Does Judaism Believe in an Afterlife?

Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless.

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Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer. We can identify, however, several core teachings.

  1. There is an afterlife: Texts from every era in Jewish life identify a world where people go when they die. In the Bible it’s an underworld called Sheol. In the rabbinic tradition it’s known by a number of names, including the yeshiva shel mallah, the school on high. The Hebrew word for skies, shamayim, also came to refer to heaven.
  1. Heaven has open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate. No concept of Hell exists in Judaism. The closest we get is the fate of apostate (a person who renounces God, faith and morality in this world), who is said to be “cut off from his kin.”
  1. The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth mosteloquently, “Jewish beliefs in the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body, to the idea that we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes).”
  1. The afterlife is here on earth: One strand of Jewish thought sees heaven as a transitory place where souls reside after death. They reside there until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time when messiah comes. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates this view in his early book, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb. This approach differs from reincarnation since the return to life happens only in the messianic era, not as a regular occurrence, as in Hinduism.
  1. We live on through others: The Reform Jewish prayerbook expresses this idea through the metaphor of a leaf and a tree. A leaf drops to the ground, but it nourishes the soil so more plants and trees spring up. The same is true in our lives. We nourish the future through the influence we have on those who follow us. It can happen in unimaginable ways.

Novelist Dara Horn described this beautifully:

My mother came from a very assimilated family, not very involved in the Jewish community. But they sent her to Hebrew school, and she was inspired by one of her Hebrew school teachers. He ended up becoming a professor at NYU and she did her doctorate with him.”

It is because of this man that my mother taught me Hebrew. It is because of this man that I am as involved as I am in Judaism. He had a profound influence on me, even though I did not know him or have any biological connection to him.

Dara Horn is not alone. All of us manifest the lives and influence of those who came before us. The way we live now shapes the way we live on.

Do you believe in an afterlife? Why do you think Judaism has so many different perspectives? Leave a comment below. 

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Can God Make You A Better Person?

“Without God all things are permissible.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I was recently in the executive lounge at an upscale hotel. After filling my plate with pita chips and hummus, I began nibbling on the way back to my table. A chip (somehow!) fell from my hand. I picked it up and continued walking.

food

A few seconds later, a server rushed over and began thanking me profusely.

“What did I do?” I asked. “You picked up the cracker and threw it away,” he exclaimed. “You would not believe how many people don’t. Most kick it with their foot, creating more crumbs, and try to hide it under the table.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Picking it up seemed like a natural courtesy. You drop something. You pick it up. Now I was being treated like a saint for doing so. Has civility and manners in our culture really deteriorated to such a point?

Someone Is Watching

Perhaps we need to be reminded of an old Jewish story. It tells of a famous rabbi who hired an assistant to be with him at all times.The assistant had a simple job. Every hour he was to say out aloud, “Someone is watching.” Even if they were alone at night walking, the assistant had to say it.

Through this simple story, the rabbi was teaching us something profound about the role of faith. It reminds us to do what is right, even when no one is watching. God is the voice from outside of us that lives inside of us. When we hear God’s voice, we know we are not alone. We know our deeds matter, even if no one is watching.

How Do I Teach My Kids? Mother and Daughter Reading Together

As a parent of young children, I struggle to find ways to teach them this lesson. My faith has been the best means for doing so. My Jewish values remind me of what is right and good. Prayer reminds me to pay attention and follow the voice of conscience that I hear, but could easily ignore.

I don’t believe faith is the only way to teach such values. Nor am not saying every religious person has good values and good manners.

Rather, I am saying faith reminds us to take right and wrong seriously, even if those around us do not. It reminds us of what is right and good. It compels us to pay attention and listen to the voice of conscience we hear inside us.

What do you think? 

There Is No Such Thing As Atheism

My teenage students often ask me why we need religion. We don’t need it answer questions about why it rains or why the sun shines. Science gives better answers to those. We don’t need it to explain human behavior or relationships. Psychology gives better answers to those. What, then, is religion for? Continue reading

Three Questions You Need to Ask Yourself

2,000 years ago a great rabbi urged each of us to ask ourselves three questions. Doing so can change our lives.

three questions

1. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words, if what I do does not come from my heart, why am I doing it?

We can be very good and successful at something, yet still find it lacks meaning. Even further, we may not be giving the world our best. Continue reading

Can You Pray What You Do Not Believe?

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A famous philosopher once visited a church to give a lecture entitled “A Critique of the Existence of God.” His lecture took place in the church’s fellowship hall. It was very well attended, with over one thousand people.

Yet, after a while, the professor noted that the audience was beginning to leave.

