Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

The Pope Rethinks the Afterlife

For most of us, I suppose, the word “limbo” calls to mind a certain dance craze associated with Chubby Checker, whose major hit, “(C’mon, Baby, Let’s Do) The Twist,” was probably covered by every bar mitzvah band that ventured beyond “The Hokey Pokey” and “Hava Nagila” between 1961 and 1965.

Limbo remained in that private space of personal nostalgia until recently, when the media reported that Pope Benedict XVI, moved by longstanding theological reservations, had officially deleted the concept of “limbo” from Catholic doctrinal teaching.

No, this does not mean that Roman Catholics in Hawaiian shirts no longer may try to wriggle under progressively lowered bars at beach parties. In traditional Catholic teaching, limbo is a concept that performs a crucial theological task — what sociologists of religion call a “rationalization in service of theodicy.”

It offers a rationally coherent and emotionally satisfying account of beliefs that might otherwise call the justice of God into serious question. In the case of limbo, the rationalization serves traditional Catholic teaching about one of the seven fundamental sacraments of the Church: baptism.

Baptism is one of the many ritual elements that the Church adapted from its Judaic heritage in a totally reinterpreted form. The first Jewish Christians knew of baptism as tevilah, a ritual immersion of the body in a pool of water for purposes of purification from contact with various sources of uncleanness. They knew as well that, at least according to the rabbinic sages, converts require tevilah as the culmination of their ritual transformation into a virtually reborn human being, complete with a new name and a new family — the tribe spawned by Abraham and Sarah.

To this day, converts to Judaism are renamed after completing their tevilah. So complete is this transformation of personal identity that, according to traditional halachic views, the convert’s birth family members are, literally, no longer kin.

Among other things, converts are exempt from all mourning rites appropriate for deceased Jewish birth parents. That is, converts are effectively denied the psychologically healing rituals of closure that born Jews associate with shiva¸ shloshim, yahrzeit and, among many of the strictly observant, even Kaddish. Hold that thought as we shift back to Catholic sacramental baptism. Here, the transformation of the individual is understood metaphysically. Baptism washes away inherited human sinfulness, initiating the baptized soul into the redemptive circle of salvation.

The unbaptized soul simply cannot enter the gates of eternity after the death of the body. That is why as early as the third-century C.E., Christian theologians from Gregory of Nazianzus to Augustine of Hippo insisted upon the baptism of newborns, lest they die prior to inclusion in the eternal Life of the Church and their souls fall into eternal damnation.

Enter the concept of limbo. Medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, were troubled by the injustice of the damnation of innocent infant souls, not to mention that of all righteous souls — such as those of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, who had the misfortune of predeceasing God’s sacrifice of His Son. So they developed an elegant solution.

Souls who, through no personal fault, had not been baptized, do not descend immediately to hellfire. Rather, they enter a kind of holding pen, unaware of either pleasure or pain, just outside the gates of heaven. There they remain until cleansed of the original sin of Adam and qualified to receive the beatific vision.

This notion of limbo never achieved an official dogmatic imprimatur. But it is woven tightly into the warp and woof of Catholic popular piety, surfacing in such majestic expressions of Catholic sensibility as, for example, Dante’s “Purgatorio.” So the obvious question, asked recently by more than a few Catholic bloggers, is: what is the Pope thinking in declaring his theological version of Gilda Radner’s famous ‘Never mind!”?

I don’t pretend to know. But I can, by analogy, easily imagine how such sudden shifts of traditional piety might play in our own Jewish world.

Suppose that Conservative Jews awoke one morning to discover that the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had ruled that the procedures for atonement on Yom Kippur were now reclassified from halachic obligations to aggadic exhortations? Lashon hara is no longer a “sin,” but merely a “hurtful choice”?

Or — here I dream wildly — suppose the Orthodox Union announced that, insofar as the mothers of chickens do not lactate, the rabbinic extension of the biblical prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk to mixtures of dairy and foul no longer applies. Do all the generations of Israel who lived and died without tasting Chicken Kiev now get to sample a plateful at the messianic banquet in the Garden of Eden?

I guess what bothers me is this: How is it possible to simply legislate that centuries of belief, hallowed by age-old traditions of ritual, are misinterpretations? Most “rationalizations in service of theodicy” work best when they shore up the familiar and accepted. But when deployed to overturn what is accepted as tradition, they engender cynicism.

As a Jew, it is not my place to complain about papal theological activism. After all, most of us are grateful that earlier moments of anti-traditional traditionalism have made it possible for modern Catholics to rethink the anti-Judaism of medieval Catholicism. But on the other hand, we Jews have our own experience of being so eager to synchronize ourselves with modernity that we threw our precious baby — millennia of halachically honed moral sensibilities — right out the window with the murky bathwaters of worldviews declared irrational, unscientific or reactionary.

So before you titter at the unceremonious expulsion of limbo from the Catholic economy of salvation, recall that the halachic predicament of our very own “baptized” deserves some overdue rationalization as well — after all, it profoundly affects life in this world, not just in the one to come.

Martin Jaffee, a professor of comparative religion and Jewish studies at the University of Washington, is co-editor of the forthcoming “Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature” (Cambridge University Press).


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.