stressed that this world is what matters. As Jesus explained the traditional Jewish view: "Let the dead bury for the dead" (Matthew 8:22), because HaShem is the G-d of the living (Matthew 22:38).
Heaven, as conceived by Pagans and Nicene Christians, was not accepted by any segment of Judaism in the first centuries CE nor before, even though some modern Jews have embraced a similar concept due to Hellenization (and Americanization) and a general lack of Torah knowledge. In some cases Jews refer to the Olam Haba as Heaven in order to be more easily understood. Some use the term to refer to the state of awaiting the resurrection but by it intend something quite different than the Church.
Sheol and Burial
Religious Jews generally agree that when people die they begin their afterlife in Sheol (the grave) where they peacefully await the resurrection or rebirth. While the KJV and other translations translate Sheol as "Hell" (for instance II Samuel 22:6) it merely means "the grave" as is usually evident from the context: The sorrows of hell (sheol) compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me... is the King James' translation of II Samuel 22:6.
Cremation is strongly discouraged by all segments of Judaism and has always been looked upon with horror by Jews, today even moreso in the wake of the Shoah. Strengthening this ancient belief is the fact that more than six million of our people were denied proper burial by the Nazis, most of them were cremated. G-d forbid any Jew would willingly suffer this degradation. The dead should be buried with all respect.
As the "temple of the soul" (I Corinthians 3:16) the body is viewed as sacred and deserving of respect by both Jews and Christians. Our physical forms are the mediums through which we serve HaShem and do goodness in this world (i.e. tikun olam). The body must therefore be treated with respect and dignity whether dead or alive. The Jewish dead are often cared for and prepared for burial by the local Chevra Kadisha or burial society. Serving in this capacity is regarded as as an especially blessed mitzvah. Garbage is burned, human bodies are returned to the ground from whence they were taken (Genesis 2:7; Ezekiel 37:4).
Belief in the resurrection of the dead is counted by Maimonides as the thirteenth of the Thirteen Principles of the Faith. There is no rabbinic authority who does not consider this to be a fundamental Jewish belief. According to the Mishnah one who denies this principle is to be considered a heretic.
In the KJV sheol is translated as grave 31 times, as hell 31 times and as pit 3 times. While some modern Jews do believe in a place similar to the Catholic notion of Purgatory -- for a time that never exceeds one year -- the word sheol means grave. When a person dies he/she goes to sheol, to the grave, to await what comes next. The Sadducees believed life ended there (Mark 12;18). The Rabbis knew that all souls are resurrected in the Olam Haba. A large percentage of Rabbis from all Jewish Movements accept the rolling of the souls or rebirth. The details of this are debated.
Gilgul ha'ne'shamot and Ibbur ha'ne'shamot
The Pharisees didn't speak much about the specifics of the afterlife nor did Jesus. They were/are far more focused on encouraging people to make wise decisions in this life, before we die. Jesus did shed light on the subject of first century Jewish understanding however. Like the other Pharisees, Jesus taught the resurrection of the dead, and like the other Pharisees, he doubtless accepted that reincarnation sometimes (at least) comes into play as the soul is rectified. While in the New Testament we have today there are no absolute statements to this effect, consider:John 9:1 As Yeshua passed along, he saw a man blind from birth.Note that Jesus accepted the possibility presented by his Jewish disciples that the man's blindness could have been the result of own sins (i.e. from his past life that he was "born" blind this time). In that case Jesus said that it wasn't that, or not only that, but from his words it is clear that it could have been in his estimation.
2 His talmidim asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned -- this man or his parents -- to cause him to be born blind?"
3 Yeshua answered, "His blindness is due neither to his sin nor to that of his parents; it happened so that G-d's power might be seen at work in him.
And again:Matthew 17:10 The talmidim asked him, "Then why do the Torah-teachers say that Eliyahu [i.e. Elijah] must come first?"Here Jesus directly states his belief that John the Baptizer was the reincarnation of Prophet Elijah. It is sometimes argued that this only means that John was "like" or in the "spirit" of Elijah in some way, however this is not what the text says and that's all we have to go on. As Jews reject Jesus one would be hard pressed to find any Jews who would agree with his assessment here, however, it is evidence that Yeshua accepted the truth of gilgul neshamot, rebirth.
