Judaism 101: Gehenna (Hell)

In this segment of my Judaism 101 series, the panelists discuss the Jewish view of hell—or to put it in Jewish terminology, Gehenna. While I was questioning my evangelical beliefs, I remember very clearly the day I suddenly asked my self “what does the Old Testament actually say about hell?” The answer, I concluded, was not much—or at least not much that resembled the Christian version of hell that I had grown up with. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by the differences between the Jewish and Christian conceptions of hell, especially because Christianity claims to be built upon the foundation of Jewish ideas and yet departs from them so radically, in this area especially. And without further ado, on to our panelists!

Rachel

I feel like we more secular-leaning, pragmatic Jews actually understate the importance of the World to Come in Jewish thought and prayer, either through genuine disbelief or through not wanting to sound like a crazy Kabbalist (my excuse). It’s not the same as Christian concepts of “heaven”, but it does exist.

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Petticoat Philosopher

It does exist but I think one thing that would be very important to communicate is that there are a lot of different ideas about it out there and there isn’t one that’s necessarily dominant or normative.

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AztecQueen2000

I know that my children, even at a young age, are taught to believe in the coming of Mashiach (the Messiah) and in the rising of the dead.  This is such a strong idea that Orthodox Jews are discouraged from post-mortem organ donation so that they’ll be intact when the time comes.

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Hilary

From reading “Jewish views of the Afterlife”  yes there are a lot of different idea about the world to come; well above and beyond our normal standards of “2 Jews, 3 or more opinions.  I’m reading it going “I didn’t know that, I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that either - those rabbis used to believe what!?” I didn’t realize how much the belief in physical resurrection at the end of time was part of traditional rabbinic Judaism.  I had heard of it, but I didn’t know how much the end time zombie apocalypse meant.  Only because good people get resurrected, it’s a righteous zombie apocalypse.

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Ki Sarita

Orthodox Jews in the community that I grew up believe in purgatory where sinners go, it’s called Gehennom. They do not believe in eternal damnation but the threat of Gehennom is taken seriously enough to affect at least some people’s behavior.

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Hilary

I’m just now reading about the talmudic rabbis and purgatory.  I was impressed to read that both Jews and Gentiles were considered to go through 11 months of very elaborate purgatory to purify them of sins, and then went to heaven. Reading some of the punishments listed, it still is graphically medieval but at least it’s of a limited time, and equally for Jews and non-Jews alike.  Compared to what Christian medieval priests were teaching it’s fairly enlightened actually.

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Anat

Regarding afterlife, in my early years I was not exposed to the idea at all. Then during my years in Europe one of my art teachers showed representations of hell (and heaven) in art. It was my first exposure to the concept and was a rather traumatic experience. As a result my views of afterlife were primed by the Christian version.

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Ki Sarita

The whole fiery purgatory thing can be found in the stories told by the Talmudic Rabbis. We grow up with this frightening image, even though it’s understood not to be permanent. However, later on, in my extremely ultra orthodox seminary that I attended, I was taught that the Talmudic stories weren’t meant literally. Which  is now rather obvious to me as an adult with more of a literary than theological perspective. But then it was mind blowing. It’s interesting that sometimes whats actually written in the texts don’t always make it as part of common knowledge. So, In the seminary I chose to write a paper on purgatory in Talmudic literature and followed Rabbi Dessler’s line of thinking, that it involved an extreme unrelenting sense of shame and regret.

In the same vein, when I was older I studied a bit more about sin and repentance in the traditional texts (i think it was Maimonides?) and discovered that some sins were considered so heinous that only the person’s eventual death could atone for their sin. This refers even to death of natural causes.  This resonates with me today. It’s funny because this was totally not emphasized when I was growing up—it was between repentance and gehennom.  Just as well because what they might have thought of as an unpardonable heinous sin could be very different than what I would think today—something along the lines of molestation and so forth.

Some also believe that god may visit suffering on a person in their lifetime to spare them from gehennom.

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Rachel

To be more precise, Hilary, the very righteous will go straightly to their portion in the World to Come (Olam Ha-Ba), the very wicked will spend twelve months in Gehinnom and then either be destroyed or exist forever in a state of remorse, and the rest of us will spend a period of time (less than twelve months) in Gehinnom proportionate to our sins and then go on to our portion in Olam Ha-Ba.

It’s precisely because the maximum amount of time that a soul can spend in Gehinnom is 12 months (and only the very wicked last that long) that we stop reciting the mourner’s kaddish at 11 months: it would reflect rather badly on the people we’re saying kaddish for if we assumed they were in Gehinnom for a full 12 months.

So yeah, Jews don’t really have hell. But, like, Hitler? No portion in the world to come for him. Sucks to be him, because according to some sources, being in Olam Ha-Ba is like being in the afterglow of great sex, only even better. Don’t be a mass murderer on earth, and you get to experience an eternal orgasm after death!…I should put that on a bumper sticker.

