When you close your eyes and conjure an image of your ideal afterlife, what appears? Are you able to visit with lost loved ones? Do you finally find the answers to life’s most hidden truths? Is there an all-you-can-eat buffet? Do you have a body? Can you conjure any image at all?
How Judaism weighs in on the question of the afterlife depends on what you mean by “afterlife” and why you are asking. The answers to the question of whether or not there is an afterlife are wide-ranging, diverse, and sometimes contradictory. Jewish texts of every genre and generation explore the afterlife. Some describe a messianic world-to-come that takes place at the end of days, offering a collective afterlife, once the messiah comes, that will emerge only in a time when life as we know it is over and gone. Other texts imagine an alternate world, parallel to ours, that exists right now, where the souls of the righteous live on and where we too can earn a place if we are worthy. This is why the Talmud warns the living (Berakhot 18b) not to taunt the dead in a cemetery — the tractate imagines that the dead are aware and even jealous of the actions of the living, and could penalize them for their loose tongues. And in another talmudic tractate (Ta’anit 16a), people ask the souls in the cemetery to request mercy on their behalf. Our liturgy and hasidic texts, moreover, offer images of resurrection and reincarnation. These texts offer diverse Jewish answers to questions about the afterlife, transforming death from an ending into a potentially resplendent transitional moment.
The quest to understand what is meant by the afterlife leads us back to one universal, central, and eternal question: What are you hoping for in an afterlife? Curiosity about what comes next is directly tied to our notion of mortality. By exploring these ancient texts — and there are countless texts that reveal countless different answers — we are given a glimpse of what the authors longed for, potentially opening doors for us to a deep wisdom about what matters in the lives we inhabit now. If we read these texts not as predictions, but rather as aspirations, we are given a window into the hearts of our Jewish ancestors, offering insight into centuries of human passion and purpose. When we close our eyes and think about an afterlife, it may provide a clue as to what we value most in this world. In the same way, when we read about what our ancestors hoped for, it gives us a window into what they valued.
When read with this lens, the very different depictions of the afterlife reveal different understandings about what matters to an individual. For example, a text from the Talmud describes an image of resurrection that is so embodied, it almost feels cartoonish. It quotes a Babylonian rabbi of the 3rd century: “Rabbi Hiyya bar Yosef stated: ‘The just, in the time-to-come, will rise [appareled] in their own clothes. [This is deduced] from a grain of wheat. If a grain of wheat that is buried naked sprouts up with many coverings, how much more so the just who are buried in their shrouds.” (tractate Ketubot 111b) Rabbi Hiyya tells us that we will come back to life, not only in our bodies, but with all of our clothing on! The image is drawn directly from nature: A seed is buried in the ground and miraculously emerges again as a plant. Resurrection is just another version of this familiar cycle-of-life. Given enough time, we might return to this world just as we were before.
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, offers a completely opposite view — a world-to-come where we are totally disembodied: “The world-to-come has no body or corporeality,” he writes, later adding, “Nothing that happens to bodies in this world happens there.” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance, chapter 8) Instead, he explains, souls “enjoy the glow of the Divine Presence,” which is to “know and grasp the truth of the Holy Blessed One.” In this future, we are bodiless minds that retain only knowledge and are finally able to “grasp Truth.”
These contradictory images reveal different experiences of life. Rabbi Hiyya wants more of this world. He envisions, and perhaps longs for, a chance to live again in his body. How many of us hope for the same? What matters most to Maimonides, on the other hand, is “Truth” and “Knowledge,” aspirations that find their way into his picture of the world-to-come.
Some people view life as an insatiable quest for understanding. For those who desperately want answers to life’s unanswered questions, Maimonides’ vision might be the most exciting and compelling articulation of the afterlife.
Of the many depictions of the world-to-come, I have a favorite: “Shabbat is a taste of the world-to-come.” (Bereishit__Rabbah 17:5) This text doesn’t ask me to wait until some future time to access the mystery and promise of a better world. I am invited to experience the world-to-come at the end of each and every week. As I celebrate Shabbat, whether with good food, good friends, family, or a nice long nap, Shabbat is my opportunity to live in the world of my dreams. On Shabbat, perhaps more than any other day, the unknowable questions echo.
Perhaps this Shabbat you and yours can consider what is for Judaism an age-old question: What are you hoping for in an afterlife?
Rabbi Avi Killip serves as vice-president of strategy and programs at the Hadar Institute. She was ordained from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston. An advisory board member of Sh’ma Now and the Jewish Studio Project, Killip lives in Riverdale, NY, with her husband and three young children.