Do Jews Believe in Heaven? – An overview of fundamental Jewish beliefs concerning reward and the afterlife –

Posted By on August 24, 2020

Jewish Belief and Heaven

Yes, Jews believe in an afterlife in a world beyond the one youre currently living insometimes referred to as heaven. A rich tradition informs us that there is a sequel to this life that makes sense of everything youre going through in this installment.

Jews call this after-life Olam Ha-ba (World to Come) and Gan Eden (Garden of Eden).

Belief in an afterlife is core to Judaism. Its a foundation stone without which the entire structure would collapse.

It begins with the belief that within the human being resides a spark of the divine. In Hebrew, thats called a neshamah. Neshamah literally means breath. Think of it as Gd breathing within the human body, as in the scene where Gd formed Adam out of the earth and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.

Just as Gd is forever, so too the neshamah isJust as Gd is forever, so too the neshamah is forever. forever.

Your neshamah lived a heavenly life before it entered a body on this earth, and it will live an even higher one afterward. For the neshamah, life in this body is but a corridor on the way to a yet higher place.

So, no, the neshamah doesnt decay or decompose with the body in the grave. It is released to rise up to greater heights than it could have ever attained before its descentbecause, while here in this world, it achieved something a neshamah cannot achieve without a body. It transformed the physical into spiritual, ugliness into beauty, the mundane into the divine. For that, it deserves a place higher than the angels. And even more.

Thats why we say kaddish for parents after their passingto assist them on their journey to that lofty peak.

Thats also why we are so concerned with the details of burialbecause the souls journey is deeply bound to its connection with the body to which it gave life. With this body, the soul performed acts of kindness. With this body, the soul delighted on the Shabbat. It was this body that the soul held back from non-kosher foods. This body prayed, studied, brought children into the world and raised them. From the sweat and toil of this body, the soul earned funds to distribute to those in need.

And thats why everything we do in this lifetime matters so much, because all the good you do in the here-and-now has meaning for eternity.

On the other hand, Judaism is not about Do this and you get a ticket to heaven. The Mishnah tells us that we shouldnt be as servants who serve their Judaism is not about Do this and you get a ticket to heaven.master so that they will receive a reward.

Its more like Heres the program. If we all work on this together, look at what we can achieve.

Well explain that program and that achievement below. First, some support for all we just said.

The Mishnah is the original and most authoritative collection of Jewish law, redacted in the Roman Era. It states explicitly, Every Jew has a share in the World To Come.

Maimonides is considered the great codifier of Judaism. He distilled thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Two of those are directly connected to belief in reward in an afterlife: The belief in reward for the righteous and punishment for the wickedwhich quite obviously does not happen in this lifetimeand the belief in the revival of the dead in a time to come.

Is it possible to keep all the other precepts of Judaism without expecting any sign of appreciation when done? Maimonides is saying that you would be missing something crucial and essential. And only the most naive could argue that all good people receive their reward in this world.

But aside from that, it may also be very difficult. Thats why, when someone converts and accepts all the responsibilities that come with being a Jew, as part of the acceptance ceremony, the tribunal court must inform him or her that through the fulfillment of these mitzvahs you will merit to the World To Come.

Despite all this, Maimonides himself writes that the proper way to perform the mitzvahs of Judaism is to be like the first Jew, Abraham, who did the truth because it was the truth.

So, no, its not very Jewish to do Gds will because its a ticket to heaven. We do His mitzvahs because of the covenant the Jewish people have with Gd and because its the right thing to do. Yet, nevertheless, we do it all with utter confidence that it will pay off in the end.

How exactly it pays off is the subject of this article.

Now lets go through this step by step.

Jews call the collection of sacred Hebrew works from Moses to Ezra Tanach. Tanach certainly does not comprise the totality of Judaism, but it does provide the roots and origins of everything Judaism contains.

Reading through Tanach, you wont find much about heaven. But you will repeatedly get the sense that theres an elephant in the room. Reading through Tanach, you get the sense theres an elephant in the room.More than an elephanttheres an entire world in the background that no one wants to discuss.

