Judaism from A to Z—”G: Gan Eden and Gehinnom”
You might have heard before that we Jews can be quite relaxed when someone curses us, saying “we should go to hell”, as there is no such thing as a “Jewish hell”. However, Judaism would not be Judaism, if there is not a little, “mmmm, perhaps, somehow, not sooo sure, there might be something, that could be something like a hell”. So let me explain:
Although there are streams of Judaism that would argue against life after death, the vast majority believe in Olam Habah—the world to come, meaning, yes, there is heaven. Although the Hebrew Bible devotes little time to speculating upon it, you can find the image of God as Avinu Malkinu (Our Father and King) sitting in judgment, delivering reward or punishment within the heavenly court. Others imagine an ethereal Beit Midrash (House of Study) where the Tzaddikim (Righteous) study Torah all “day” long. The more mystical Jewish traditions envision a ladder of consciousness, at the very top of which resides the ineffable: God beyond description. So, yes, Judaism believes in “heaven,” and yes, Judaism also believes in “hell.”
As there is no one depiction of the world on high, so too “the world below” is equally nuanced, sophisticated and diverse in description. The Torah refers to a place called “She’ol,” originally a physical location and later a spiritual destination for sinners and troubled souls. Some, particularly the Kabbalists, viewed She’ol as a necessary stopping point for all souls on their journey from this world to the next, a place to work through the sins of this life. Later, the Jewish mystical tradition expanded upon this notion, describing an even more complex version called “Gehinom.” Whereas some souls ascend straight to the Garden of Eden on High, the vast majority of souls have some kind of a layover, less than 12 months, in Gehinom—a place to work through life’s hangovers as they prepare for Olam Habah. The truly evil, however, are either eternally damned to Gehinom or disposed of into a cosmic non-exitance. Thankfully, according to this view, for most of us it is just a matter of time before our souls ascend to heaven.
The bottom line: There isn’t one definitive understanding of life after death or heaven and hell. As the saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” While we would love to have an absolute answer to it, it actually really doesn’t matter, because there is only one thing what matters in the here and now: It is what you do and how you do it.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Rabbi Baruch HaLevi )