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Hilary

I suppose the traditional Jewish belief that you have to have lived a profoundly evil life to get an eternity in hell regardless of your religion qualifies as being gobsmackingly different from the traditional/conservative Christian belief that anybody who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ the right way goes to hell for all eternity.  I know there liberal/progressive Christians who are universalists and believe everybody can go to heaven, but that is a huge point of division between conservative and liberal Christians.  Of all the differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, I don’t think our beliefs about who goes to hell and for how long is in the top five biggest differences, maybe even not in the top ten.  Except for the resurrection of the righteous dead, which I’ve barely heard of and Aztec Queen’s kids learn about while growing up.

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Rachel

My description of heaven as being an eternal orgasm is incredibly (and deliberately) flippant, and I should point out that’s only one view of what it might be like. I was raised to think that heaven was a place where you got to study Torah and learn eternally with all your ancestors, which — speaking as a bookworm whose grandfathers died before I was born — sounds AWESOME. Who needs sexual bliss when you can read for eternity?

Now, then, resurrection, Mashiach, the building of the Third Temple — these things were taught to me as basic tenets of faith, and to deny them is to not be a Jew. They are in Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, after all. But, while they’re something to pray for, they’re not really part of day-to-day life.

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Anat

Re: Maimonides: As I remember, he differentiated between the days of Messiah and the resurrection. He said that the only difference between the Messianic age and his own times was enslavement of the Jews to other nations.

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Rachel

I’m not sure what else there is to say on Gehinnom — we (or some of us) believe it exists, it lasts for up to twelve months, it is based on a real place…what else is there?”

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Hilary

Rachel, that does kind of sum things up, doesn’t it?  Yes we’ve got some idea’s about the afterlife, but what’s really important is in this life. After all, you can’t do mitzvot when you are dead.

But part of the question ‘what do Jews believe about the afterlife’ is also what do we believe about who goes where, and why. I want to explain the biblical proof texts behind the phrase “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” because I think it is important.  This is one of the biggest theological differences between Jews compared to Christians and Muslims.  I checked the Patheos religion library about what Muslims believe regarding non-Muslims in the afterlife, and there is a little more wiggle room for Jews and Christians as monotheists to get into heaven then I had realized. However as far as I can tell Judaism is still the most straightforward of the Abrahamic three about how people outside of our tribe can be considered righteous and merit a heavenly reward.

Let me be clear, I’m not setting out to denigrate Christianity when talking about this subject.  Obviously I prefer Judaism, but I think both religions have their strengths and weaknesses.  Both can lead to a life that is a blessing to oneself and one’s neighbors, and both can lead to lives of utter misery.  But I am not going to gloss over the fact that there is a stark difference between “The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” vs “I am the light, the truth, and the way.  There is no path to the Father but through me (John 14:6)”  or whitewash the fact that Jews and other non-Christians have paid a brutal price for that verse.  Even Christians have paid a high price, I’ve lurked around enough Christian blogs to know that meeting good, loving, and joyful non-Christian people who would be consigned to eternal hell under by that verse can be a faith shattering deal breaker.  It was for Rachel Held Evens, as she describes in this post. She is still Christian, but that question—Did Anne Frank go to hell?—was the first crack in her fundamentalism.

But as a religious person who believes in God and an afterlife, I’ve never looked at the people outside of my religion and worried about their fate after they die.  I’ve never had to – “The righteous of all nations . . .” I’ve always been able to trust that whatever happens in the world to come, God would deal with people justly according to how they lived their lives, and get on with the more important business of living life in this world. And it is not just the liberal Reform; except for our fundamentalists this is a standard line even among the Orthodox. From Judaism 101 website:

“Judaism maintains that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. This has been the majority rule since the days of the Talmud. Judaism generally recognizes that Christians and Moslems worship the same G-d that we do and those who follow the tenets of their religions can be considered righteous in the eyes of G-d.”

So this is the paradox: that the people who stick to Old Testament with it’s ‘jealous, vengeful’ Adonai have a well defined place in their theology and culture to recognize that people outside of their tribe can be righteous enough to merit heaven, but people who follow the ‘loving, forgiving’ Jesus of the New Testament struggle with the same concept, and for the most part have denied that people could go to heaven without Jesus. I know there is a Christian case for universalism, but it is a controversial issue.

Here is the Talmudic proof texting of the Torah behind ‘the righteous of all nations.’  Not only is this important to understand Judaism, but I want to show the people reading this who have a Christian background and are used to biblical proof texting to exclude people from heaven how the Talmudic rabbis used the Torah to include people outside of Judaism into the world to come.  This is from the book “Wisdom of the Talmud” by Rabbi Ben Zion Bosker, c 1951.