First, were told about a very early ancestor called Enoch. Enoch, were told, walked with Gd, and was gone, for Gd had taken him.

Where did he go?

Shush. Gone.

Later in the story, Gd tells Abraham:

As for you, You shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age.

Hold on: Abraham had left his fathers house in Haran many years before, to the land Gd had promised himthe Land of Canaan. How is he expected to go to his fathers?

Indeed, we find later, as he is buried in Canaan:

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.

What and where is this place where families gather after being buried?

Not a word.

Securing the right burial plot takes high priority in several Biblical stories, beginning with Abraham, who shelled out a huge sum of money to secure a specific cave for the burial of his wife, Sarah. Later, he himself was buried there, as was his son, Isaac, as was Isaacs wife, Rebecca.

Jacob buried his first wife, Leah, in the same cave. In his last days, while in Egypt, he called his son and insisted that his body be buried in that same cave.

The story repeats itself when Jacobs son, Joseph, insists that his bones also be carried to the Promised Land when the Children of Israel will eventually leave Egypt.

There are immense difficulties involved in both these operations, of which Jacob and Joseph are well aware. What happens after death that renders the place of burial so crucial?

Dont bother looking in the text. No answer there.

Then comes the story of Saul conjuring up Samuels spirit, well after Samuels passing. Exactly where Samuels spirit has been all this timeno account.

The same with the prophet Elijah. Malachi prophesies that Elijah will return in the future as the harbinger of the messianic era. Return from where? Yes, he went up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Whats up there?

Obviously, theres a whole other life beyond this lifetime, but, for some reason, its not part of the story. Why not?

You might say theres no anomaly here. Some of the most central institutions of Judaism are mentioned even more casually.

For example, the Shabbat day of rest. The Torah simply says, Keep the Shabbat day to make it holy. Why? Because Gd rested on the seventh day. Apparently, theres no need to explain what you have to do on Shabbat to keep it holy or what exactly defines rest.

The same occurs with the laws of kosher slaughter, the formalities of marriage, communal prayer, Tefillin, and other central institutions. The Torah takes knowledge of these things for granted and says only what is necessarywhich, apparently, is very little.

But then, those are practices that were part of peoples daily lives. Their intimate familiarity rendered a written explanation superfluous.

Life after death, on the other hand, demands an explanation. If theres nothing to look forward to, what incentive do we have for all our labor in this life? And if there is a great reward in this mysterious other world, why not tell us about it so well work even harder to get it? Why the reticence?

There is a reward Tanach speaks of explicitly and repeatedly. Its not a personal, but a collective reward. When it comes to the ultimate heaven of Tanach, no one gets in until all When it comes to the ultimate heaven, no one gets in until all of us get in.of us get in.

Indeed, if theres one overarching, repetitive motif throughout Tanach that stands out above all others, it is this: The promise to the Jewish people of eternal life upon a precious land, as the days of heaven upon the earth.

The tension is set from the very beginning, when Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden.

The covenant Gd made to Abraham to grant his children the Land of Canaan rings with an unmistakable hint of resolution to that original proto-human exile. Indeed, when Gd informs Abraham that before receiving this land, his children will first suffer oppression in a land that does not belong to them, the Kabbalists explain that this exile into slavery in Egypt was meant to be the final repair to the Garden of Eden affair.

Unfortunately, the entire rescue operation from Egypt ran haywire, and the conquest of Canaan was never completed. Abraham was promised an area from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates. The actual conquest at its height never came close to that.

Eventually, another exile ensued. And then another return. And then yet another exile. Currently, we are in exile. Resolution has yet to arrive.

Indeed, the storyline demanded resolution much earlier.

Moses led the people out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. The next generation made it there, but Moses was told by Gd that he could not enter. Instead, he was buried on Mt. Nebo, from where he has a view of the land.

Now the question is not only on the burial spot but also on the fairness overall. The man who took the people out of Egypt is denied the privilege of entering the Promised Land?

