Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Life Beyond Death
I often find it difficult to explain Jewish beliefs concerning life-after-death to Jews and non-Jews. The problem is not that we don't believe in an afterlife. Throughout most of Jewish history, the belief in an afterlife has been prevalent among our people. The difficulty many people have is the fact that although our religious heritage presents us with an ancient, well-established, multi- faceted set of insights into the afterlife, these beliefs generally play a secondary or tertiary role in the structure of Jewish faith and the living of Jewish lives. From ancient times, our tradition, while accepting the hope of an afterlife, reminds us to center our attention on this world and find our hope in living and teaching a life built on the ethical and spiritual foundation of our Torah.
Thus, it is not surprising that our Bible teaches so little about what is to come. In the Bible, our oldest literature, the possibility of life-after-death is assumed rather than discussed at any length. Jews in the biblical period had an uncomplicated image of the afterlife. They often pictured the abode of the deceased, which they called "Sheol," as a drab, subterranean pit. In Sheol, the dead maintained a shade-like existence safely removed from the pleasures and pitfalls of earthly life. Accordingly, the Torah prohibits necromancy, the art of raising the spirits of the dead (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:11).
The story of the Wise Woman of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25) illustrates the seriousness of this prohibition. The evening before King Saul was to enter into battle with a formidable Philistine army, the king, in desperation, prevails on the Wise Woman to conjure up the spirit of the king's dead advisor, the prophet Samuel. The prophet, angered at being disturbed, accurately pronounces Saul's defeat and doom.
At the end of the biblical period of our history, we get the first glimpses of the elaborate descriptions of heaven and hell that appear in post-biblical Jewish literature and form the basis for similar beliefs in Christianity and Islam. Yet, the Jewish tradition held fast to the biblical focus on life in this world. The psalmist's powerful declaration that the dead do not praise God (Psalm 115:17) continued to ring true.
Rabbinic wisdom reminds us that it is improper and impious for us to serve God in the hope of receiving the reward of entering heaven (Avot 1:3). Living a life of good deeds based on our Torah, teaching its values to coming generations and building a community grounded on its ethical insights are sufficient reward in themselves.