Judaism from A to Z—”Afterlife”
The afterlife (Olam haBa) is rarely discussed in Jewish life, be it among Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews. This is in marked contrast to the religious traditions of the people among whom the Jews have lived. The afterlife has always played a critical role in Islamic and Christian teachings, for example. Jewish teachings on the subject of the afterlife are sparse: Our Torah has no clear reference to the afterlife at all.
Since Judaism does believe in the “next world,” how does one account for the Torah’s silence? I suspect there is a correlation between its nondiscussion of the afterlife and the fact that the Torah was revealed just after the long Jewish sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society from which the Hebrew slaves emerged was obsessed with death and the afterlife. The holiest Egyptian literary work was called The Book of the Dead, while the major achievement of many Pharaohs was the erection of the giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast, the Torah is obsessed with this world, so much so that it even forbids its priests from coming into contact with dead bodies. The Torah, therefore, might have been silent about the afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death obsessed Egyptian religion.
In Judaism the belief in the afterlife is less a leap of faith than a logical outgrowth of other Jewish beliefs. If one believes in a God who is all-powerful and all-just, one cannot believe that this world, in which evil far too often triumphs, is the only arena in which human life exists. For if this existence is the final word, and God permits evil to win, then it cannot be that God is good.
According to Judaism, what happens in the next world? As noted, on this subject there is little material. Some of the suggestions about afterlife in Jewish writings and folklore are even humorous. One story teaches, Moses sits in heaven and teaches Torah all day long. For the righteous people (the tzaddikim), this is heaven; for the evil people, it is hell. Another folktale teaches that in both heaven and hell, human beings cannot bend their elbows. In hell people are perpetually starved; in heaven each person feeds his neighbour.
All attempts to describe heaven and hell are, of course, speculative. Because Judaism believes that God is good, it believes that God rewards good people; it does not believe that Adolf Hitler and his victims share the same fate. Beyond that, it is hard to assume much more. We are asked to leave the afterlife in God’s hands.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy )