The topic I chose to discuss for this research paper is the Jewish concept of the afterlife. I find this topic to be particularly interesting as I have learned a lot about it while taking this class. For example, something that I did not know before taking this class was that Jewish people do not believe in the existence of Hell. While on the topic of Hell, I believe it is crucial to start with how the ancient Jews in the Biblical era viewed the afterlife. Their view at this time was that all Jews and gentiles go to a netherworld called She’ol which was basically a dark place where gloomy spirits resided. Basically, this afterlife consisted of darkness and ghost like spirts.
The Greeks and the Babylonians both believed in this theory of the afterlife. However, this changed as a new form of eschatology took center stage. This new eschatology took over during the struggle between Jews and the Greek world in the second century. There was a Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus who stated that the Pharisees who were the founders of Rabbinic Judaism believed in reincarnation. This first century Jewish historian writes that the Pharisees believed the souls of evil men are punished after death and that the souls of good men are “removed into other bodies” and they will “have power to revive and live again.” Many times throughout Jewish history, there had been an insistent belief that their prophets were reborn. The belief in Reincarnation was part of the Jewish dogmas and was taught under the name “resurrection.” However, the Sadducees did not accept or believe in reincarnation.
The Sadducees believed that once you are dead that is the end of everything. Basically, everything ended with death. However, Josephus tells us that the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed and in reincarnation and that it was actually taught to them by Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras was a philosopher who taught reincarnation. The Essenes lived the same kind of life as the followers of Pythagoras and they believed that the soul is both immortal and preexistent which is necessary for tenets for belief in reincarnation. Orthodox Jews have believed in the existence of reincarnation for thousands of years. For example, in the Zohar which is a book of great authority amidst Kabbalistic Jews. You can find a statement that says “All souls are subject to revolutions. Men do not know the way they have been judged in all time.” This basically means that in their “revolutions” they no longer have all memory of the actions which led to them being judged. Also, another great quote I found that I feel gives a deeper insight to how Jewish people thought about the afterlife is by Rabbi Manasseh be Israel. He states that “The belief of or doctrine of the transmigration of souls is a firm and infallible dogma accepted by the whole assemblage of our church with one accord, so that there is none to be found who would dare deny it…Indeed, there is a great number of sages in Israel who hold firm to this doctrine so that they made it a dogma, a fundamental point of our religion. We are therefore in duty bound to obey and to accept this dogma with acclamation…as the truth of it has been incontestably demonstrated by the Zohar, and all books of the Kabbalists.” This quote is very clear in how serious this matter should be taken by anyone who is Jewish. Something that is very clear in his quote is that the belief in the matters of the afterlife and reincarnation are vital principles in Judaism and he even goes on to cite books that have demonstrated how seriously they take their views on the afterlife.
However, during 1194-1270 the Jewish scholar Nachmanides was influenced by both the rationalist and the mystical streams. He granted the idea of reincarnation, however, the concept had been rejected by Saadia Goaon and other rabbis. Nachmanides believed that all residents in the Garden of Eden will reunite with their bodies and move to the World to Come. This “World to Come” will have two tiers which include the lower souls will require some form of sustenance, while the more developed will exist like angels with wings. So as you can see even though a lot of Jewish people believe in reincarnation there are certain details that may be found in how they view reincarnation depending on each person and what they have read or learned.
Today, there are many different beliefs in the afterlife and some Jewish people have abandon the belief the in the afterlife altogether. However, in modern Judaism the traditional view of resurrection is acknowledge by the orthodox, however, not by the non-orthodox. If you are not an Orthodox Jew, then it is likely that you as well as other ordinary believers accept the idea of an immortal soul. Before, taking this course I had heard of reincarnation before, however, I did not realize what a huge role in played in the Jewish religion. After doing more research on the topic of Jewish thoughts on the afterlife I have realized though they may differ in details a common thread I found was the belief in reincarnation. Also, being Catholic I’ve only ever acknowledge one thought on the matter of the afterlife.
Of course, that the thought is that when we die we either go to Heaven or Hell or even Purgatory which is believed to be a part of heaven in which the person’s souls needs to be further purified in order to enjoy eternal glory with God. This is actually very similar to how Jewish people think of reincarnation. For example, when Nachmanides states that the lower souls will need some kind of sustenance, however, the more developed souls will exist with angel wings. The lower souls resemble how the Catholics think of the souls in Purgatory in how they are not necessarily going to be suffering for all eternity, however, they will not be immediately rewarded with angel wings either.