We are often told that Judaism is more concerned with this world than what may happen in the next. This is true up to a point. But it is impossible to ignore that the world to come is a central component of rabbinic thinking. The daily Amidah declares a belief in bodily resurrection, while one of the first morning prayers mentions the rewards that good deeds merit in the hereafter.
Leila Leah Bronner’s short book provides an excellent introduction to how ideas of the afterlife took root in Judaism, written for a general readership by a veteran scholar – she was professor of Bible and Jewish history at Witwatersrand University, South Africa.
She moves from the first fleeting references to the revival of the dead in the Bible, to notions of Gan Eden (paradise) and Gehinnom (hell) debated in the Talmud to kabbalistic reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Not the least of the book’s virtues is extensive quotation from sources probably unfamiliar to most of us, such as extra-canonical ancient texts like Jubilees, Baruch or Enoch.
She goes on to explain how Maimonides reconciled his belief that the world to come was a purely spiritual one with the principle of physical resurrection: those revived at the end of days will die a second time and then rise to an eternal angel-like existence without bodies.
Judaism offers an “array of possibilities” on the afterlife, she concludes, comparing it to the journey of Abraham, who was ordered by God to leave his home for a destination that he could not know in advance.