11 He answered, "On the one hand, Eliyahu is coming and will restore all things;
12 on the other hand, I tell you that Eliyahu has come already, and people did not recognize him but did whatever they pleased to him. In the same way, the Son of Man too is about to suffer at their hands."
13 Then the talmidim understood that he was talking to them about Yochanan the Immerser.
Gathered To Their People
The Torah speaks of several noteworthy individuals being "gathered to their people." For example: Genesis 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17 (Ishmael), 35:29 (Isaac), 49:33 (Jacob), Deuteronomy 32:50 (Moses and Aaron) II Kings 22:20 (King Josiah). This phrase "gathered to their people" is an odd one that many believe refers to their being returned to the Jewish people in new bodies in order to further assist them or serve HaShem in some way.
This view has some merit since these "gatherings" are referred to as separate events from their physical deaths or burials. They died and then were gathered to their people. While there are no verses in the Bible that definitely say people are born again, the idea is not without biblical support. There are several possible references and in the Talmud and the writings of many of our sages the doctrine is accepted and clarified. Many Jews believe in reincarnation including many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Most Chassidic Jews firmly believe in rebirth, as do I based on my own experiences and studies.
But again, the specifics of the afterlife did not seem to hold much interest for Jesus or the other first century P'rushim. His interest was in what people did in the here and now with the time they have been granted. After our bodies die, Baruch HaShem! G-d will handle things. We can trust in Him. It is wise to prepare through Torah observance and active faith (emunah). The rabbis teach the merit one achieves in this life is compounded and attributed to our lives in the Olam Haba. In the World To Come advancement will be much slower and more difficult than it is now in the Olam Hazeh (the world as now it is). It is in the here and now that we have the opportunities to draw closer to HaShem.
Among those Jews who embrace the idea of reincarnation there are differing views about how it works. Reincarnation is known as gilgul ha'ne'shamot ("gilgul neshamot"), the cyclic rolling of souls (always human according to the majority of sages) from body to body. Gilgul translates as "cycle" and ne'shamot is the plural of nephesh or soul. The understanding being that souls "roll" from one body to the next until, in the End of Days. Then, all Jewish souls will "roll" back Home to Eretz Y'israel.
Some believe that all souls go through this "rolling" process and that through it most eventually come to embrace eternal life through faith in HaShem alone and obedience to His Torah (either the 613 laws for Jews or the 7 laws for non-Jews). Others view this process as an exception to the norm that sometimes occurs for specific reasons. Some of us believe that the Jews of today are the literally the same Jews who left Egypt, went to Sinai, and have lived throughout our history. We Jews keep being recycled until we merit redemption, either through the Mashiach ben David Mashiach ben Yosef in the World to Come.
Personally I believe this last point is the most likely. I believe we are the Jews of history and that the Torah is, for this reason, OUR history, OUR property alone. Torah is the property of Klal Y'israel, of our people collectively, because it tells our story. I also believe that all human souls experience many lifetimes on their way to redemption and that the vast majority eventually attain HaShem's mercy in the Olam Haba. Anything else seems unfair to me and HaShem is always just and merciful, within the limits of free will, which He established for our ultimate good.
According to some Jews, a soul is not a clearly defined entity but more like a spark of the Eternal One, blessed be He. Hence they believe that this rolling of souls refers to a transcendent consciousness or awareness rather than to a specific 'person' who reincarnates. In other words, Bob does not 'come back' as Sam, and yet this bestowed transcendent essence continues on generation after generation as a type of spiritual electricity. This view says that one may have some memory or sense of the past that is passed down through ones people (similar to the Sadducee concept of living on through ones descendents) but not as a reincarnated individual. Again, I side with with Pharisees on this point.
HaShem is inconceivable and yet allows us some limited insight into His Nature. The same is the case with the human soul in my opinion. We can not fully grasp who we actually are, but our essential individuality remains throughout eternity. In other words, Bob returns as Sam but Sam has little to no knowledge of being Bob. The essence of what Bob has realized, the mitzvot Bob performed, continues on as credits in the Divine Treasury. This is why some people are 'naturally moral and ethical' or 'naturally immoral and unethical' despite their upbringing. Our individual consciousness transcend the grave with or without conscious memory.
