Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Thoughts on afterlife and Judaism
Everybody thinks about it. The afterlife is the principal preoccupation of anyone who’s going to die, regardless of gender, race, religion. Judaism has never decided on a formal approach to the afterlife. It’s never had a formal approach to eschatology, either—what’s going to happen at the end of the world. We’re left with a typically practical, or provisional, interest in the world as a regulation of the mundane, the here and now, rather than a pondering of the celestial.
Jews, if not Judaism, regard death as a great injustice. Everything I’ve read tells me that Judaism is loath to encourage a positive view of the afterlife, because it might encourage a more positive attitude toward death. Anything that would see death as a salvation risks encouraging the believer to shirk his job on earth, or opt for thoughtless martyrdom.
The classic refusal of salvation is the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer frequently recited during worship to honor the dead, says nothing about death, or about life after death. I have always read the Mourner’s Kaddish as a unique provocation to God. “Magnified and sanctified is God, Who brought us all here to the graveside to suffer and yet Who still hasn’t offered any reward.” I’ve never subscribed to the myth that the Kaddish can be used to spring one’s parents from purgatory. It’s merely a call to duty to honor and remember loved ones who have passed.
The Hebrew term Olam Ha-Ba means the world to come or another higher state of being. The Talmud states that all of Israel has a share in the Olam Ha-Ba. However, not all "shares" are equal. A particularly righteous person will have a greater share in the Olam Ha-Ba than the average person. Additionally, a person can supposedly lose his share through wicked actions. There are many statements in the Talmud that a particular mitzvah will guarantee a person a place in the Olam Ha-Ba, or that a particular sin will lose a person's share in the Olam Ha-Ba, but these are generally regarded as hyperbole, excessive expressions of approval or disapproval.
Some people look at these teachings and deduce that Jews try to earn their way into heaven by performing acts of mitzvot. This is a gross mischaracterization of our religion. It is important to remember that unlike some religions, Judaism is not focused on the question of how to get into heaven. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so, not necessarily so that we will earn a better spot in whatever it is that comes next.