II Samuel 22:1–51
“What does Judaism say about the afterlife?” This is the most frequent question I am asked, both by Jews and those from other backgrounds. With more of our families blending people of different belief systems, what we think happens when we die directly affects ritual and milestone choices across the lifespan.
As a result of our frequent encounters with a tradition that teaches far clearer messages about the afterlife, some joke that whatever Judaism does say about the afterlife is only a result of Christians asking us. But as would be expected, the Jewish answer is not at all straightforward.
One approach comes to us from the book of Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew, Kohelet), read on Sukkot this week. The author’s introspective outlook is a fitting afterword to Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, we become absorbed by our mortality. Just five days later we transition to Sukkot, highlighting the impermanence of life as we dwell in a flimsy abode.
The philosophical treatise selected by the early rabbis for this holiday ponders the meaning of life and death, our purpose on earth and what a life well lived entails. Kohelet’s author asks, “Who can enable [humans] to see what will happen afterward?” (3:22). Without denying the possibility of an afterlife, he muses that since we cannot know what happens after death, we should focus on the life we are living on earth: “eat, drink, and be merry” (8:5).
Kohelet is centuries old, but its sentiments summarize what many Jews still believe. Why not concentrate on this life since we cannot know what comes next? To this we might add that it is our job to rectify injustice on this planet rather than awaiting a better world to come.
To some, this answer is realistic yet unsatisfying. When I am asked if Jews believe in an afterlife, I hear in the question a longing for something a bit less practical and rational than the philosophy of Kohelet. Over the centuries of Jewish thought, differing ideas about the afterlife abound.
One example is olam ha’ba, originally meaning “the world to come.” The rabbis of the Talmud hoped their good deeds on earth would earn them a spot in a blissful future state. In the Middle Ages, it appears on the pages of the Zohar, the pinnacle of Jewish mysticism, now translated as “the world that is coming.” For the kabbalists, olam ha’ba alludes to a world that is emerging or that already exists on a different plane, “constantly coming, never ceasing” (Zohar 3:290b).
Surprisingly, Judaism contains the concept of transmigration, the wheel of pre-existent souls (in Hebrew, gilgul neshamot) that cycle from one body to the next. The idea emerges in the Middle Ages but harkens back to another verse in Ecclesiastes: “One generation passes away, another generation comes…” (1:4). Instead of a comment on the passage of time, medieval kabbalists read the verse to mean that souls literally pass from body to body. Although the concept is not often discussed today, an introduction to the bedtime Shema in some prayerbooks reads, “I hereby forgive anyone who angered me or antagonized me … whether in this transmigration or another transmigration.”
And in our Creation text, we read: “From [dust] you were taken, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). We begin in the Garden of Eden from adamah, earth, and we are called adam, earth creature. Though there are different notions of how to best return to dust, the prevailing Jewish thinking is that being buried in a plain, pine box most quickly returns us to the dust from whence we came.
On Yom Kippur, we ponder the fragility of life and rededicate ourselves to living more fully and authentically. Sukkot, the culmination of our season of contemplation, invites us to think about the structures we build around us and what legacy we hope to leave behind as one generation passes to the next.
For more background, see Simcha Paull Raphael’s “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” (Jason Aronson, 1996) and Daniel C. Matt’s “Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. I” (Stanford University Press, 2004).
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of the forthcoming book “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.