Those of us with clear memories of our past live, or segments from them, are often experientially convinced that we have lived before in ways that others find difficult to understand. We know, all doctrine aside, that we have lived before because of our memories and therefore we conclude that we will likely live again. We don't need the rabbis to validate this, but our experiences are harmonious with their teachings. This drives us to seek deeper understanding and wisdom.
Soul life does not begin with conception nor end with physical death.
For a retelling of my memories of the Shoah go here. Rather than make this life meaningless as some suppose, gilgul neshamot emphasizes just how incredibly precious and important all life is.
Famed rabbi and philosopher Saʻadiah ben Yosef (882-942 C.E.) discussed this idea in his Emunoth ve-Deoth (or Beliefs and Opinions). While defending the foundational Rabbinic teachings of the resurrection of the dead, he added the fact that some Jews believe in reincarnation as well:"Yet I must say that I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis, which is designated by them as the theory of the 'transmigration' of souls. What they mean thereby is that the spirit of Reuben is transferred to Simeon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah...."
To read a few interesting Jewish reincarnation stories visit this website. Everyone is born into different situations as determined by the "Heavenly Court." Those born into pious families are far more likely to come to G-d in that lifetime than those born of Atheists or the worshipers of false gods. Through the process of gilgul ha'ne'shamot everyone is granted full opportunity to undergo needed soul corrections and to achieve ultimate redemption. This understanding certainly fits well with the truth of G-d's love and justice in ways a single lifetime does not. It also is more harmonious than the Pagan notion of Heaven and Hell.
Ibbur ha'ne'shamot (the impregnation or incubation of souls) is a more specialized form of reincarnation in which a soul is sent from the 'celestial realms' to impregnate a woman in order to achieve some specific goal or task. This has happened several times according to the rabbis. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov shares many accounts of this including the following:A Brief Visit: Sometimes, a soul makes a brief visit to this earth. One story tells about the Arizal [Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi] who was the sandek, or Godfather, at a brit milah Immediately after the circumcision, the baby died. When the baby's friends and relatives wailed like wounded animals, the Arizal said, "why do you cry? You merited in hosting the soul of our master, Rebbe Joseph Karo" (a contemporary of the Arizal and author of the Shulchan Oruch, Code of Jewish Law)!
With his holy spirit, the Arizal saw that Rabbi Joseph Karo died and arrived at the gates of Heaven [i.e. to receive the verdict of the Heavenly Court]. Rabbi Joseph had fulfilled every one of HaShem's commandments with didactic precision, except for one -- circumcision. When he was born, he was jaundiced and therefore circumcised later than the prescribed age of eight days. His entire tikkun [soul correction] was to return to earth and be circumcised on the eighth day of his life; he had no further reason to remain on earth.
The Arizal knew every soul, its background, and its mission on earth. His testimony shows how our lack of even one small but critical detail makes HaShem's loving kindness seem like cruelty, Heaven forbid. Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, if one piece is missing, the entire picture seems flawed. Emuna - our unshakable belief and trust in HaShem -- fills in the missing pieces that our limited vision sometimes creates -- taken from: The Garden of Emuna by Rabbi Shalom Arush, page 45.
Ibbur ha'ne'shamot are always from a positive source whatever the reasons for their advents.
This term is also used to refer to temporary spirit possession or incubation (again always in a positive light) in which a righteous non-incarnate soul temporarily enters the body of a material being in order to perform some task or accomplish a needed mitzvot (good deed). Sometimes the host is aware of this other presence, sometimes not. There are many accounts of Prophet Elijah making such appearances.
The opposite of this second use is the dybbuk which is an evil and/or demonic possession of a person.
The Resurrection of the Dead
The resurrection of the dead in the Olam Haba ("World to Come") and reincarnation (preparing the neshamot or souls for the final Resurrection) were the common beliefs of most first century Jews (other than the Sadducees who were considered odd for not accepting them). From all evidence this is also what Jesus believed and taught his talmidim.
