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The World to Come: Journey into a Jewish afterlife

Essay | 18 minute read
Judaism has a very distinct understanding of the afterlife. A sceptic, who has suffered her own losses, probes the faith in which she was raised and reflects on what - if anything - might follow death

My brother and I grew up in a practising Jewish community, without being in any way confined to it. We went to non-Jewish schools, where we sang Christian hymns in assembly; we celebrated Christmas as well as Chanukah; we had non-Jewish friends, watched the same TV as them, saw the same films and read the same books. Although we went to cheder, Jewish Sunday school, every week, we heard nothing about the afterlife there, so I suppose any notions we had of heaven, hell or a better world must have been the same as theirs too. At home we watched countless times as Tom the animated cat died yet again and his soul departed from his body, flapping see-through angelic wings. I knew lots of jokes about souls arriving at St Peter’s pearly gates. Prompted with the words ‘heaven’ or ‘afterlife’, my mind still automatically generates the same thumbnail picture: sky, clouds, harps, gate, wings, man with beard. These might be the basic ingredients for a very derivative Renaissance ceiling painting, but they are nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism.

At cheder, we were neither promised heaven nor threatened with hell. We were not there to look ahead to the next world. We were taught some Jewish history, particularly as it related to religious festivals, but we were not there to dwell on the past either. We were there to learn how to be good Jews in this world, and to be given the necessary tools: basic Hebrew, for reading prayers; practice in reading the most important of those prayers, including the Shema, the Amidah, the Sabbath blessings and the Kaddish; the meaning of the various festivals and High Holy Days and how to observe them; the Ten Commandments, and various this-worldly do’s and don’ts. What you did and didn’t do was supposed to be motivated, not by hope of reward or fear of punishment, but by a desire to live a good Jewish life and – if you insisted on a reason beyond the earthly – to obey God’s commandments.

We were never told about the afterlife at Sunday school, and I don’t remember ever asking. I do remember asking my mother what happened to people after their death. This was at Chanukah, when I was seven years old, and my grandmother had just died. I had gone to bed, but I could not get to sleep, because I could feel all my memories of my grandmother moving about the house; I imagined her as she had been on the fold-up bed in my room when she had stayed with us a few months before. I didn’t understand this unprecedented behaviour of hers, this being both present and not present at once. It frightened me, so I cried, and went next door to my parents’ bedroom to escape her. I got into bed next to my mother and asked her if Grandma could still see us. She said Grandma would never do anything to hurt me, let alone haunt me. She said in any case, Grandma was quite gone from this world: only her body, her ‘shell’ remained, but she was not in it, or anywhere near it. I asked then where was she, and Mum said that nobody could tell, but what we did know was that the people we loved lived on in our heads. I immediately pictured her and various great-aunts and uncles running around in my cranium, like the numskulls in Beezer. My mind couldn’t help but translate words into pictures.

Ceremony for lighting the first candle of Chanukkah (James Whitmore/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty)

I don’t think I was in anyway unusual in needing a picture or a story. Without pictures, without stories, death is unthinkable to most of us. Unthinkable but unavoidable: if you look far enough into the future, there it is; as Larkin wrote, it is the same for all of us, and ‘no different whined at than withstood’.  This quote comes from ‘Aubade’, in which, eloquently and at some length, he whines at death. Even pessimists like Larkin, to whom death is the absolute and non-negotiable end of existence, can’t entirely resist the human impulse to try and engage with it. In Larkin’s case, I think the impulse was actually more than usually persistent, and I can sympathise with that. Once it had taken Grandma, death planted itself firmly in my peripheral vision: I could never see it clearly, but neither could it be unseen. Desperate to give it some shape, I looked for pictures and stories. A few years later, I asked my mother for another answer.