And while were asking about Moses, how about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The Promised Land, after all, was originally promised to them for their good deeds and faithfulness. Is it possible that the children should inherit their ancestors promise and the ancestors have no portion of their own?

From all this, it becomes apparent that the final, grand cadence, the culminating achievement, and reward for the labor of keeping a heavenly covenant upon this earth is not life as a soul in some blissful realm beyond our own. Thats only a pleasant vacation spot between the real business here on earth.

The ultimate goal is that we will recreate Were not in the business of getting to heaven. Were in the business of bringing heaven down to earth.the Garden of Eden here in this world, that heaven will be upon this earth. That is the reward due to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Mosesindeed, all those who had a part in this achievement, as well get to soon.

That being so, its clear why we dont find much about heaven in Tanach: Because we've been looking in the wrong direction. The real heaven is not what happens in a supernal realm after death. To discuss that would be a diversion and distraction from the real theme. The real heaven is what happens down here as the fruit of our collective labor of millennia.

Were not in the business of getting to heaven. Were in the business of bringing heaven down to earth.

Eventually, there came a time when little could be taken for granted anymore and everything had to be set down in writing.

The Mishnah is the original and most authoritative collection of Jewish law, redacted in the Roman Era. Talmud is an elaboration of the Mishnah. Both were composed at a time when Jews were already dispersed throughout two massive, warring empires and Jewish received wisdom was at a clear risk of being entirely forgotten.

So within these extensive and authoritative works, youll find an occasional discussion of gradations of heavens, the afterlife, and the World To Comeeven accounts of those who entered heaven and returnedjust as you will find discussions of all those other institutions taken for granted in Tanach.

The Zohar, a work contemporary to the Mishnah which deals with the spiritual side of Jewish practice, provides yet more detail. The Zohar, however, remained a hidden work for over a thousand years.

There are many more classic Jewish works since the Roman era up until the present that discuss heaven and life afterlife in much detail.

As mentioned above, Jews generally dont talk of heaven. Instead, Jews talk about Gan Eden (the garden of Eden)as in Mom is glad to be back with Dad in Gan Eden.

Jews also speak about Olam Ha-ba (the World To Come)as in You could lose your place in Olam Ha-ba for saying things like that about people.

To complicate matters, the two terms Think of Gan Eden as a kind of retirement home to hold the souls until the ultimate reward can be attained.are sometimes used to refer to the same place. In their most defined sense, however, they refer to two distinct eras of history.

Gan Eden, as mentioned above, was the original residence of humankind. In truth, it remains just that. Ever since we were banished from there, Gan Eden serves as an interim heaven after (or between) terms of corporeal life. Think of it as a kind of retirement home to hold the souls until the ultimate reward can be attained.

Olam Ha-ba is the final and eternal phase of this world we are in right now, once it is repaired and perfected through our efforts. At that point, all souls that were involved in this process will return an earthly existence to experience the fruits of their labor.

An interim phase, here on earth, is Yemot Ha-Moshiach the Days of Moshiach. To discuss heaven, its necessary to discuss the Era of Moshiach as well.

So lets go through that progression of history as mapped out in classic Jewish literature, step by step:

1. Our current worldhere and now as of this writing.

2. Gan Edenalso now, but not within our material dimension.

3. The Era of Moshiachhere, but not now.

4. Resurrection of the deadat the final stage of the messianic era.

5. Olam Ha-Bapost-resurrection of the dead.

Gan Eden, as we said, coincides with the current phase of our realitya world in a state of becoming. These are workdaysworking towards a world in its ultimate state of being.

You can think of Gan Eden as the natural consequence of death for a dedicated worker.

Lets say a soul was heavily engaged in good deeds and Torah study in this lifetime. Problem is, in this lifetime, its simply not possible to experience the great pleasure that those deeds and wisdom brought to the universe and its Maker from within a physical body.