Finally, when only a few people were left, the professor asked the group if he had been talking too long. One man answered, “No, your lecture is not too long. And you have proved to almost everyone’s satisfaction that God does not exist. But it’s almost time for our prayer service. And, God forbid, we wouldn’t want to be late.”

Huh? 

This perplexing story challenges us to think about the meaning of prayer. Do we always agree with the words we say? In Judaism, we say a prayer asking God to revive the dead. Do we think God can and will do so? We ask God to water the plants of the field. Do we believe God makes it rain? Continue reading

Can Science Prove God?

Can science prove God? For the last several centuries this question would have seemed absurd. Galileo was forced to recant his discoveries before the Pope. Darwin faced vociferous opposition from religious quarters. Today, however, a new way of thinking has found expression among devout scientists.

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Perhaps its most articulate representative is Frances Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian. Dr. Collins wrote an astounding book about DNA called The Language of God. Among his arguments is the case for what he calls “theistic evolution.” It sees evolution as the Divine mode of creation.

Divine Evolution

According to this framework, biology does not undermine God. It illustrates God’s creative powers because it shows God implanted within nature a way to evolve. In other words, faith and science are not at odds. They depend on one another. Each reveals the other’s power.

Of course some scientists would argue against this view. How can one prove a supernatural creator implanted the ability to evolve within organisms? Yet, they would have great difficulty finding a counter-argument to it. The beginnings of life remain shrouded in mystery, and will remain so.

As Max Planck, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scientists put it, “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature.  And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

What we don’t know pales in comparison to what we do know. The ultimate mystery at the heart of the universe lies beyond our grasp, and even if they do not call it God, many thoughtful scientists appreciate that mystery.

Divine Unity

As scientists have learned more about evolution, they have also recognized a truth the Bible described long ago. Creation is vast and almost infinitely diverse. Consider, for example, that earth contains 40,000 types of beetles! The Bible celebrates this diversity in the Book of Psalms, where we read,

How manifold are your works, O God.

You have made them all in wisdom.

The earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and wide.

There the creeping things beyond count, Living things great and small.” (104:24-45)

As we learn more about the world, we are uncovering the vastness God implanted within it. Even more astonishing, this diversity shares a common source. Every organism shares the same genetic code. To use a literary metaphor, we are all part of one dictionary.

As science writer Matt Ridley put it, “Wherever you go in the world, whatever animal, plant, bug or blob you look at, if it is alive, it will use the same dictionary and know the same code. All life is one…This means – and religious people might find this a useful argument – that there was only one creation, one single event when life was born.”

Divine Language

The final area of convergence is language. Language is not simply the words we speak. It is a series of symbols used to structure reality. Recall how Dr. Collins entitled his book The Language of God. That language, in Collins metaphor, is DNA.

DNA are strings of letters array in different orders. The arrangement of the letters creates life. Is it coincidental that God’s creation of the world begins with the words, “God said ‘Let there be light, and there was light?”

To continue this metaphor, we can understand creation as a result of different permutations of letters. We call these letters DNA, and they are really the building blocks of life.

Science may not prove God to everybody. Yet, the more we learn, the more we grow in our awe and amazement at the beauty of God’s creation.

How Healing and Forgiveness Can Come in the Wake of Trayvon Martin

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originally written for Beliefnet.com

As President Obama said, the jury has spoken. The case has concluded. One side won, and another side lost. Yet, no one is happy. A 15-year-old boy is dead. Grieving parents will never be the same. What now?

Some want to continue the conflict. Facebook and twitter are filled with words of vitriol and vengeance. Others, like Trayvon Martin’s parents, have conveyed their sadness and hope. They have turned to faith not in the name of anger. They have turned to God in the name of healing. This morning Trayvon Martin’s mom tweeted, Continue reading

Jewish Beliefs About Jesus

rabbi jesus

This article was originally on my blog at Beliefnet.

For every complex question, as H.L. Mencken once put, there is usually an answer that is “clear, simple and wrong.”

His observation rings true when it comes to a question I get at least once a week. What do Jews believe about Jesus?Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another?

Yet, we ignore the question at our own peril.

Learning About Jesus Means Learning About Judaism Continue reading

Why Did I Become a Rabbi?

 

Whenever I tell people I’m a rabbi, the first question they ask is, “Where’s your beard?” The next question is usually something like, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?”

Blessing a recent Bat Mitzah. A favorite part of what I do.

Blessing a recent Bat Mitzah.

 

This question reflects a number of different cultural forces. The first is the largely secular identity of the American Jewish community. Jews express belief in God in significantly less proportions than other religious groups. They attend houses of worship less than other groups. While charitable giving to Jewish causes, commitment to education and liberal voting patterns continue to distinguish Jews as a group, religious practice and affiliation are irrelevant to a significant percentage of them. Continue reading