Judaism and the Afterlife Jewish Term Paper

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But everyone deserves their fate: 'It was with conscious knowledge that the people of this world sinned, and that is why torment awaits them'" (Nadler 54). The writer of Ezra even provides some specific guidance concerning what can be expected by on the day of judgment, with the just and righteous being guarded in silence by angels until they are presented to God but the souls of the wicked for doomed to wander aimlessly until their day of judgment to give them ample time to contemplate their wrongdoings and what is in store form them once God gets hold of them: "The soul of the just person, freed from the confines of the mortal body, will, before the final judgment, be present before God and will contemplate his being.... The souls of the wicked, on the other hand, are condemned to wander aimlessly, anticipating with dread the final sentence they will receive in the future world" (Nadler 54).

There is a distinct element of reincarnation to these later Jewish concepts of the afterlife, at least for the time the soul remains on earth, with a departure from the traditions of earlier Hellenistic Jewish authors and suggested that the human soul survives as an individual, conscious being, capable of recalling its past life and able to contemplates (either with joy or sorrow) its eventual eternal destination when God's judgment is passed (Nadler 54). In fact, while the apocalyptic writings during the period 300 BCE to 100 BCE expanded on the earlier themes present in the Hebrew Bible such as Sheol and divine judgment, these authors ensured that their views were consistent with Scriptural teachings but also included observations concerning what was likely implied by these teachings about the afterlife as well. Although these concepts have not been integrated into mainstream Jewish dogma concerning the afterlife, some of the fundamental elements remain highly influential today. In this regard, Nadler reports, "The important point [is that] there is nothing in these later texts that is to be regarded as dogma; they are noncanonical works, mostly visionary storytelling, and do not possess any halachic value. They must also have had little actual influence on later, more mainstream Jewish writings. But at least some of the elements of the doctrines of immortality and the afterlife that they contain also appear, in one form or another, in the classic rabbinic works that were of normative authority" (54).

This "normative authority" concerning Jewish beliefs on the afterlife would be put sorely to the test during a controversy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. For instance, the Sadducees were a "priestly aristocracy during Jesusa time" who "were, ironically, skeptics in matters of religious dogma. They were very faithful to external rituals. For them, liturgy was quite enough! Beyond this, for them there is 'no resurrection, no angel, no spirit. This law and tradition intended for the welfare of others are manipulated by the Sadducees to paint some grotesque imagery that they think could happen in the next life. The popular Jewish belief was that the resurrection was a continuation of life and relations on earth'" (Acts 23:8 quoted in "The Question about the Resurrection" at 3).

The resolution of this controversy helped to consolidate Jewish beliefs about the afterlife. In this regard, Grabbe advises, "The Sadducees and Pharisees are alleged to differ on a number of religious beliefs. The Pharisees are especially characterized by the traditions of the fathers, whereas the Sadducees do not accept as authoritative anything not in the written scripture (Josephus). The Pharisees believe in the survival of the soul and rewards and punishments in the afterlife; the Sadducees reject this" (197). The historian Josephus, writing late in the first century, suggested that the issue of the immortality of the soul represents one of the most important aspects of this division: "The more urbane and upper-class Sadducees, representing the conservative viewpoint of the priesthood, basically argued that when you are dead, you are dead; there is no immortality of the soul. The Pharisees, on the other hand, 'believe that souls have an immortal vigor, and that under the earth there will be rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former will have the power to revive and live again'" (quoted in Nadler at 56).

Over time, the view of the afterlife favored by the Pharisees became the accepted version and their views formed the basis for subsequent rabbinic doctrine; however, as Nadler emphasizes, this does not mean that there is universal agreement among the scholars of the Talmud and the midrashim (or rabbinic commentaries) concerning the afterlife. Just as there is no single Jewish belief in the afterlife, "There is no consensus or uniformity in rabbinic views on the nature and immortality of the soul, nor on the moral and theological importance of such doctrines. There still is no dogma here, and rabbis and other authorities had a good deal of latitude for speculation, exposition, interpretation, and interpolation on this question of metaphysical aggadah" (Nadler 54).

Certainly, the concept of resurrection of the physical body is an essential element of the debate, and those who denied the resurrection of the body simply doomed themselves. Perhaps the only universal element in Jewish beliefs about the afterlife based on these early works concerns how God will raise the dead and judge them, but even here these influences remain outside the formal Jewish canon and remain only part of the aggadah, or Jewish lore. According to Rayner (1998), "The word Aggadah describes anything that is not halachic, i.e., that is unrelated, or only remotely related, to the process of fixing the law. It includes Bible interpretations; legendary and other embellishments of Biblical narratives; anecdotes about post-Biblical characters including the Rabbis themselves; speculations about God and God's relation to the world, humanity and Israel; and a great deal else" (27). As Nadler emphasizes, Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife are shaped by both, but with some important differences: "There are some things about which there is at least broad authoritative agreement and that can be recognized as 'Jewish belief', although -- and this bears repeating -- they fall not under halachah but only aggadah" (Nadler 57).


The research showed that the issue of an afterlife has been the focus of mankind since day one. The research also showed that modern Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife have been significantly influenced over the millennia by early Jewish writers who based their concepts of the afterlife prevailing views of their time and these views have been expanded, refined and debated in countless settings ever since. Although it was clear that there is no single "Jewish belief" concerning the afterlife, there were some common themes identified including the reuniting of the physical body with the soul for the purposes of being judged and both the wicked and the righteous will get what is coming to them and they deserve what they get. Over time, though, the more exclusive qualities of these concepts have expanded to provide the basis for mainstream Judaic thought today.

Works Cited

Burland, C.A. "Is There a Life After Death?" In Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural, Vol. 1. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1970.

Grabbe, Lester L. Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from the Exile to Yavneh. London: Routledge, 2000.

Nadler, Steven. Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Rayner, John D. Jewish Religious Law: A Progressive Perspective. New York: Berghahn Books, 1998.

Surette, Leon. (1994). "A Matter of Belief: 'Pincher Martin's Afterlife." Twentieth Century Literature, 40(2),…

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