But once that soul departs from its corporeal shell (i.e. death), it naturally rises to Gan Eden, a reality in which it can bask in the rays of the Shechinah, a spiritual realm where that light can be perceived and enjoyed without the hindrance and limitation of a physical body.

If you have a hard time imagining pleasure without a body, think of the many spiritual pleasures you have even in this lifetime. Music, art, and fine literature all lift you somewhat from the mundane into a less physical form of enjoyment. Then theres the pleasure of a delightful nugget of wisdom. Or the spiritual delight that comes from helping out another living being.

Those are spiritual pleasures we can experience even from within the bounds of this crustacean shell. Without Without a physical body, delight becomes unimaginably intense.a physical body, delight becomes unimaginably intense.

So intense, were told, that without the right outfitting, our souls would dissolve in the lightsomething like an astronaut requires an outfit to enter into cosmic space without being zapped by the cosmic rays. This delight is, after all, not simply a spiritual delight, but the unbounded delight of the Infinite Creator Himself.

Whats the material of that outfit? Those mitzvahs that you did while you had a body. The Zohar calls mitzvahs clothing, because for each mitzvah that you do in this lifetime, your soul receives another layer of protection allowing it to journey deeper and yet deeper into the light without evaporating into cosmic plasma.

Do the souls in Gan Eden have any connection with us who remain in physical bodies?

Yes. The Zohar states that If it were not for the intervention of those souls that have already left us, our world would not endure for a moment.

As well, under certain circumstances, a soul may come to visit a living person from its place in Gan Edenalthough leaving its spiritual heaven for this dark, physical space makes a very painful and difficult visit. Elijah, the prophet, is one who glides back and forth between this realm and Gan Eden.

Gan Eden is not the static, stillness of heaven some imagine, either. Souls rise each year on the day of their passing to yet a higher heaven, to attain yet higher divine consciousness and pleasure. The study, prayer, and charitable deeds of those they have left behind on this earth can assist them in this journey ever higher.

The students of the wise have no rest, states the Talmud, not in this world, and not in the World To Come.

As good as it gets, Gan Eden can never provide the ultimate reward. Thats why the heavenly, spiritual pleasure of Gan Eden is compared to light. Light is always about something elsethe object thats reflecting it, or the luminary thats generating it. Light is never the thing itself.

But when a soul within a body helped out another human being, kept Shabbat, wrapped tefillin, or did some other mitzvah, both the soul and the body made a direct and atemporal connection with the very essence of Gd Himselfnot just His light or emanations. For the universe to be fair and balanced, at some point both body and soul will have to attain a tangible experience of the connection for which they were responsible.

Only that such an experience cant arrive until all souls have collectively completed their mission down here in living bodies, clearing away the coarseness that prevents feeling that experience.

This is what history is all abouta process of gradual refinement, removing the bad and embracing the precious good until the world can be the way it was meant to be from the start. Its a process called tikun, as in the term, Tikun Olam.

The program for refining this world is called Torah and mitzvahs. The more mitzvahs we do, the more refined this world becomes.

As with any refinement, the work intensifies as the process unfolds, as the roughest, toughest impurities are removed and the deepest beauty of the end product is revealed. The souls involved in the process may sometimes be pulled down into the dross, schlepping much of the good that was achieved with them and causing major setbacks.

But eventually, every soul will return, carrying with it all the good that was lost, lifting it all to yet a higher level than would have been achieved without that failure.

As things improve, the dark, the evil, and the ugly often appear to become yet more dominant. Thats only because the labor of tikun has successfully reached into the deepest recesses of darkness den, where the most demanding work awaits us. In order to draw out the inner powers of the soul that this labor requires, the darkness challenges the soul with its full repertoire of devices.

Until at some undisclosed pointthat At some undisclosed pointthat by all indications is exceedingly imminentthe final polishing of the end-product will be all indications is exceedingly imminentthe final polishing of the end-product will be done, the curtains lifted, and history will enter the Days of Moshiach.

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Do Jews Believe in Heaven? - An overview of fundamental Jewish beliefs concerning reward and the afterlife -

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