‘When you die,’ she said, ‘your body returns to the earth, and your soul goes back to God.’ It was a neat and rational process, like separating two substances in a centrifuge. Nothing wasted. While researching this essay, I discovered that my mother’s words were a conventional Jewish formulation, going back at least as far as the medieval philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides. Maimonides was a tidy-minded genius, a brilliant and compulsive systemiser of Jewish thought. He took on thousands of years of accumulated Jewish writings on death and the afterlife, extracted from the Torah, the Prophets and the other books of the Bible, the commentary on the Bible, the commentary on the commentary, the arguments with the commentary and the arguments within the arguments, and did his best to distil them into something coherent.

In his essay Perek Helek, Maimonides begins by asserting that ‘All Jews have a share in the world to come.’ [A Maimonides Reader, Isadore Twersky] As I read this, I remember the conversation my mother and I had with an orthodox rabbi we met in the Midwest, just after my brother Julian had killed himself. The rabbi did his best to offer us some comforting words, and I remember him saying that ‘Julian has a Jewish soul, and right now he’s more at peace than he ever was.’ We were to understand that my brother had taken his share in the world to come, and as the rabbi could tell that we were ‘both, in your way, good Jews’, the implication was that we too would take our share, in time. BUT, I remember thinking. BUT: Julian was an atheist; I thought I probably was too; Mum, for all her observance, didn’t really believe. Julian and I had both married out, and what about our spouses? What about Julian’s daughter, who was not Jewish according to religious law? What about the fact that Julian had once told Mum that, as far as he was concerned, religion was just a way of making people feel guilty? BUT…

It turns out that Maimonides would have thought BUT too, although from a different perspective. Although all Jews have a share in the world to come, this can be forfeited. The list of the uninvited includes, among others, ‘one who says that the resurrection of the dead is not taught in the Torah; one who says that the Torah is not from heaven; and the atheist.’ By this reckoning, I have no place in the world to come, and I would not be reunited with my father, mother or Julian even if I did, for whatever has become of them since their deaths, they have all forfeited their shares.

Their shares in what, exactly? What is the good that will come to the believing, observant Jews who fulfil God’s commandments, and what is the bad end that waits for those who transgress? Maimonides identifies five different views:

1.   The good in the world to come consists in a return to the Garden of Eden, where, without any effort, one can enjoy an unlimited supply of food and drink on the banks of rivers flowing with wine and perfume, live in a house made of precious stones and sleep on a silken bed. The less fortunate will go to Gehenna, a place reminiscent of the Christian hell. Maimonides points out that those who hold this view claim their authority from passages of the Bible or sage commentary ‘whose literal meaning seems either wholly or largely compatible with what they say.’ It should be noted that Maimonides does not approve of taking scripture literally.

2.   When we speak of this good, we speak of ‘the Days of the Messiah, in whose time all men will be angels, and all of them will live forever’, as will the Messiah. As in the Garden of Eden scenario, material wants will be met with minimal effort. The bad that might come to an individual is that they may not live to see this golden age. Again, this view is based on a literal interpretation of certain passages.

3.   As is this one, in which the good to which the righteous may look forward is ‘the resurrection of the dead’. Maimonides explains: ‘By this they mean that a man will live after his death and return to his family and dear ones to eat and drink and never die again. According to this opinion the evil is that a man may not live after his death among those who are resurrected.’

Before we move on to the fourth and fifth views on Maimonides’s list, I would like to pause and consider this ‘return to [the] family and dear ones’ in more detail. When I have tried to explain Jewish observance to non-Jews, I have always emphasised that a belief in God and the one-ness of God is more important that the afterlife, but that, for all practical and this-worldly purposes, family is more important than God – so much more important. My mother always told me that the main reason she continued to keep a kosher house is that her brother might not eat there if she didn’t. She wasn’t being untruthful when she said that, but she was being flippant. Of course there was much more to it, a sense of deep affiliation to family members living and dead, and the need to maintain relationships with them by doing what they had always done. For a diaspora community, divided and scattered and then scattered again, tradition and adherence to the one sacred text make up our only shared home. Even I, a sceptical secularist with no share in the next world, know that it is my lack of observance, as much as my physical distance from my family in North-West London, which has displaced me from that home.

