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 “Sheol” 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 Flavius Josephus 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 pre-existent, 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.
“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.” (Kether Malkuth)
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.” In this 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.
“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.” (Nishmat Hayyim)
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.