Soul survival

by Abigail Klein Leichman

‘Journey to Heaven’ presents in a clear and organized manner the various Jewish approaches that evolved pertaining to the hereafter

As the daughter of a Lurianic kabbalist, Leila Leah Bronner learned from an early age about the beautiful “olam ha-ba,” the World to Come. Death was not to be feared, because of the perfection of this next world. Once, she asked her father with all the sincerity of a young child, “Tati, if olam ha-ba is such a wonderful place, why don’t we go there now?”

Her book Journey to Heaven presents in a clear and organized manner the various Jewish approaches that evolved pertaining to the hereafter, based on biblical allusions and oral traditions.

Starting with scattered references in the biblical canon – such as incidents of resurrection in narratives from Elijah and Elisha, the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision and apocalyptic passages in the Book of Daniel – she then examines post-biblical writings in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Mishna and Talmud, medieval Jewish philosophers, kabbalists and mystics, and finally modern theologians. One chapter focuses on the concept of the Messiah, which “is closely linked to Jewish thinking about the afterlife and has its own fascinating evolution over time.”

A former professor of Bible and Jewish history in South Africa, Bronner conveys this material with just enough clarification and commentary to provide religious, sociological and historical context without veering into too much commentary of her own. She successfully illustrates that although Judaism “is not a religion that dwells on what we might expect beyond the grave,” it does have a rich tradition of discussions and descriptions relating to this topic of timeless interest.

The picture that emerges is hardly monolithic, beginning with “a fragile trail of evidence” in biblical sources that grew increasingly detailed over the ensuing centuries.

In post-biblical texts containing Second Temple-era notions about the afterlife, the concept of the immortality of the soul is added to the existing belief in physical resurrection. Resurrection as a reward for righteousness also surfaces in these works.

It is in this corpus that we find the martyrdom story of Hannah and her seven sons. The mother fortifies her dying boys with the belief that “the Creator of the Universe… in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put His laws above all thought of self.” In IV Maccabees, the martyrs’ reward is described as “pure and deathless souls.”

The primary eschatological work of this period is the book of Enoch, which “deals not only with the fate of the individual soul but with the fate of humankind,” describing “the soul’s journey after death with an end-point in time, a Day of Judgment, and a spiritual Messiah who presides over human destiny.”

The Book of Baruch also contains graphic descriptions of life after death, making a distinction between the fate of the righteous (who will be changed into “the splendor of angels”) and the evil (who will be changed into “startling visions and horrible shapes”). This distinction was first alluded to in the Book of Daniel and fleshed out by many later sages. Resurrection, rather than immortality, comes to define the life hereafter, and “this is the idea that finally took hold and became a cornerstone of rabbinic and post-rabbinic Judaism.”

Bronner posits that “apocalyptic writing is typical at a time of turmoil; some people are comforted by the idea that this world will end and what comes next will be better.” She notes that “an afterlife provides reassurance that the suffering we endure in this existence is not worthless; instead, it is part of a greater pattern.”

The themes of judgment, accountability, punishment and vindication are expanded on over time, and form the basis as well for Christian ideology concerning heaven and hell.

The Pharisaic belief in both bodily resurrection and the immortality of the soul, as well as the idea that “behavior in this world affects the quality of one’s existence in the afterlife,” became mainstream. The contemporaneous Sadducee sect, made up mainly of priestly nobility, instead held that “souls die with the bodies,” while the ascetic Essenes “taught that the soul was immortal, being freed from the body at death and rising upwards to a heaven-like place.”

In mishnaic writings, a mere four references to resurrection “have impact great enough to influence religious belief and practice to this day.” Thirty references to the World to Come make this a dominant theme, sometimes centering on who will gain admission, and other times on how to gain admission.

“Jumping in where the Mishnah leaves off,” she writes, the talmudic rabbis “developed specific concepts about what happens in the hereafter; places of reward (Gan Eden) and punishment (Gehinnom), resurrection, and the World to Come. They also explored the relationship of the soul to the body, an idea that the earlier rabbis did not address.” They “endeavored to show that resurrection is no more miraculous than birth or the annual revival of plant life after winter. In the same way as life is generated by God, it can be regenerated by God.”

The Talmud also uses “the concept of the World to Come to encourage a preferred mode of behavior,” including living in the Land of Israel.

“In contrast to the categories in the Mishnah,” she adds, “where a degree of hard work, whether study, spiritual or personal, was required, it seems [in talmudic literature] that the World to Come can be attained in a single moment.”

Medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Kuzari author Judah Halevi, took a theological rather than philosophical approach: “Our correct and accepted traditional account has already verified the soul’s survival, regardless of any argument as to whether the soul is physical or purely spiritual.”

Maimonides laid down the first explicit concept of the soul’s immortality, but struggled to reconcile the doctrine of physical resurrection with that of an immortal soul, and was eventually persuaded by perplexed correspondents to clarify his views. In answer, he introduced the idea of “double dying,” explaining that the soul would be returned to the body during the era of resurrection and these revivified people would go on to live long and functional lives before dying again. The aim is to improve oneself on earth in order to achieve ultimate spiritual perfection in the World to Come.

Nahmanides disagreed. According to this more mystical sage, “the people of the resurrection will exist forever, from the time of the resurrection of the dead to the World to Come, which is an everlasting world.”

From the 14th to 16th centuries, kabbalists added many new insights to the discussion, particularly concerning the nature of the human soul and its three aspects: nefesh, ruah and neshama. The mystical tradition taught that “each of the separate aspects of the soul undergoes a different destiny after death.”

Bronner summarizes that “Jewish ideas about the afterlife comprise a vision of human perfectibility and divine protection,” and argues convincingly that despite the wide range of views, “permission for hope is always granted. It seems to me that the resilience of that hope – for the world, for the future, and for the individual – is an integral part of the Jewish story.”

This review appeared on page 39 in the Jerusalem Post Magazine on August 12, 2011.

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