Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Jew & A: Hell

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On September 19, 2008
At 2:50 am
Comments : 7

This question is so appropriate! Because lately, my life has been a little hellish. That is to say, sorry it took so long to get to this question. And there’s another one yet in the queue, we’ll get to that soon.

Dawne writes:

My beautiful friend Maureen referred me to your blog the very second she learned of my love for all things Jewish. My question is: do Jews believe in Hell? I once read a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer in which one child cautioned another against doing something naughty by saying “you’ll burn in the fires of Gehenna.” I have a very basic understanding of Gehenna as the area of Jerusalem where refuse was burned and what would be worse than being burned up with the garbage? Anyway, the comment in the story seemed to suggest belief in a punitive afterlife. And if there is no belief in punishment after death, what happens when a bad Jew dies? If this question has been answered before, I apologize for being too impatient to read everything in the archives. Just send an email with “Lazy Damn Gentile” in the subject line and refer me to the location of an appropriate answer…

First off, the part that wasn’t a question: yes, Maureen IS beautiful. Her picture has even appeared on this blog. It was the one with the folder on her head, and lemme tell you, that was a beautiful thing in itself. And I’m glad you enjoy all things Jewish – don’t worry, no one has ever read the archives and lived to tell about it. I believe that’s what I define as “Hell.”

The answer is: maybe. Kind of. Sometimes. Thanks for writing!

OK, so to get into a little more detail. There isn’t much about the afterlife in Judaism because there isn’t much in the Torah about it. Since everything comes back to the Torah, you can learn quite a bit by this, namely, that it’s life here on earth that’s important, and not the next one. I once got a fortune cookie that said, “Live in THIS moment” and that’s kind of how Judaism is set up too… only without the cookie.

Gehinom (Gehenna in Yiddish), is mentioned but it can’t really be in Jerusalem, as Jerusalem didn’t exist until much later (I believe David set it up as his capitol, but maybe I pulled that out of my ass, or yeshiva circa 1986). Instead, it’s kind of imagined as a place of temporary punishment. I have mentioned before when discussing the Kaddish prayer that the maximum one could be punished there is twelve months, which is why we say the Kaddish for the dead for eleven months: you don’t want to imply that your loved one merited that fate.

The interesting thing is, there really isn’t a Heaven, either. At least not the way we think of it as Elysian fields with pearly gates. I think that’s a Christian thing, but I don’t know Christianity really well, so someone can school me on that. Instead, there is simply “olam ha’ba” or “the world to come.” You get a share of this based on how good a person you were in life.

But again, none of this is really explicit, so it’s given Jews a lot of room to ponder and imagine for themselves. Some believe in a more Christian style Heaven and Hell. Others believe in resurrection (many Jewish prayers refer to the dead coming back to life when the Messiah comes). Some believe in nothing.

So what does happen when a bad Jew dies? To come to the question from the other side, I suppose one should really ask, would thinking he would be punished in some unknown but terrible way for twelve months deter anyone from living a life of evil? And should, say, eating Twizzlers on Yom Kippur be the same in this valuation as shooting up a mall? But Judaism doesn’t really think like that. It’s more a carrot than a stick way of living.

My guiding principle in life was learned at the age of twelve. I know this because it was the topic of my Bat Mitzvah speech and still think it’s pretty much the greatest verse in the Torah.

“I call heaven and earth to witness today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: so choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Let’s parse that. Basically, God is saying, “I give you free will! Choose whichever you want… good, evil, they’re both available! But, y’know, life’s the one I’d choose. I’m not telling you what to (good) do, you can (good) pick either (good) one, it’s all in (good) your (good) hands. And there’s a fantastic reward if you pick good! Not that I’m choosing for you.”

So rather than saying, “do good or you’ll go to Hell,” Judaism says, “do good and you’ll be rewarded.” This verse and the ones after it imply that it’s here on earth but there are other places that imply different things. Either way, the thing to know is, it’s great to be good, we’ll let God worry about the details, you just keep on keeping on. Because after a certain age, aren’t we mature enough to know that good is its own reward? And if it’s simply the thought of burning for eternity that keeps you from dumping the Starbucks tip jar in your purse when the barista’s back is turned, you may need to rethink the whole religion thing.

Thanks for the question!

Could this be the greatest song about Hell? I think so!
Squirrel Nut Zippers – Hell