These are fundamental beliefs of traditional Rabbinic Judaism. These beliefs are not "set in stone" and differences in interpretation do exist. Likewise it is not necessary to accept reincarnation to be religiously Jewish, some Jews do not. Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is necessary however if one wishes to be considered religiously Jewish as defined by the sages of antiquity and the modern rabbinim. According to Rambam those who do not accept that the resurrection of the dead (as a concept) will one day take place should be considered heretics. Most Jews today would not go that far but most do accept that the resurrection will occur in the Olam Haba.
- Souls reincarnate until they achieve their needed soul corrections (or until time runs out for them and they are 'unmade.'
- Liberated souls (those who have achieved their needed soul corrections) "sleep" peacefully awaiting the resurrection.
- Some souls are called forth for specific tasks from time to time.
- There are eternally Jewish and non-Jewish souls: A Jew remains a Jew eternally regardless of observance levels. Real converts are and always were Jewish with the Jewish soul. A few authorities suggest converts are awarded a Jewish soul as he/she arises from the mikveh but this contradicts Rambam and other significant authorities. As a general statement, the belief is that the "convert" was already a Jew from a previous lifetime and born through a non-Jewish mother for some reason of his/her soul correction. As she/he arises from the mikveh this Jewish soul is simply returning to the tribe formally. Conversion to Judaism is not therefore technically a "conversion" in the sense of a non-Jew becoming a Jew. Those rabbis who say one can not convert to Judaism are often speaking of this understanding. Sadly by not explaining this to the seeker they create needless confusion. A Jew can always return to the tribe but a non-Jew can never enter it, because all Jews were present at Mount Sinai and personally accepted the Torah. Therefore what is called gerus or conversion is actually the coming Home of a wayward Jew, not conversion into the Covenant. Many Ger express precisely this point. The feel they have come Home.
- All Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai and accepted the Covenant there. Hence ALL Jews remain obligated to it throughout their many lifetimes.
- Jewish souls do not always incarnate in Jewish bodies.
- What matters is the here and now, much more than the after life.
These beliefs helped to differentiate the Pharisees (from whom Rabbinic Judaism arose) and the Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the concept because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah (although it is strongly implied at places like Ezekiel 37). The Pharisees found the concept strongly implied in certain Bible verses and taught directly in portions of the Oral Torah (which the Sadducees did not accept). What neither sect believed in was the existence of Heaven and Hell as taught by the Pagans and later Nicean Christians.
The second blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, which is recited three times daily by religious Jews, contains several references to the resurrection.
The resurrection of the dead will occur in the Olam Haba or the World to Come once Messiah is here and ruling.
The doctrines of gilgul ha'ne'shamot and ibbur ha'ne'shamot explain how HaShem is even now liberating the world one soul at a time. Unlike the dogmas of Heaven and Hell this system is both just and merciful. It honors our free will and inspires the faith that eventually humans will realize the truth of Torah and the goodness of HaShem. There is Light at the end of the tunnel.
There is of course "Heaven." It is the Abode of HaShem (the Named), the location of the Heavenly Temple upon which the Earthly Temple is based and the abode of the celestial beings. The heavens are glorious beyond our conception according to both the Bible and the rabbis. The authors of the Bible describe this abode in human terms so that we can somewhat conceive it, but it is far more glorious than that. The Abode of the Ain Soph, the Eternal One Who is No-Thing, exists beyond the heavens and encapsulate all of existence.
The Book of Job describes how Lucifer enters once a year into the Throne Room of HaShem, Who is "seated on a Great Throne." We must understand the allegorical nature of all such descriptions. HaShem has no Form and hence no Throne in the terrestrial sense. Some things should be taken literally, others figuratively. HaShem for instance has no body and does not literally sit on a throne giving audience to His creatures. His existence is utterly transcendent.
The Earth is our eternal home. Here we physically live and die and await the resurrection (regardless of possible intervening details like rebirth). In the messianic world of come, by the will and mercy of HaShem alone, we will resurrect onto this earth. We are called to be the caretakers of the earth. That is our primary service to HaShem: To care for the earth, the animals, the plants, the environment and each other in love and mercy as He cares for us. This is what matters. If we do our jobs properly we can rest assured that HaShem will do His. One who lives to serve HaShem has nothing to fear from death.
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