The World to Come

It's an individual Jew's ultimate reward, but the nature of the World to Come has always been disputed.

The World to Come usually refers to one of three things: the way the world will be in the End of Days when the righteous are resurrected; a world of immortal souls that will follow the age of resurrection; or a heavenly world enjoyed by righteous souls immediately after death (i.e. prior to the End of Days). However, believing that the World to Come refers to one of these does not necessarily entail a negative belief in the others.

There is considerable ambiguity regarding the meaning of the rabbinic doctrine of the World to Come (Heb. Olam Ha‑Ba) and its relation to the resurrection of the dead. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides is alone in identifying the World to Come with the immortality of the soul [a “period” that follows the age of resurrection], while Nahmanides is emphatic that it refers to this world, which will be renewed, after the resurrection.

For instance, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) states that one who denies the resurrection will have no share in the World to Come, upon which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) comments that this severe punishment is meted out to him on the principle of measure for measure; since he denies the resurrection it is only just that he does not rise at the resurrection. In this passage, at least, the World to Come is identified with the resurrection, though it is not absolutely certain that the Mishnah itself identifies the two so closely.

In later Jewish thought the World to Come becomes a generic term for the Hereafter.

Rabbinic Teachings

The Mishnah quoted begins with the words: “All Israel has a share in the World to Come” but then continues that some Israelites, for example, those who deny the resurrection or that the Torah is from Heaven, do not have a share in the World to Come.

In the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 13:2) there is a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua on whether the World to Come is reserved for Jews or whether this blissful state is the reward of Gentiles as well. Rabbi Joshua holds that “the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come” and this became the official view of Judaism.

The other‑worldly thrust is evident in the whole of Jewish thought until the modern period. Of the numerous rabbinic teachings about the World to Come, the following are typical of this thrust.

The Mishnah (Bava Metzia 2:11) rules that if a man’s father and his teacher have lost something, he should first try to restore the article lost by his teacher, since a father brings his child into this world whereas a teacher of the Torah brings his students to the World to Come. In Ethics of the Fathers (4:16) it is said that this world is like a vestibule before the World to Come. “Prepare yourself in the vestibule, that you may enter into the hall of the palace.”

Yet the statement of the second-century teacher, Rabbi Jacob, also in Ethics of the Fathers (4:17) acts against a too‑hasty claim that according to the Rabbis this world is only a preparation or school for the World to Come and has no intrinsic good. Rabbi Jacob’s famous teaching reads: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come; and better is one hour of blissfulness of spirit in the World to Come than the whole life of this world.”

the world to comeSignificant in this connection is the saying of Rav (relied on by Maimonides for his identification of the World to Come with spiritual bliss of the soul rather than the resurrection): “In the World to Come there is no eating nor drinking nor propagation nor business nor jealousy nor hatred nor competition, but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads feasting on the brightness of the Shekhinah” (Berakhot 17a). Yet the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12) quotes the same teacher, Rav, who is so eloquent on the purely spiritual nature of bliss in the Hereafter, as saying that in the World toCome a man will be obliged to give an account and a reckoning before the judgment seat of God for every legitimate pleasure he denied himself in this world.

Very striking, too, is the saying (Berakhot 57b) that three things afford a foretaste in miniature of the bliss of the World to Come: the Sabbath, sexual intercourse, and a sunny day, although the Gemara is doubtful whether sexual intercourse should be included since it results in weakness of the body.

In the light of the above it is difficult to give an unqualified reply to the question of whether Judaism is a this‑worldly or all other‑worldly religion. Risking a generalization, it can be said that the other‑worldly thrust predominates in times of oppression and the this‑worldly in times of prosperity.

The Purpose of This World is to Get to the Next

Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s The Path of the Upright, compiled in the eighteenth century, is typical of the other‑worldly approach. Luzzatto begins his guide to holy living with these words:

“It is the foundation of saintliness and the perfect worship of God for a man to realize what constitutes his duty in his world and to which aim he is required to direct all his endeavors throughout his life. Now our Sages, of blessed memory, have taught us that man was created only to find delight in the Lord and to bask in the radiance of His Shekhinah for this is the true happiness and the greatest of all possible delights. The real place in which such delight can be attained is the World to Come, for this has been prepared to this very purpose. But the way to attain to this desired goal is this world. This world, the Sages remark, is like a vestibule before the World to Come. The means by which man reaches this goal are the precepts God, blessed be He, has commanded us and the place in which the precepts are to be carried out is only in this world. Man is put here in order to earn with the means at his command the place that has been prepared for him in the World to Come.”

Luzzatto concludes this section of his work by saying that man is tempted in this life both by prosperity and by adversity and adds: “If he is valorous and wins the battle from every side, he becomes the perfect man who will have the merit of becoming attached to his Creator. Then he will emerge from the vestibule of this world to enjoy the Light of Life.”

Luzzatto here seems to identify the World to Come, partly at least, with the fate of the soul after death [i.e. heaven, Gan Eden], though it is clear from the work as a whole that Luzzatto believes in the final resurrection.

A Hasidic View

In Hasidism and the Musar movement, the World to Come is conceived of partly in terms of spiritual bliss of the soul after the death of the body. It is not that the doctrine of resurrection is denied in these movements, but it is treated as a mystery so far beyond human apprehension that speculation on it is futile. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady follows the intellectual thrust of the Habad movement, of which he was the founder, when he writes (at the beginning of his Likkutey Torah):

“It is well known that the concept ‘the World to Come’ means that souls enjoy the radiance of the Shekhinah and this delight that the soul enjoys is nothing other than comprehension of the divine. For we know from experience that there is no enjoyment and no delight whatsoever unless the thing enjoyed has been grasped in the mind. It follows that delight in the divine must first become substantial and have a separate identity in the process of the soul’s enjoyment before the soul can enjoy it.”

The idea is also found in Hasidic works that the saints can enjoy the bliss of the World to Come even while on earth. […]

Contemporary Views

Reform Judaism, following to some extent Philo and Maimonides, does preserve the concept [of the World to Come] but identifies the World to Come with the immortality of the soul.

Conservative Judaism, too, generally follows the Reform line, though both Reform and Conservative Judaism tend to veer towards the naturalistic understanding of the doctrine. This cannot be stated too categorically, however, and many Reform and Conservative Jews still accept the doctrine of the World to Come in its traditional formulation, at least in terms of the immortality of the soul.

Some of the Orthodox as well place the emphasis on the immortality of the soul but, if it is possible to speak of the official Orthodox position in these matters, it obviously includes the resurrection of the dead after the age of the Messiah in its doctrine of the World to Come.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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