A Fundamental Jewish Belief
Aish HaTorah Rabbi:
The creation of man testifies to the eternal life of the soul. The Torah says, "And the Almighty formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life" (Genesis 2:7). On this verse, the Zohar states that "one who blows, blows from within himself," indicating that the soul is actually part of G-d's essence. Since G-d's essence is completely spiritual and non-physical, it is impossible that the soul should die. (The commentator Chizkuni says this why the verse calls it "soul of LIFE.")
That's what King Solomon meant when he wrote, "The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to G-d who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:17)
For anyone who believes in a just and caring G-d, the existence of an afterlife makes logical sense. Could it be this world is just a playground without consequences? Did Hitler get away with killing 6,000,000 Jews? No. There is obviously a place where good people receive reward and bad people get punished. (see Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith)
The question of "why do bad things happen to good people" has a lot to do with how we look at existence. The way we usually perceive things is like this: A "good life" means that I make a comfortable living, I enjoy good health, and then I die peacefully at age 80. That's a good life. Anything else is "bad."
In a limited sense, that's true. But if we have a soul and there is such a thing as eternity, then that changes the picture entirely. Eighty years in the face of eternity is not such a big deal.
From Judaism's perspective, our eternal soul is as real as our thumb. This is the world of doing, and the "world to come" is where we experience the eternal reality of whatever we've become. Do you think after being responsible for the torture and deaths of millions of people, that Hitler could really "end it all" by just swallowing some poison? No. Ultimate justice is found in another dimension.
But the concept goes much deeper. From an eternal view, if the ultimate pleasure we're going after is transcendence - the eternal relationship with the Almighty Himself, then who would be luckier: Someone who lives an easy life with little connection to G-d, or someone who is born handicapped, and despite the challenges, develops a connection with G-d. Who would be "luckier" in terms of eternal existence? All I'm trying to point out is that the rules of life start to look different from the point of view of eternity, as opposed to just the 70 or 80 years we have on earth.
So what is the afterlife exactly?
When a person dies and goes to heaven, the judgment is not arbitrary and externally imposed. Rather, the soul is shown two videotapes. The first video is called "This is Your Life!" Every decision and every thought, all the good deeds, and the embarrassing things a person did in private is all replayed without any embellishments. It's fully bared for all to see. That's why the next world is called Olam HaEmet - "the World of Truth," because there we clearly recognize our personal strengths and shortcomings, and the true purpose of life. In short, Hell is not the Devil with a pitchfork stoking the fires.
The second video depicts how a person's life "could have been..." if the right choices had been made, if the opportunities were seized, if the potential was actualized. This video - the pain of squandered potential - is much more difficult to bear. But at the same time it purifies the soul as well. The pain creates regret which removes the barriers and enables the soul to completely connect to G-d.
Not all souls merit Gehenom. It is for people who have done good but need to be purified. A handful of people are too evil for Gehenom, and they are punished eternally. Pharaoh is one example.
So what about "heaven?"
Heaven is where the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure - the feeling of closeness to G-d. Of course not all souls experience that to the same degree. It's like going to a symphony concert. Some tickets are front-row center; others are back in the bleachers. Where your seat is located is based on the merit of your good deeds - e.g. giving charity, caring for others, prayer.
A second factor in heaven is your understanding of the environment. Just like at the concert, a person can have great seats but no appreciation of what's going on. If a person spends their lifetime elevating the soul and becoming sensitive to spiritual realities (through Torah study), then that will translate into unimaginable pleasure in heaven. On the other hand, if life was all about pizza and football, well, that can get pretty boring for eternity.
The existence of the afterlife is not stated explicitly in the Torah itself, because as human beings we have to focus on our task in this world. Though awareness of an eternal reward can also be an effective motivator.
For further study, see Maimonides' Foundations of the Torah, "The Way of G-d" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, and the commentary of Nachmanides to Leviticus 18:29.
May the Almighty grant you blessings, success - and eternal life! *
Zohar, Mishpatim, Exodus 1:1 * AriZal - Sha'ar Hagilgulim
Ohr Somayach Rabbi:
Judaism does believe in "life after death." We do not call it "heaven and hell"; but we refer to the "world to come" - olam haba and gehinom - "hell." Gehinom - a purification process - is part of the world to come.
When a person dies, his soul gets a chance to 'think objectively' about his lifetime spent on earth. Depending on how the person spent his lifetime, this can be a painful process in which the soul mourns its bad deeds, lost opportunities and wasted potential or it can be a process of joy in which the soul delights in its closeness to G-d.
Ultimately, the gehinom process is temporary, and eventually enables the person to enjoy the benefits of all the good things he did during his lifetime.
Although there is a Jewish concept of 'heaven' and 'hell,' we nevertheless emphasize this world. Here's a parable to explain:
A wealthy man goes on a cruise ship. The ship sinks, and he finds himself afloat in a tiny rubber raft. This raft is his only hope of arriving safely to his family, his mansion and all his wealth.
Judaism looks at this world like a raft. By following the survival manual - the Torah - this little raft can bring us safely to the World to Come.
Therefore, Judaism emphasizes this world. Only through good deeds in this world does a person earn reward in the next.
We educate our children about the World to Come, including the idea that no bad action goes without redress. But the emphasis is positive and the aim is to help everyone maximize potential and live the best life possible.
Mishna Eduyot 2:10
The Aryeh Kaplan Reader p. 179 citing Sefer Haikkarim 4:33
Oz Torah Rabbi:
Judaism does not prefer the afterlife to this life. Samson Raphael Hirsch says, "The purpose of G-d's rule does not consist in death and destruction, but in the advancement of life and having men develop and unfold to the greatest possible extent... It is not the dead and those who go down in silence that proclaim His power. It is life, growth and development that declare His greatness and might" (Commentary to Psalms, Eng. trans., p. 307).
How, then, can the Psalmist say, "Precious (yakar) in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who love Him" (Psalm 116:15)? It may be that the verse is saying that the death of the pious is too precious to be easily allowed. According to another view, "yakar" is a euphemism and the meaning is not "precious" but "grievous" - i.e. the death of the pious is grievous in the sight of G-d. The Midrash puts into the mouth of G-d the words, "Grievous it is for Me to say to the righteous that they must die. Grievous was it for Me to say to Abraham that he must die, seeing that he proclaimed Me the Maker of heaven and earth, went down into the fiery furnace for My sake, and hallowed My name in My world". But everyone dies, even the righteous.
According to the Midrash, G-d asks, "Had Abraham gone on living, how could Isaac have come into authority? And Jacob? Moses? Joshua? Samuel? David and Solomon?" The sages continue, "The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let these depart to make way for the others."
What happens after we die? The World to Come, "Olam HaBa", is where the soul basks in the radiance of G-d's glory (Ber. 17a), where the scholars have no rest from their studies, and the intellect remains active. According to Pirkei Avot, "'When you awake, it (the Torah) shall talk with you' (Prov. 6:9): 'when you awake' means the future world" (Avot 6:9).
If this is heaven, what is hell? Most views believe it is the absence of heaven. But the Baal Shem Tov asks, "Do you think there is such a difference between heaven and hell? Not at all; they are one and the same. Heaven, for the righteous, is to bask in the radiance of G-d. This is their reward. And what is the punishment of the wicked? They too will be brought to heaven to behold the radiance of the Divine Presence, but they will not know what to make of it. To experience the Presence of G-d but at the same time to recognize how distant one is from its reality - there is no greater anguish for a soul".