Demons, Ghosts, & the Angel of Death
Reader: Will there be animals in heaven? I also wanted to know if you believe in reincarnation? I am converting to Judaism and some of the things I’ve been hearing about are really hard for me to believe, i.e., demons, ghosts, the Angel of death. For someone who wasn’t raised to believe this way, these concepts are really hard to grasp. I know without a fact that the messiah hasn’t come yet because what is stated in the Torah that he would accomplish hasn’t happened yet. Do you think you could help me? Thank you and may Hashem richly bless you.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Heaven is not physical, as our bodies decay in the grave, but our souls exist in a non-physical state of bliss. Thus, there are no people or animals “there.” We are in communion with God’s wisdom. But with regard to the World-to-Come, it is stated, “No eye has seen it, God, aside from You God” (Isaiah 64:3) (Talmud Berachos 34b).
Torah does not speak of reincarnation, only of resurrection at one point in the future. Saadia Gaon fully rejects reincarnation as an alien and foolish belief, perhaps started by Egypt’s culture (“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” Yale Judaica Series, Vol. I “The Soul” chap. VIII pp 259). Reincarnation is not found in Torah, but only in the mouths of today’s Jews, which does not determine what is a Torah truth. As Maimonides says, “We only accept as truth one of three matters: that which we experience with one of our senses, that which our mind tells us must be true, or that which is found in Torah.” But if any notion is not validated in one of these three ways, Maimonides teaches we must reject it as false. And this is sensible, for there is no other means to determine what is real other than our senses, our intellect, or God’s authority
Demons are not to be accepted as typically misunderstood, i.e., living “evil” beings roaming the earth, as they have never been encountered. When the rabbis referred to demons, they referred to psychological issues, such as imagining we see people when we are isolated. The social need is so powerful that the mind creates vague images or shadows of people to remove our loneliness, just like those in the desert thirsting for their lives will imagine an oasis.
And the a Angel of Death, as Maimonides explains, refers to the result of following our instincts. There is no real Angel of Death, other than the term applied to those following a purely physical lifestyle. As they have never engaged there intellects, there is no means by which their souls can continue after death. Therefore, as following one's instinctual desires destroys the soul, this lifestyle earns the appellation Angel of Death. This means that one's poor choices is the true “Angel of Death.”
The account of Saul and the witch on the surface appears to validate the existence of a ghost. The witch ostensibly raised Samuel from the dead, but the rabbis (Radak, Samuel I, 28:25 towards the end) view this as metaphor. The reason why Prophets depicts this story as literal, is precisely to convey how real this fantasy was in King Saul’s mind. Torah has many modes of conveying truths, from repetition, metaphor, juxtaposition, and as here, of an out right impossibility. (Read the entire analysis: http://www.mesora.org/saulandthewitch.htm)
Follow Maimonides’ principles and accept only that which passes these three methods of validation. You will find nothing in Torah that disagrees with your mind. It is for this reason that the beliefs that you have heard as so called “Jewish” concepts are disagreeable to you. They are misunderstandings that people heard when they were children and have not been able to analyze and reject as adults.