“Probing into all the implications of the verse “Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, which if a man do he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5) one teacher asked: “Whence may it be demonstrated that a pagan, when he conforms to the moral law of the Torah, becomes the equal of a High Priest in Israel?” From the words, ‘which if a man do he shall live by them’, the term man being universal and referring equally to Jew and pagan.”

(I checked in my Torah commentary, the word used in Lev 18:5 is ha-adam, the same ha-adam from Genesis that all human kind are descended from. The word is not ‘ish, man, or b’nei Israel, the children of Israel, nor is it Levi’im or cohanim, the levites and priests. BTW, -im is a plural ending. Yehudah - Jew, Yehudim - Jews. The other plural ending is -ot. Mitzvah – singular, mitzvot – plural)

“Similarly it is said ‘This is the law of mankind, Lord God’ (2 Samuel 7:19, a possible rendition of the original Hebrew) – it is not stated, ‘This is the law of priests, Levites, and Israelites, but the more inclusive term the law of mankind.’ In similar manner, too, Scripture does not say, ‘Open the gates, that priests, Levites, and Israelites may enter,’ but ‘Open the gates that a righteous goy keeping faithfulness may enter’ (Is 26:2) - goy  means a people or nation generally, Jewish or pagan.”

(Checking my JPS Tanakh, the Hebrew is goy – nation, and tzaddik – righteous, justice.  Even more interesting is that the first verse of Isaiah 26 “In that day, this song shall be sung in the land of Judah” seems to be a clear reference to the people of Judah, the Yehudim. So using this verse inclusively for ‘all nations’ is actually out of context to the verses around it)

“And again, it does not say, This is the gate of the Lord, Priests, Levites and Israelites shall enter into it’, but the righteous shall enter into it’, which is more universal (Ps 118:20).  Likewise it does not say, rejoice in the Lord, O ye priests, Levites and Israelites’, but, ‘Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous’ (Ps 33:1).  And finally it does not say, ‘do good, O Lord, to the priests, Levites and Israelites,’ but ‘unto the good’ (Ps 125:4), which clearly refers to good men among all nations.  It is thus abundantly demonstrated that even a pagan, provided he adheres to the moral discipline of the Torah is the equal of the highest ranking priest in Israel.”

(All grammar, emphasis, and punctuation original to “The Wisdom of the Talmud.” This is an interesting book.  On the one hand I value what I’ve learned from it and it is worth the space on my shelf.  On the other hand, I can tell it was written before the second wave of feminism, before women were allowed into the rabbinate.  There is absolutely no pretense at being gender inclusive, and it’s very obvious the Talmud was by men for men.  I enjoy reading it, but I still get frustrated when I come to the one and a half pages on ‘the psychology of women’ out of a 167 page paperback book. That is my inevitable reminder that no matter how interesting the topic or how much I agree or disagree, the writers of the Talmud are not talking to me as a woman, they talk about me, later. But back to the topic at hand)

When I read the entire Psalm each verse was taken from, for the most part they are out of context in favor of including all nations as tzaddikim, or for Psalm 125 latovim, to the good (plural).  Tov means good, as in boker tov, good morning, lailah tov, good night, and Shanah Tovah, (have a) good new year. I know that the book of Jonah is also used as proof that when a pagan person or pagan nation repents of wrongdoing, their repentance and change of behavior is enough to gain God’s favor, they don’t need to convert to worshiping Adonai as well. This is read on Yom Kippur, so on the most important day of the year, fasting, praying and asking for forgiveness, who do we read about repenting and gaining favor with God?  Not the Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews/Yehudim, but the pagan people of Ninevah.

This leads to the development of the Noahide laws, to determine what exactly a pagan has to do to live up to the moral discipline of the Torah.  I know there is room for debate about the meaning of the Noahide laws but that is another conversation and I am trying to stay on topic about who goes where in the afterlife. There is another conversation we are having about the meaning of sin, repentance, and what we do and don’t expect from the messiah, and it is hard to pull out divine judgement in the afterlife as a separate topic because it all swirls together. But Jews do not believe that we have to be sinless and perfect in order to merit going to heaven, as we’ve already discussed being less then perfect gets you time in Gehonim but not eternity in hell.

So for people who grew up with the belief that the law is a curse because we can never live up to it perfectly—that belief is foreign to Judaism. The law and commandments, Torah and mitzvot, are a gift and a blessing – mitzvot in particular is our path to holiness. How well it actually works, YMMV. That is again a different conversation and LJF Judaism 101 post, but I brought it up here because I know that in the New Testament Paul talks about how the Law is a curse and he uses the verse Lev 18:5 as part of his argument in Galatians 3:10-14. Thus we have the Talmud using a verse from the Torah as part of the justification for accepting righteousness among pagans with some qualifications of behavior, and the exact same verse used in the New Testament as part of the reasoning that there can only be salvation in Jesus Christ because the Law is a curse and people are unable to use it to save themselves.  This is one example why I consider the Jewish Torah a different book then the Christian Old Testament.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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