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Jews will face after death? How do Jewish ideas about the afterlife affect their attitudes toward death itself? This is a relatively more complicated question to answer than how the attitudes held by Christians about the afterlife affect their views toward death because in the case of Judaism there is no small amount of ambiguity.
Jewish beliefs about death cannot be understood independent of Jewish theology as a whole, and so it may be helpful to begin here with a definition of what we mean by religion as a whole. Religion is both an intensely personal area of life as well as one that is practiced publicly.
The result of this second attribute is that people tend to think that they know what religion means and how it functions because they frequently see people performing religious rites. But as a consequence of its former attribute, we do not actually know as much about people's most fundamental religious beliefs as we think we do.
Religion can be defined in its most general sense to be a way of life that is based on an individual's understanding of his or her relation to the universe or to God or to a collection of divine (and possible semi-divine) entities.
Judaism, like many other world religions, entails personal acceptance of a particular creed, personal obedience to a code of morality and ethics that are recorded in sacred writings.
Part of that understanding is an examination of how the living differ from the dead. Jews believe that death is originally absent from the world. The story of Genesis tells us that Jehovah creates the snake and the tree that grant wisdom and place them alongside Adam and Eve in the garden. But humans become too knowledgeable, and God in his anger punishes humans for becoming too like a god themselves:
And the serpent said unto the woman,
Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
In general, Jews believe that death is simply a part of the cycle of life to by which all living things are governed. The many rituals surrounding death in the various branches of Judaism are designed not to help the dead find their way but rather to keep the living from becoming lost.
Genesis 3:19: "For you are dust and to dust shall you return." Death is not a curse but a natural component of human nature. Since man came from the earth, it is only natural that he return to earth. In essence, death is a part of the life cycle.
The Jewish laws exist to console and comfort the mourner.
Different sects of Judaism address death differently; while Orthodox Jews believe that euthanasia is immoral, more liberal Jews see it as consistent with Jewish teachings on death.
Because life is so valuable, we are not permitted to do anything that may hasten death, not even to prevent suffering. Euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden by Jewish law. The Talmud states that you may not even move a dying person's arms if that would shorten his life.
However, where death is imminent and certain, and the patient is suffering, Jewish law does permit one to cease artificially prolonging life. Thus, in certain circumstances, Jewish law permits "pulling the plug" or refusing extraordinary means of prolonging life.
In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of God's plan.... Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the dead (kavod ha-met), and to comfort the living (nihum avelim), who will miss the deceased.
The distinction between human life and that which is not human life is generally quite clear in Judaism: A corpse is no longer human and so it should not be preserved.
However, it should be noted, Jewish ideas about death have not been constant but have shifted over the centuries and the millennia:
Judaism's attitude to death and immortality has changed considerably over the centuries. In the period of the Bible, for instance, there is little evidence of any belief in an afterlife at all. The talk is of Sheol - some distant, shady, indeterminate place. But the Pharisees (possibly under Greek or Persian influence) evolved a more definite belief in "the life of the world to come," to be attained by the righteous immediately upon death, by virtue of the immortality of the soul, or at the end of time, through bodily resurrection.
Then the Messiah would come and the bodies of the righteous would rise up - whilst the wicked would have no part of this eternal reward.
Something of the complex understanding of the nature of Jewish attitudes toward death can be understood from examining the attitudes of different Jewish sects toward euthanasia. While euthanasia was practiced and generally widely accepted in the classical societies and those which preceded them, with the rise of the monotheistic religions born in the Middle East - Islam, Christianity, and Judaism - it began to be considered sinful and immoral.
The older forms of these religions all condemn euthanasia and consider human life in all forms - regardless of sentience or suffering - to be of paramount value. This is still (as noted above) the attitude of most Orthodox Jews who tend to be more literal in their reading of the Talmud on this topic.
But it must be noted that such a unanimity of opinion among the Jewish community has not existed for decades and possibly even centuries. Now reformed Jews almost universally and conservative Jews in general approve of voluntary euthanasia (such as a doctor's prescribing a lethal dose of painkillers to someone dying of cancer) on the grounds that once a person is no longer able to perform a mitzvah, then he or she may choose to die.
The mitzvah is a concept central to Judaism: It is an act of goodness and compassion either towards herself or himself or to other people. Once one can no longer act to bring goodness into one's own life, one is free (according to the more liberal branches of Judaism) to choose to die without feeling that one has violated God's plan.
Likewise, an unborn child is not yet human because it cannot yet perform a mitzvah. While potential human life is valuable, and may ended casually, it never has as much value as a life in existence. This is why even conservative Jews believe that abortion should be permitted, and even believe that it is necessary when a choice must be made between a mother and her child. Human life is sacred because it reflects God's love, but once a person is dead attention must return to the living, for the dead are in the hands of God.
One of the reasons that Jews believe that death requires care taken for the living is that at least Orthodox Jews believe that there is an afterlife. More liberal Jews are in general much less certain whether or not anything awaits them after death's crossing.
However, even for Orthodox Jews there is a wide possible range of beliefs: "because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion."
It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected. Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist.
Many scholars have suggested that people may believe in religions because they are afraid. That as humans we all fear death and so we create complex cosmological and religious systems that seem to keep death at bay. This pan-human fear is translated into one of the common aspects of religion, which is its promise to grant us eternal life. Thus those Jews who do believe in an afterlife are linked to the practitioners of many other religions who also turn to a belief in God to help them overcome their fear of death.
And certainly this may be the reason for religious belief in some people, including some Jews. But this would not seem to account for all religious belief. Indeed it seems unlikely that is any single core of religious motivation that accounts for all Jewish attitudes toward death.
Certainly the attitudes of some Jews about death are shaped by fear, but certainly it is not possible…[continue]
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