Author Archives: Rabbi Or N. Rose

Rabbi Or N. Rose

About Rabbi Or N. Rose

Rabbi Or N. Rose is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice and God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters. He is currently completing a doctorate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University.

Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition

Like other spiritual traditions, Judaism offers a range of views on the afterlife, including some parallels to the concepts of heaven and hell familiar to us from popular Western (i.e., Christian) teachings.

Sheol: An Underground Abyss

The subject of death is treated inconsistently in the Bible, though most often it suggests that physical death is the end of life. This is the case with such central figures as Abraham, Moses, and Miriam.

There are, however, several biblical references to a place called Sheol (cf. Numbers 30, 33). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence.

While this vision of Sheol is rather bleak (setting precedents for later Jewish and Christian ideas of an underground hell) there is generally no concept of judgment or reward and punishment attached to it. In fact, the more pessimistic books of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free man (Job 3:11-19).

Afterlife and the World to Come

The development of the concept of life after death is related to the development of eschatology (speculation about the “end of days”) in Judaism. Beginning in the period following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BCE), several of the classical Israelite prophets (Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah) began forecasting a better future for their people.

However, with repeated military defeats and episodes of exile and dislocation culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish thinkers began to lose hope in any immediate change, instead investing greater expectations in a messianic future and in life after death. This was coupled with the introduction into Judaism of Hellenistic notions of the division of the material, perishable body and the spiritual, eternal soul.

The Holocaust: Responding to Modern Suffering

Awareness of the realities of evil and suffering is as old as human consciousness itself. In every age people have wrestled with these issues, trying desperately to make sense of the painful, cruel, and unjust dimensions of life. For many contemporary Jews, however, the tragic events of the Holocaust represent the most troubling examples of evil and suffering in all of human history. 

Some Pre-Holocaust Responses to Evil and Suffering

Modern thinkers confronted the problem of evil and suffering long before the Holocaust. As with the post-Holocaust theologians who followed, thinkers such as Abraham Isaac Kook and Mordecai Kaplan mediated traditional Jewish theology with the specific challenges of the modern world.suffering quiz

Kook (1865-1935), the great mystical thinker and first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, understood life to include two cosmic forces: good and evil, both emanating directly from the divine. Kook rejected the medieval philosophical assertion that evil is mere privation–the absence of good–or an accidental force in an otherwise hospitable universe. However, this did not lead him to utter despair. Like his kabbalistic and Hasidic forbears, Kook saw all of life as striving for perfection, a perfection that would eventually include the transformation of evil (not its destruction) and its elevation to the holy.

At roughly the same time, Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, was beginning to formulate his naturalistic religious vision. Kaplan interpreted the term “God” to mean “the power for salvation” in the universe–the drive within nature, and within the human heart, to reach its full potential (a concept not entirely different from Kook’s).

Kaplan averred with great optimism that humanity was, in fact, progressing forward, as increasing numbers of people embraced the modern values of democracy and rationality. In dealing with the subject of evil, Kaplan insisted that the events that we commonly refer to as “natural evils” or “natural disasters” bear no moral weight. They are simply organic processes at work in the world, as it evolves and strives for fulfillment.