Ask the Rabbi
“Ask the Rabbi.”
The question below was asked by Howard Bernstein.
Q What do (Reform) Jews believe about life after death?
Is there a life after death?
If yes, what is it like?
How does one qualify to get in?
What is the result if one does not qualify to get in?
What is the authority for such beliefs?
A When it comes to death, Judaism does not lack for teachings. Our tradition provides clear instructions on how to prepare for death, what to say upon hearing of a death, how to care for the body of the deceased, how to conduct the burial, and even instructs mourners on how (and how long) to grieve. But when it comes to “belief”, Reform and Conservative Judaism are much less definitive in their teachings.
If only you had asked me about traditional Judaism, which relies on the great scholar Maimonides, whose 13 fundamental principles of faith are included the Mishnah Torah. The last of these principles states: “I believe with perfect faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator…” Because he was one of the greatest sages of all time, Maimonides himself is the “authority” for this belief.
So what does this authority say? In reading the Bible, we can find several references to an afterlife. In the book of Genesis, Jacob speaks of descending to Sheol. And in the book of Samuel, the prophet is brought back from the dead to speak to a king. While Judaism learns nothing definitive from these incidents, it does not deny them either. Instead, seemingly from the very beginning of our existence, we push the issue of death aside, and focus instead on life.
Why do we take this attitude? One could make the case that it is connected to what our ancestors experienced in Egypt. Egypt’s religious life was centered on death. The pyramids, themselves, are large tombs. And the Egyptian priests were intimately connected with the rites of death. Meanwhile when Judaism emerged, its primary focus was on life, on building a just and fair society; creating a world based, not on slavery, but a place where people are treated with dignity and respect. The separation from death is so complete that, when it comes to the role of our priests, they are expressly forbidden to have any contact with the dead. Thus, the lack of attention given to the question of life after death seems to be rooted in the very origin of our traditions.
So what do I believe? I believe that societies have often used promises of an afterlife as a basis for justifying how they treat others in this world, and Judaism wanted us to avoid this behavior. That said, the stories in our texts, and the anecdotal experiences of life, (encounters that I have had, and those that others have shared with me,) suggest that while bodies are finite, life continues on. Of course, my authority for such a position is no different than that of Maimonides. It is a belief; to some a leap of faith, to others, a logical conclusion to the evidence I’ve acquired over my lifetime.
And for those unable to fathom a leap into the unknown, our reform tradition offers three more possibilities; that we live on through our descendants; through our deeds; and through our common destiny with the Jewish people. As long as a child remembers a parent, as long as our acts of love bring blessings to others lives; as long as our people persevere and bring God’s light into the world, then we have fulfilled a purpose and our life has meaning.
Rabbi Sidney Helbraun
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