God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

My mother reads your column but doesn't have a computer, so she asked me to ask the following on her behalf: Do we (Jews) believe in heaven and hell? What happens to our souls after we die? Do we believe in an afterlife?

- L., via godsquad question@aol.com

Give my best to your mother and tell her that my mother, who lives in Milwaukee, Wis., also has no computer. The difference is, she never wants to ask me questions about heaven and hell. She mainly wants to know why I don't call her more often (which is sort of a question about hell).

Please tell your mother Judaism does believe in heaven and hell but Jews don't! If she wants to know more, here's the scoop: This contradiction - that Judaism clearly teaches about an afterlife but most rabbis don't - is mainly the result of the fact that somehow, the ridiculous idea took root among many rabbis that talking about life after death makes people indifferent to fixing the life we live before death. Rabbis often use the old saw that, "Judaism is a worldly religion, and Christianity is an other-worldly religion." This is wrong on both sides.

Judaism originated the ideas of heaven and hell, which were then absorbed (and modified) by Christianity and later Islam. Christianity has shown a powerful dedication to addressing the sins of this world and helping to correct them. To say that Mother Teresa in Calcutta and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma were not involved in this world is both absurd and insulting to Christianity.

What is true is that you're not likely to hear much about heaven and hell in synagogues today. I've been struggling to change this for years. In fact, it was not even Judaism but the Greek philosophers like Aristotle who introduced the ideas of matter and form that led to the religious doctrines of heaven and hell.

The Hebrew Bible is silent on the subject, but during the period following Alexander the Great's conquest of Israel in 333 BCE, the period called Hellenism, Greek thought penetrated deep into the new and emerging thought of the rabbis.

Since form was immaterial like God, it was easy to teach that our souls are a piece of God within us. Because the soul is not tainted by matter, it followed that when our body dies, our soul detaches from our body and returns to God.

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The next big theological question was, "Where does the soul go after the death of the body?" The answer helped to solve a thorny question about God's providence, which is the one about why bad things happen to good people. The answer was that the scales of justice that are set askew on earth are corrected in heaven or hell - where the soul goes after death. The souls of people who've lived a bad life are punished in hell, and the souls of people who were morally virtuous enjoy an eternity of joy with God in heaven.

The actual Hebrew term the rabbis used for heaven was Olam Habah. The term for hell was Gehenom. The Jewish view is that after your body dies, your soul undergoes a period of spiritual debriefing in which it learns how it messed up and how it triumphed during life. This period can be brief for those who didn't mess up very much.

This is why the kaddish prayer is said for the dead in Judaism for close to a year, so as to add a few extra good deeds to the final judgment of the deceased, who may need the boost. The Jewish teaching is that only a few wicked souls go to hell. Most come out of "soul school" clean and wise.

Christianity accepted this Jewish view of the afterlife but over time elaborated on the idea of hell to contain elements of Purgatory, in which the soul is not just tutored about its failings but also punished for them as a way of atoning.

Later Jewish mysticism, called the Kabbalah, added a controversial idea not accepted by mainstream Judaism (but very much a part of Hinduism) called reincarnation. This view was that after soul school, souls are stuffed into the bodies of newborn infants to live another life and try to do better. They're touched on the lips just before birth so they forget their previous life (lives).