Judaism is not a religion of dogma. Though there have been times and places where one position on a theological matter has dominated, the history of the Jewish people, with its many migrations and evolutions, reveals a system characterized more by shifting ideas than stable creeds. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in views of the afterlife.
Leila Leah Bronner explores these diverse and sometimes-contradictory ideas in her book Journey to Heaven. A scholar of ancient Semitic languages, Bronner’s aim is not only to assess the textual underpinnings of this often startling subject, but also to show that the hereafter is more prevalent in Jewish thought than most would presume. She presents a chronological overview of the various afterlife teachings, paying close attention to the social contexts and written sources from which they arose. The result is a valuable primer that, in terms of clarity, readability and focus, exceeds Simcha Paull Raphael’s more cumbersome book on the topic, Jewish Views of the Afterlife (1994).
The views Bronner examines can be summarized as follows: the Bible describes Sheol, a place of darkness where all the dead reside, and hints at bodily resurrection; the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Second Temple period add visions of heaven, hell and the immortal soul; the Mishnah and Talmud expand ideas of resurrection, Gan Eden (heaven), Gehinnom (hell) and the World to Come; medieval philosophers discussed literal and figurative notions of eternal judgment; and Lurianic mystics introduced reincarnation. Bronner also devotes a chapter to surveying conceptions of the Messiah in each of these periods, and messianic themes in movements like Zionism.
Each of these innovations and modifications bears the mark of internal debates, external influences, creative embellishments and a host of social and intellectual concerns. Bronner succeeds in detailing these transformations in a straightforward and engaging manner. Less compelling, however, is her case for why modern Jews should take an interest in these divergent views. Her remarks on this matter—which are confined to a brief afterword—can be distilled to a single comment: “I have found in the course of my research for this book that Jewish sources on the afterlife suggest an array of possibilities infused with hope and faith . . . [and 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” (p. 184). While hope is certainly a Jewish virtue, the force it exerted in spurring afterlife beliefs was not enough to generate consensus or even widespread acceptance.
So, why do most Jews lack knowledge of these afterlife teachings? The best explanation is found in the book’s introduction, though it comes in a statement Bronner disagrees with: “I have often heard people say that Judaism is a faith concerned with life in this world, not a religion that dwells on what we might expect beyond the grave” (p. 11). Despite their intriguing histories, fantastic imagery and enticing possibilities, ideas of the afterlife have never gained prominence in a worldview so keenly focused on the here and now. Moreover, it is clear that these varied opinions are the product of imagination rather than revelation, and thus are not imbued with great authority.
But this does little to diminish the appeal of Bronner’s work. As an examination of an obscure yet fascinating area of Jewish thought, it is both educational and stimulating. And since the question of what happens after death crosses the minds of most people—even Jews—the concepts treated in Journey to Heaven may give some readers comfort and inspiration
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