The core of
Judaism is a covenant relationship - which is both a
contractual agreement and a "marriage" of love - between Yahweh and his chosen
people. Because Judaism is built around a relationship involving agreements and
promises in this life, the afterlife is less essential for Judaism than for other world
religions. It would, in fact, be relatively easy to imagine Judaism without any
afterlife beliefs whatsoever. Because of the non-centrality of the afterlife for
Judaism, this tradition has been able to entertain a wide variety of different afterlife
notions throughout its history, more so than perhaps any other religion.
The ancient Hebrews emphasized the importance
of the present life over the afterlife. As with both the ancient Greeks and
Mesopotamians, the afterlife, if it was considered at all, was conceived of as a pale
shadow of earthly life, much like the Greek Hades. Also similar to the Greek Hades,
in the Hebrew afterlife no distinction was made between the treatment of the just and the
unjust after death. Instead, rewards and punishments were meted out in the present
life, and in the covenant "contract" Yahweh promised to do just that.
Reflection on the inequalities of this life and on the apparent failure of Yahweh to
make good on his covenant promises led serious religious thinkers to consider the option
of resurrection. The resurrection of ordinary human beings seems to have originated
in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. As a result of several centuries of
Persian control of the Middle East region, Jews were brought into contact with Zoroastrian
religious ideas and the notion of resurrection. Zoroaster combined resurrection with
the idea of a final judgment, in which the entire human race is resurrected and
individuals rewarded or punished. This concept clearly appealed to Jewish religious
thinkers of the time as an adequate way of coming to grips with the injustices that were
so apparent in this life.
As implied in the Book of Daniel, the Jewish notion of resurrection in the Maccabeean period was tied to a notion of judgment, and even to separate realms for the judged. In rabbinical thought, the model for heaven was Eden. The rabbinic word for hell, "Gehenna", is taken from the name of a valley of fire where children were said to be sacrificed as burnt offerings to Baal and Moloch
(Semitic deities). Gehenna is a place of intense punishment and cleansing. This place is also known as "She'ol" and other names. This line of Jewish thought argues that after death the soul has to be purified before it can go on the rest of its journey. The amount of time needed for purification depends on how the soul dealt with life. One Jewish tradition states that a soul needs a maximum of 11 months for purification, which is why, when a parent dies, the kaddish
(memorial prayer) is recited for 11 months. The concept of Gehenna as a place for temporary purification was the source for the orthodox Christian doctrine of "purgatory."
The first-century Jewish historian
stated that the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that founded rabbinic Judaism
to which Paul once belonged, believed in reincarnation. He writes that the
Pharisees believed the souls of evil men are punished after death. The
souls of good men are "removed into other
bodies" and they
will "have power to revive
and live again."
From time to time in Jewish
history, there had been an insistent belief that their prophets were
reborn. Reincarnation was part of the Jewish
dogmas, being taught under the name of "resurrection". Only the Sadducees, who believed that everything ended with death, did not accept
the idea of reincarnation. Jewish ideas included the concept
that people could live again without knowing exactly the manners by which
this could happen.
Josephus records that the Essenes of the
Dead Sea Scrolls lived "the same kind of life" as the followers of
Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who taught reincarnation. According to Josephus, the Essenes believed that the soul is both immortal and preexistent, necessary for tenets for belief in reincarnation.
The Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the Jewish mystical tradition of divine union went back to the first, perhaps even the
third century B.C.E. Jewish mysticism has its origins in Greek mysticism, a system of belief which included reincarnation. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the hymns found are similar to the
Hekhaloth hymns of the Jewish mystics. One text of hymns gives us clear evidence of Jewish mysticism. The text is called
"Songs of the Sabbath
Sacrifice." Fragments of 1
Enoch, which is considered the oldest text of Jewish mysticism, were also found with the Scrolls. Since evidence shows Jewish mysticism existed in the third century
B.C.E., as Enoch indicates, then it would certainly have existed in first-century Israel.
Reincarnation has been a belief for thousands of years for orthodox Jews. The
Zohar is a book of great authority among
Jews. It states the following:
"All souls are subject to revolutions."
"Men do not know the way they have been judged in all time." (Zohar II, 199b)
That is, in their "revolutions" they lose all memory of the actions that led to their being judged.
Another Kabbalistic book, the Kether Malkuth states:
"If she, the soul, be pure, then she shall obtain favor... but if she has been defiled, then she shall wander for a time in pain and despair... until the days of her purification."
How can the soul be defiled before birth? Where does the soul wander if not on this or some other world until the days of her purification? The
rabbis explained this verse to mean that the defiled soul wanders down from paradise through many births until the soul regained its purity.
In the Talmud, "gilgul
neshamot" (i.e., reincarnation) is constantly mentioned. The term literally means "the judgment of the revolutions of the souls."
view, people who had committed extraordinary sins were given an opportunity to
return to life in order to set things right. More particularly, they were
reincarnated in circumstances similar to those of their previous incarnation. Thus,
Moses and Jethro, for example, were supposed to be the gilgulim of Cain and Abel.
Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel
(1604-1657), one of the most revered Rabbis in Israel, states in his
book entitled Nishmat Hayyim:
"The belief or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is a firm and infallible dogma accepted by the whole assemblage of our church with one accord, so that there is none to be found who would dare to deny
it ... Indeed, there is a great number of sages in Israel who hold firm to this doctrine so that they made it a dogma, a fundamental point of our religion. We are therefore in duty bound to obey and to accept this dogma with
acclamation ... as the truth of it has been incontestably demonstrated by the
Zohar, and all books of the Kabalists."
In contemporary Judaism, the traditional,
mainstream view of resurrection is maintained by the orthodox, but generally not by the
non-orthodox. Outside the orthodox fold, ordinary believers often accept the notion
of an immortal soul, not unlike the notion held by most Christians. Many also
accepted reincarnation. And many secular and Reform Jews continue to view themselves
as part of the tradition of Judaism, without adhering to any sort of afterlife belief.
"Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives." -
Copyright 2007 Near-Death Experiences & the Afterlife