Judaism and the Afterlife Jewish Beliefs Term Paper

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Judaism and the Afterlife

Jewish Beliefs in the Afterlife

The belief in an afterlife is an almost universal concept, with most major religions around the world providing dogmatic support. Although the fine points vary from religion to religion, the concept of an afterlife is fairly straightforward and suggests that the human spirit endures in some form after death, with some believing that this spirit is reincarnated in the physical worldly plane while others hold that the spirit is destined for the spiritual plane. While there is no single Jewish tradition concerning the afterlife, a review of the various Jewish traditions concerning the possibility and nature of immortality can provide some useful insights in identifying salient aspects of Jewish beliefs in the afterlife. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning Jewish beliefs in the afterlife and the general issues of immortality and the resurrection of the good in "the world to come," and the specific Pharisees' notions about a future resurrection of the good, followed by a summary of the research and findings in the conclusion.

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Background and Overview. Throughout history, people have been desperately searching for an alternative to death, with some researchers turning to pseudo-sciences such as alchemy in their quest for a Philosopher's Stone that would grant them immortality. Others have looked for immortality in the Fountain of Young or magic potions, while still others have sought such reassurances through their respective religions. In this regard, Burland (1970) reports, "No one escapes death, and yet from the beginning men have hoped and believed in a world beyond death" (3). Not surprisingly, this quest for immorality remains the focus of an enormous amount of investigation today. According to Surette (1994), "The subject of death and the afterlife is far from unusual or rare" (205). Indeed, a review of the major religions of the world shows that virtually all of them contain some reference to an afterlife, and these references are truly ancient, predating even the Egyptians' and Sumerians' elaborate concepts of an afterlife. In fact, the practice of mummification indicates a belief in the afterlife which goes back to the beginnings of human history and is suggested by Neanderthal burials more than 50,000 years ago (Burland 3). According to this author, the concept and debate over what happens to people after they die is just as important as ever because for many people, death is truly a terrifying concept: "It is scarcely possible to live for very long without acquiring an interest, however reluctant, in the question of life after death. And each of our minds has its shadow side, where old terrors mingle with old truths" (Burland 2).

Today, the Judeo-Christian dogma is replete with references to and variations on the theme of an afterlife. As Nadler points out, though, there is no such thing as a single "Jewish tradition" concerning the afterlife, rather, "At best, there is a variety of Jewish traditions concerning the possibility and nature of immortality" (43). According to this author, "Among the apocalyptic works in Jewish literature perhaps none offers as rich and evocative a picture of the afterlife as the collection known as the Enoch texts, especially 1 Enoch. This pseudepigraphic work, probably composed around the third century BCE, tells the story of Enoch's spiritual wanderings in the worlds of Sheol or Gehinnom, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, heaven or paradise" (Nadler 50). As Grabbe (2000) points out, "The book [of Enoch] is one of the first Jewish writings to exhibit the concept of a soul that survives death" (41). Grabbe also reports that there is information on the concept of death and the afterlife contained in the Apocalypse of Moses in various passages, including the ascent of the soul to paradise (Ap. Mos. 37:5; 40:1-2) and the resurrection of all who have died (Ap. Mos. 13:3-5) (96).

The concept of the afterlife described in Enoch is a highly structured system of either punishment or reward, with God being the final authority on who deserves what. For instance, Nadler notes that, in Enoch, the point is made that, "God will 'execute judgment upon all', he learns: for the righteous or elect, there will be salvation; for the wicked sinners, eternal destruction" (Nadler 50). From Enoch's perspective, everyone it would seem is destined for an afterlife, but the wicked have much to fear while the righteous are going to "have the time of their lives." In either case, Enoch clearly states that on judgment day, everyone will be resurrected and reunited with their souls: "The earth shall give back that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol also shall give back that which it has received. And hell shall give back that which it owes.' The souls of the righteous are, at the time of judgment, rewarded with passage to the 'dwelling places of the holy,' where 'righteousness flows as water, and mercy like dew upon the earth. Thus it is among them for ever and ever' (1 Enoch 39: 5)" (quoted in Nadler at 50).

The reward for the righteous, from the picture of the afterlife painted by Enoch, is "a garden of life" (Enoch 61:12) (quoted in Nadler at 50-51). By sharp contrast, "Those who did not experience judgment in their lifetime will experience the worst fate. On the day of judgment their temporary abode in the particular and painful 'hollow place' in Sheol will become an 'accursed valley' and they will be 'accursed forever', suffering in an 'abyss full of torment'" (Nadler 51). An important point here is the clear separation of the body and soul upon death until the day of judgment whereupon they are reunited briefly for the sole purpose of being judged. In this regard, Nadler suggests that this concept has since become a universal element in the Jewish beliefs concerning an afterlife. Notwithstanding its apocryphal origins, the "doctrine of the resurrection of the body will become a standard, indeed a required feature of Jewish belief. The result of the judgment will be an eternal reward or punishment given to the soul itself" (Nadler 53).

The first century Hellenistic author of the Wisdom of Solomon provided some additional important elements to contemporary Jewish beliefs in the afterlife. Because everyone is a sinner, though, even the righteous will experience some degree of punishment in the afterlife and this writer does not include the concept of resurrection in his view of the afterlife. In this regard, Nadler advises that in the Wisdom of Solomon, "There is no mention of the resurrection of the body. Rather, it is the soul that will enjoy the rewards of righteousness, 'in the moment of God's coming to them'. 'They are at peace, for though in the sight of men they may be punished, they have a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great blessings' (3:1-5)" (quoted in Nadler at 53).*

Finally, there are some important temporal issues to be considered in administering what must be an enormous undertaking, even for God. According to Nadler, the author of 2 Esdras (Ezra), a near-contemporary of the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, portrayed a more "robust and metaphysical apocalyptic picture" (54). Unlike the Wisdom of Solomon, Ezra specifically includes the issue of resurrection as a fundamental component of the apocalyptic process, and sets forth a timetable by which God will process the righteous and wicked in much the same manner as described in Enoch and the Wisdom of Solomon. According to Nadler:

What that future holds in store is, first, a Messianic period of 400 years for those who are still alive at its inception (but not for those who have died). At the end of that 'kingdom,' at the end of the world itself, the bodies of all the dead will be resurrected and reunited with their souls, which had been 'kept at rest' in 'storehouses. The earth shall give up those who sleep in it, and the dust those who rest there in silence and the storehouses shall give back the souls entrusted to them' (7:32-3). (quoted in Nadler at 54)

When this vast undertaking has been completed, God passes judgment on mankind and like in Enoch and the Wisdom of Solomon, the wicked are condemned to eternal punishment and the righteous and just receive their eternal reward. "Then the place of torment shall appear, and over against it the place of rest; the furnace of hell shall be displayed, and on the opposite side the paradise of delight... Look on this side, then on that: here are rest and delight, there fire and torments' (7: 36-8). It is not surprising that the views of the afterlife portrayed in this work did not gain mainstream approval, because they were highly exclusive and because everyone is a sinner, everyone knew that they were absolutely doomed or had little hope of salvation: "Only a few will be fortunate enough to enjoy happiness… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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