Question: Dear Rabbi Maroof,
First of all, I would like to thank you for providing this space to address Jewish matters. My question is related to the afterlife, a subject in which Judaism contains a variety of opinions. From my understanding (please let me know if I am misunderstanding any concept), according to some biblical references, more specifically, Job and Ecclesiastes, there’s a place called “Sheol”, an underground abyss where all souls -whether good or evil, go. There’s also the concept of Gan Eden (heaven) and Gehinnom (hell), but ultimately all souls go to heaven after they purge their sins and wrongdoings, except the extremely wicked and evil, whose soul will be either ceased from existence or be eternally under suffering -this is another topic that has different interpretations. So, are Sheol and Gehinnon equivalent? Also, after the resurrection of the souls in the World to Come (in a physical form), will there be death again?
Response: Dear Carolina,
These are weighty and complex questions. Let me begin by emphasizing that the concept of a soul entering a “place”, whether under or above ground, is not a part of Jewish theology. The soul is not a physical object that can travel in space or be situated in a specific location. Whenever a reference is made to a soul ‘going’ somewhere, it is intended in a metaphoric, not a literal, sense.
The Biblical term “Sheol” simply refers to the grave, the final resting place of the physical body.
Maimonides teaches that the Afterlife is a metaphysical state of blissful existence that ensues after the separation of the soul from the body. This state can only be achieved by an individual who has perfected his or her soul through the acquisition of knowledge and positive character traits and the performance of good deeds. Because the soul has developed a spiritual, transcendent aspect, it is able to survive physical death and partake of the greatest reward imaginable - namely, an unadulterated and fully satisfying perception of Hashem’s wisdom.
It is important to remember that, since we exist in a physical body during this lifetime and all of our knowledge is based upon our experiences of the material world, we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to exist metaphysically. This is the reason why our Sages are compelled to employ metaphor and analogy when speaking about these profound matters. Unfortunately, because we are generally much more comfortable with concrete imagery than abstract ideas, many people latch onto the metaphoric depictions of the rabbis as if they are literal facts. Thus, they develop sensual concepts of the World to Come that are of necessity inaccurate. We must accept the reality that the true nature of the Afterlife is not something that we have the ability to comprehend during our sojourn on this Earth.
Wicked people whose entire existence in this world revolves around material gain and bodily pleasure have not actualized the metaphysical dimension of their souls. As a result, their souls perish with their bodies at the conclusion of their physical lives. They suffer the ultimate punishment - the loss of the opportunity to experience the pleasure of true knowledge and understanding.
In the Messianic era, the righteous will be revived from the dead and will participate in the establishment of a utopian society that will be fully aligned with God’s wisdom. Their resurrection will also afford these great men and women the benefit of living in an enlightened world community - something they did not have the opportunity to do before their deaths. In the end, though, the laws of nature will continue to reign, and the righteous - like all other mortals - will eventually pass away once again, allowing their souls to return to a blessed state of metaphysical existence for eternity.
I would like to add two important points. The first point is that our service of Hashem in this world is inherently rewarding and fulfilling. Any additional reward is really superfluous to the wise person who enjoys truth and justice for their own sake. Similarly, living a materialistic, unenlightened life is its own punishment. Such a lifestyle frustrates human beings, denying them the actualization of their intellectual and spiritual potential while offering them an endless array of unsatisfying substitutes that fail to address their uniquely human needs.
Those who believe that the ultimate reward for study and righteousness is endless physical pleasure necessarily maintain that the pleasures of the body are the ultimate good for human beings, and that living wisely is a means to the end of material self-indulgence. Similarly, the belief in eternal physical torment for the wicked stems from the assumption that bodily suffering is worse than the pain of living without wisdom. Both of these suppositions are contrary to the core teachings of Judaism. The devoted Jew does not need the promise of extrinsic reward nor the threat of extrinsic punishment to entice him or her to live by the dictates of the Torah. Pleasures and pains of the body are simply incomparable to the contentment the soul derives from its pursuit of knowledge and virtue. By way of analogy, imagine that a wealthy individual offered you one million dollars cash, with no strings attached. Would you ask “well, what’s in it for me? What’s my reward for accepting the money?” Any additional reward would pale by comparison to the receipt of the funds themselves. In the same way, wisdom is its own reward, and anyone who asks “what’s in it for me” has not yet experienced its beauty - a beauty so rich and overflowing that it causes all temporal enjoyments to seem base and worthless by comparison.
The second point I’d like to emphasize is that the common notion of “Divine Punishment” is derived from the theologies of other popular religions, and not from the teachings of the Torah. In these religions, God is portrayed as an angry humanlike being who cannot tolerate the disregard with which human beings treat Him and His laws. His thirst for vengeance is so all-consuming that the only way He can quell his rage is by condemning sinners to everlasting torment in Hell. This idea is, of course, based upon the assumption that God takes pleasure in our morality and religiosity and that He becomes frustrated and aggressive when we fail to placate Him with our worship. Advocates of this notion seem to maintain that God finds comfort in torturing violators of His commandments for all eternity.
By contrast, the Jewish view is that righteousness and wickedness - as well as reward and punishment - are exclusively for human benefit. God does not become ‘angry’ when we sin, nor does our goodness provide Him any satisfaction. When we make the right choices, then God may assist us in furthering our development so that we more fully actualize the potential for genuine happiness that He implanted within us - not because He needs us to continue, but because it is His will to provide the best for His creatures.
At the same time, when we choose to act immorally, we do a disservice to ourselves alone. God, in His infinite mercy, may punish us to correct us and steer us back onto the proper path, but not because He takes some sinister, vengeful pleasure in our suffering. We can see this from the fact that God only intervenes to punish individuals whom He knows are sufficiently close to Him to respond appropriately to censure, as King Solomon wrote, “The ones God loves, He rebukes.” If a person is so far from God that there is no hope that he will repent as a result of Divinely imposed punishments, then God will not implement them. Hashem does not mete out consequences to make us suffer for our sins; His purpose in chastising human beings is to educate and uplift those of us who are at least potentially receptive to His message.
From this standpoint, it is clear why subjecting human souls to everlasting torment in the Hereafter would be meaningless. Once our lives are over, all hope of repentance is lost - so what use would punishment serve after death? Only a religion that views God in human terms - as a sadistic father-figure who is insatiably angry with his children and needs to ‘vent’ - could possibly embrace such a concept.
I should mention that there are some Rabbis, such as Nachmanides, who subscribe to the concept of ‘Gehinnom’. ‘Gehinnom’ is understood here as a process of purification of the soul - metaphorically denoted by a ‘place’ to which it goes - that occurs before that soul enters its final state of spiritual existence. We all have ties to the material world that serve as obstacles to our spiritual growth, interfering and even tampering with the proper development of our souls. The idea of Gehinnom is that a profound experience of self-awareness and intellectual clarity after death - revealing, as it would, that any attachment to the realm of the physical is utterly meaningless - may enable a person to become freed from some of these limitations and thus to enjoy a more complete and gratifying metaphysical existence in the Next World.
For a more detailed and in-depth discussion of these ideas, I would encourage you to read Maimonides’ “Introduction to Helek”, which can be purchased in English translation from Moznaim Publishers (It appears as an appendix in the volume of the Rambam series entitled “Pirkei Avot”).
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