Paradise, by Paul de Vos (Imagno/Getty Images)

For this displaced and scattered community a chief good of the world to come will consist in their joyous reunion. The Jewish religion was born in catastrophe, in the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the destruction of the Second by the Romans, and the exile that followed. If, in the teeth of Maimonides’s disapproval, you insist on taking scripture literally, you will believe that the Messianic Age will be inaugurated by the return of the Jews to Israel – all Jews, the living and the dead. There will be a physical resurrection, and that’s where it will take place. Obviously, our remains will have to get there first. In his recent book on the subject of the Jewish afterlife, Hillel Halkin explains how the rabbinical scholars of the post-exile period disputed their way to a possible solution for this logistical problem. [Hillel Halkin, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition]. ‘On judgement day,’ he writes ‘[diaspora Jews’] bones will travel to the land of Israel by “tumbling” to it (al y’dey gilgul), after which they, too, will have their souls restored.’ One Babylonian scholar, Abayey, suggested that a system of tunnels would be specially created, thus ensuring safe travel. Halkin has great fun imagining this journey at some length – it’s impossible not to. I picture the tunnels as a worldwide London Underground, with Jewish cemeteries as the Tube stops. My parents, paternal grandparents and aunt will drop down into the tunnels at the Western Synagogues Cemetery at Cheshunt; my uncle will join them at Bushey and my maternal grandparents at Edmonton. Meanwhile, in other cemeteries in Kremenchug in Ukraine, the Hague and elsewhere, ancestors from further back will also begin rattling towards the Holy Land. Clackety-clack, Blessed be the Name.

It was only when I read about this peculiar next-world journey that I truly understood why cremation is prohibited in Judaism, why such care is always taken to bury the body intact (Halkin writes about the specialist squads who comb the places where Israeli troops have fallen, taking as long as it takes to retrieve every last tiny portion of remains). It is that concrete interpretation of scripture again: a body that is not literally complete cannot be literally resurrected. My mother, no literal believer herself, took the teaching on cremation very seriously: she was upset when her aunt was cremated; when we arrived in the States to find that my brother’s body had already been disposed of in this way, she was beside herself. There would be no coffin to follow from chapel to gravesite; no stoical spadeful of earth to throw over the coffin after it was lowered into the ground; no memorial stone to commission and no tombstone consecration at the end of the mourning period; no plot to visit every year on the High Holy Days; nothing on which to place a stone. My mother did her best to bring my brother back home, by having Kaddish said for him in her house, but what had been done (with, I should say, the best of intentions) could not be undone. Like my mother, I did my best to bring him home. I brought half his ashes back to the UK with us and scattered them with his friends, over a site where we used to play as children; I hung on to the remaining scraps for a long time, but eventually I shook them out in my back garden, over the rose we’d planted to remember our miscarried first child.

My brother’s widow still has the other half of his ashes, and we have discussed repatriating these. The Cheshunt cemetery, which serves the less orthodox part of the Jewish community, now includes a garden for cremated remains, and we both – his Jewish sister and non-Jewish wife – wondered if we might have these buried there. There are times when I’ve started composing an email to enquire, but I never hit send, because I’m scared of the answer – what if half a Jewish person’s remains do not sum to enough of a Jewish person to qualify? And then, where does that leave the parts of my brother that belong his non-Jewish widow and the non-Jewish child he adored – his own ‘dear ones’? And then I wonder about my own family. If I am buried, and my bones tumble to the Holy Land, will I be able to get my non-Jewish husband a visa? Or is Maimonides correct, in which case my lack of belief renders that point moot? And what of our son, who as the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish according to religious law but does not identify as such – where will he go? I am beginning to see why marrying out was so discouraged – eschatologically speaking, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to my body when I’ve left it. I would say that I didn’t care, if it were not that the thought of being separated from my ‘family and dear ones’ after death didn’t make me feel so unutterably sad. I have missed the ones who are gone so much already, and I dread nothing more than losing the ones who are left. I know what my brother (gone) and my husband (still here) would say to this: that I am being wholly irrational; there will be nothing left after I die with the capacity to miss anyone, and nothing left of anyone else with the capacity to miss me. Our loves, our needs and our griefs will die with us. Does that make me feel any better? No. When faced with the unbearable and insoluble, all we have is distraction. So back to Maimonides:

