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Life and Afterlife in Judaism

In the Image of the Divine

Judaism teaches that humans are created B’tzelem Elohim (“in the image of G-d”), and thus possess dignity and sanctity. This view affects not only how we live, but how we treat our dead. The body, as the vessel of the holy soul within it, is considered holy as well, and therefore worthy of respect and dignity even in death. In life, this teaching can affect every aspect of how we live, if we will but apply it. The following essay by Dr. Erica Brown highlights what this means in daily life.

In G-d’s Image: B’tselem Elohim

“We are created in the image of G-d, if you will, and we are obliged to return the favor.”
Rabbi Arthur Green

I was recently on an overnight flight. A young woman who sat on my left was rather unfriendly. I ignored the slight until, by chance, I was actually introduced to her a few days later. “We’ve actually met,” I said. “We sat next to each other on our flight over.” Her face reddened. She was clearly embarrassed. “I had no idea it was you.”

Many people have shared similar stories with me. They weren’t treated like ‘a someone’ until they were recognized as a someone. There’s a saying out there: “Be careful how you treat people on the way up because you never know who you will meet on the way down.” That expression doesn’t quite capture the dignity of what it means to be a human being but merely what it means to be politically expedient.

Two Hasidic Tales

The best of such encounters is captured in two Hasidic tales. The first is about a pious, well-known but poorly dressed Hasidic rebbe who took a lengthy train ride to a town far away. He was subject to insult and verbal abuse from a base fellow in his train car. When the train finally came to a halt, the rebbe came off the platform to thousands of excited disciples who waited for his arrival.

The fellow in his car looked mortified as he stood beside the rebbe. “I’m so ashamed. I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies.” The rebbe turned to him and said, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to everyone else. When you insulted me, you did so because I was everyone else.”

Another: a young man studying in a yeshiva went barefoot to the doorstep of a philanthropist. He knocked on the door and asked the man for the money to buy a pair of shoes. The philanthropist merely slammed the door in his face. Humiliated, the student went back to the beit midrash, the house of study. Over time, his hard work paid off, and he became a scholar of great repute. The very same philanthropist approached him many years later and asked if he could be his patron and publish his first book. The student- turned-scholar remembered this man’s face and said in sadness, “No thanks. There was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes.”

Rabbi Art Green‘s quote is taken from his book Seek My Face in an essay about God’s image. Looking back at his quote, we ask ourselves what it means to be created in God’s image. It is not only a description of our creative powers; it is also a statement of responsibility about the way that we treat others. Do we see God in them? Do we recognize that all people are created in this image, not just famous people or people who can serve us in some way?

Rabbi Green continues and elaborates on this responsibility: “The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God’s creatures.” In the ideal sense, if we truly believe we are all created in God’s image we have to recognize everyone around us at all times. The Hasidic stories of these two men surface the rather superficial way that we so often acknowledge or ignore the existence of others.

Perhaps this explains the saying from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that we are to greet everyone with a pleasant face. We shine upon others in order to help others shine and to validate their sense of self-worth. The worth of a person is not transactional; who are you that I should pay attention to you? The better question to ask when we withhold our attentions is: who am I that I should ignore you?
Reprinted with permission from the author.

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Souls after Death

Judaism offers a very wide range of ideas about the concept of soul and what happens to us after we die. Torah itself offers little, if anything, on either subject, but later writings, including the Talmudic rabbis, had a lot to say, and the range of ideas down through the centuries is vast. The ritual of taharah presumes, in its liturgy, that souls continue beyond death. We offer here a variety of views.

The late Rabbi Y.M. Tuchachinsky of Israel, created the following parable (from Gesher Ha-Chayim: The Bridge of Life) to show his hope and faith in an after-life:

Twins are growing in their mother’s womb, warm, safe and protected. It is all they know and love. One day they feel themselves getting lower and lower and begin to worry that eventually they will exit the womb. The first twin is an optimist. a believer in a tradition that tells him he’ll come into a new life after the womb. The second twin, a pessimist, believes only in what she can see and touch, and not in anything that is not within her own experience. The optimist says that after his “death” in the womb, he’ll be born to a more exciting, stimulating new world. The pessimist rejects this as silliness stemming from a fear of death. We only know this world, she says. And after this life in the womb, there is nothing, only oblivion. One day the womb convulses, water bursts out, there is turmoil and upheaval, pain and movement. The believing brother leaves first and is born into the “new world” with a cry, causing the remaining twin to bemoan her brother’s terrible fate. What she doesn’t realize is that her brother has been born into a world of light and joy. with people shouting words of mazal tov on the birth of a new life.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (in his Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays):

Afterlife is felt to be a reunion and all of life a preparation for it. … Death may be the beginning of exaltation, an ultimate celebration, a reunion of the divine image with the divine source of being. Dust returns to dust, while the image, the divine stake in man, is returned to the bundle of life. Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman wrote the following drash:

Judaism does affirm an afterlife. In the plaintive words of the El Malei Rachamim, the translation in our Machzor (JTS 2010 version) blurs the explicit references to the World to Come. Compare its words, “May their memory endure as inspiration for deeds of charity and goodness in our lives. May their souls thus be bound up in the bond of life” to the literal translation:

God full of mercy, who dwells on high, grant perfect rest under the wings of Your Shechinah in the lofty levels of the holy and pure who shine like the radiance of the firmament, to the souls of those we have recalled today for a blessing. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden. Master of Mercy, may You shelter them beneath Your wings forever, and may their souls be bound up in the bond of life. God is their portion; may they rest in their resting place.

This beautiful language is unequivocal in its belief that our beloved dead live on, sheltered in God’s protective presence. They are not just a memory, an inspiration for our good deeds.

Ibn Gavirol wrote: “Plan for this world as if you hope to live forever, but plan for the World to Come as if you expect to die tomorrow.”

This means several things for me. “Plan for this world as if you hope to live forever” is an expression of the well-known Jewish affirmation of this world. Belief in afterlife is not a negation of this life. We have work to do here, and unique possibilities for growth and goodness that end when we draw our last breath. It also means that life is a blessing that is not nullified by death. On the contrary, it is those who believe that when we die, we are snuffed out forever, who have the challenge in finding meaning in their lives. For them, death is a disaster. For those who affirm the afterlife, death is the closing of a chapter.

In all this, the signature teaching is that of Rabbi Ya’akov in Pirkei Avot who said, “Better is one hour of bliss in the World to Come than the whole life of this world; better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than the whole life of the World to Come.”

This seems contradictory. If we believe in a blissful afterlife, shouldn’t that cause us to see the trials of this world as a lesser existence? But, as one commentator explains, “One hour in which to repent and do good works in this world is richer than all the life of the World to Come, for in the World to Come it is impossible to repent or do good works. That world exists only for the receiving of reward for what a person has done in this world. And one hour in the World to Come provides more calm of spirit than all of the life of this world, for there is no perfect calm of spirit here.” And who can deny that.

Let us be comforted by these words written not by a rabbi or a philosopher, but by a Jewish Colonel in the United States army, Mickey Marcus, who helped to train Israel’s first army, and who died in defense of Jerusalem in 1948. These words were found on a scrap of paper in his pocket:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails in the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until at length she is only a ribbon of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” Gone where? Gone from my sight—that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” There are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “There! She comes!” And that is dying.

For additional information about Jewish afterlife, see:

  • Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Raphael
  • Does the Soul Survive?, by Rabbi Elie Spitz

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