Voices of Faith: What is the afterlife like in Judaism?

Rabbi Herbert Mandl, emeritus, Kehilath Israel: Most religions have a belief in some kind of an afterlife. Judaism is not any different. In the traditional wings of Judaism is a firm belief that death is not the end of human existence.

Nevertheless, we concentrate more on this world than on the afterlife.

Many scholars believe that the afterlife or olam ha-ba is a teaching that developed much later in Jewish history. The Pentateuch or Torah emphasized immediate physical rewards or punishments in this world rather than an abstract concept to come.

Yet a belief in existence after death is clearly in the Bible; its later portions, such as the prophets or holy writings, speak more clearly of life after death and the world to come.

In the Mishnah, which is a compendium of rabbinic writings from the first several centuries, one rabbi states, “This world is like a lobby before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so you may be invited in the main hall.”

One interesting concept is the place the non-Jewish have in the world to come. The righteous of all nations, whether Christian, Muslim or any other faith, have such a share. As a matter of fact, it is easier for them than for a Jew.

Judaism requires seven basic humanitarian laws for all non-Jews to observe. They are very rudimentary in nature such as not killing, not stealing, etc.

Jews, on the other hand, have many commandments to fulfill and many more requirements to get an acceptance at least on a higher level to the “world to come.”

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, founding rabbi, Beth Torah: Every religious Jewish movement for the last 2,000 years has asserted an afterlife. There are two Jewish afterlife concepts: olam ha-ba, or heaven, to be accessed at death of the body; and Yemot Hamashiach, the Days of the Messiah, when God will send biblical King David’s descendant to rule the world.

In 12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ 13 articles of faith, the final two are the coming of the messiah and the simultaneous resurrection of the dead.

Isaiah 11:1-9 and 2:1-4 establish the conditions for messianic sovereignty. Jews believe the messiah is yet to appear, although most recently there are some who believe the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, a Lubavitcher rebbe, to be God’s chosen.

The messianic rule will be a time in which everyone will come to know the truth about God. The messiah will reign from Jerusalem and bring peace to the world.

The Reform Movement, in which I am ordained, denies that God will send a messiah and asserts that our task is to build a messianic era, when all people will live in peace. The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1999 Platform states, “Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age.”

Reform Judaism affirms an afterlife, the ethical ideal, and that our acts of kindness outlive our bodies.

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