4.  This is a view that focuses, not on any world to come, but on the world in which we live now. The consequences of our actions in this life will play out within it. Those individuals who fulfil the commandments can look forward to ‘bodily peace’ and various forms of ‘mundane success’ such as health, wealth, children and the secure circumstances in which these can be enjoyed. If the Jews behave ourselves collectively, we will be rewarded with a Jewish king to ‘rule over those who oppressed us’. What we get if we don’t fulfil the commandments is the opposite of these, ‘as in’, Maimonides reminds his readers, ‘our present exile’. According to this view, if we have faced misfortune individually or as a people, it is because we have deserved it. I remember how my grandmother, who survived both her children, thought she must have done something terrible – she hadn’t. This is a view for smug, lucky people, or abused people who’ve come to believe their abusers. The poet David R. Slavitt, looking back over two thousand years of Jewish history, in which our ancestors continued to cling to their beliefs and a God who only seemed to give them the more destructive kinds of attention, wonders if we might have come to believe that this is what the supposed special nature of our relationship with God actually consists in. He writes:

‘That has been our history for these two thousand years. And that is perhaps why some orthodox Jews disapprove of the state of Israel: because it severs a bond that may have been unpleasant and even agonising but was, nonetheless, a connection. The choice is a hard one: to acknowledge an abusive parent or to run away and become, in effect, an orphan.’ [David R. Slavitt, The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation.

Or, put in another way: if you don’t keep kosher He won’t come to visit anymore, and what will you do then, with no one to comment on the state of your house, or question the way you’re bringing up the children? If He’s hard on you, it’s only because He knows you could do so much better

5. This view is a combination of all the others. According to it, to the Messiah will come and resurrect the dead who will then enter the Garden of Eden where ‘they will eat and drink in perfect health forever’.

Having enumerated the other views on offer, Maimonides turns to his own. According to him, the delights of the next world must be spiritual, eternal, and such that our mortal minds cannot directly comprehend. What we have been given are a set of analogies which lead us towards the ultimate good, by likening it to the kinds of fulfilment with which we are already familiar. There is no literal food or drink in the world to come; no children, no wealth, no success, no power. To experience the good of the world to come is to rejoice eternally in the ultimate knowledge, which is of ‘the true being of God the creator’, for the soul ‘to participate in this high glory in which the soul is forever involved with the existence of God the Creator’. The souls of the evil will perish, and they shall have no part in this eternal, joyful world to come. Good or bad, everyone must die and all our bodies will decompose, but only the righteous will be resurrected. The Messiah will come; all nations alike will recognise him; all barriers to the fulfilment of the commandments, such as oppression and material want, will be removed, and everyone will be free to work towards that perfection of their human natures which will lead them finally to that state of perfectly abstract, perfectly spiritual bliss.

So said Maimonides, back in the twelfth century BCE. In the twentieth, my mother harked back to him, when she told me the soul would return to God, and I recognise what it was I tried to imagine then, in my Maimonides’ description of a soul ‘forever involved’ with God’s existence. Inevitably, I had a picture, this time of a tiny cloud – my soul – rising up to join an incomprehensibly endless one – God – and merging into it. There would be thought and there would be feeling, but no ‘I’ anymore to feel or to think it. No family or dear ones to recognise again, because their souls, too, had been uploaded, their spiritual data merged. It does not seem that far from atheism – either way, our loves, our needs and our griefs will die with us. But as long as we live, they will keep prompting us to picture whatever we can’t know, commission our imagined afterlives.

Joanne Limburg’s book, Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Atlantic), is longlisted for the 2017 JQ Wingate Prize 

Limburg’s Unbound book choice is Others.