Is There a Jewish View of the Afterlife?

I have a life motto: a great way to know a little about a lot of subject is . . . to read 25% of a lot of books!

Well, I didn’t mean for that to be my life motto. But it is. I see so many books on theology, Biblical studies, Christianity, Judaism, history, archaeology, and so on that fascinate me. I want to read them all — at the same time.

I frequently get a book and read a little, put it down, move on in succession to a dozen other books, and then come back to it — mix, stir, repeat. Sometimes I finish books through this method in a year or two, having digested fifty more the same way.

One of the books I am abusing in this manner is Simcha Raphael’s Jewish Views of the Afterlife. It is a fascinating journey starting with Biblical material and traveling into modern times in Jewish sources.

I’ve only read the first ten percent of Raphael’s book and I am not endorsing his views. He seems to be leading toward something very Eastern and not, in my mind, Jewish. He is a disciple of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. In the foreword, Reb Zalman, as he is called, disavows physical notions of the afterlife in favor of a Gnostic-Platonic-Maimonidean-Pantheist sort of non-physical, eternal contemplation of the divine mystery after a long period of reincarnations.

How did such a view come to be part of anyone’s idea of Judaism? I honestly would like to understand. And yes, I mean also to express my disdain for the kabbalistic emphasis on reincarnation.

Yet it also appears that Raphael’s book, even if he comes out with a very different conception of the hereafter than I do, is a great source. No doubt I will find many topics from his book for blogging delight.

In the second chapter, for example, Raphael examines the reasons for modern Jewish ambivalence about the hereafter.

Raphael astutely mentions a variety of factors: rationalism, the influence of Maimonides’ skepticism, and Auschwitz. The astounding thing is that surveys from 1952 and 1965 found that only 35% and 17% of American Jews believed in the afterlife with any degree of firmness. I would guess the number has probably risen again in our time as faith in the metaphysical is increasing. Yet it pains me as a student of the Bible (and increasingly of rabbinic literature as well) to think that the beautiful words I read in the Bible and the rabbis are not lovingly embraced as the greatest light in this present darkness.

In my early days of learning about Judaism I used to hear often,

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