Opinion | A Covenant of Life, Not Death

Yancy: This is fascinating, especially the point about the emphasis placed on life, not death. Might it be said that Judaism places more emphasis on life because the mission should be to live observant lives, good and decent lives in the here and now?

Vidas: I think that’s a fair characterization of a great deal of Jewish tradition: Its intellectual and spiritual energy aims at the shaping of a particular kind of life. But you certainly also find opposite tendencies. For example, the Mishnah, the earliest Rabbinic text (third century A.D.), records Rabbi Jacob’s teaching that our world is merely a vestibule for the afterlife in the world to come. There are periods in Jewish history in which the self-sacrifice or martyrdom was seen as the ultimate expression of the love God demands. And there is a strong pattern, especially in some of the mystical texts of kabbalah, that aspires to become closer to God by transcending this life; sometimes these texts invite practitioners to a meditation in which they simulate their own deaths, imagining their souls as having already departed from their bodies.

Different Jewish interpretations of the story of the binding of Isaac reflect this range between an emphasis on life, on the one hand, and the spiritual possibilities presented by death on the other hand. According to the Bible, Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but just before the sacrifice was executed, an angel of God intervened and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Many Jews see in this story precisely the Jewish celebration of life: sacrificing life is opposed to Jewish values. But there are other Jewish understandings of this story — we find, for example, interpretations that celebrate Isaac as a willing sacrifice, providing a role model for future martyrs prepared to die for God; or representations of Abraham as eager to kill his son; and even the interpretation that Abraham did actually kill Isaac, who was then resurrected by God.

Yancy: Say more about she’ol, especially as I understand it to have different interpretations. Is it a place? And are we all bound for such a place, Jews and gentiles?

Vidas: In the Hebrew Bible, she’ol is the underworld, located below the earth, where all dead are destined to go, regardless of their deeds or ethnicity. But beginning with sources dating from the third century B.C.E., we find this idea that after death the souls of the righteous and the souls of the wicked have different destinies. The usual name for the place where the wicked souls go is “gehenom”; but at some point, Jews began understanding the word “she’ol” in the Bible as referring to gehenom. This is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian hell. But the dominant view in Judaism has been that the punishments of hell are temporary, lasting up to 12 months. Once transgressors have paid for their transgressions in hell, they can move up to heaven.

There is a range of other views, including that at least for some offenses the punishment in hell is eternal; but the utmost punishment in traditional Judaism is not such eternal torments but the complete annihilation of body and soul — the lack of any type of afterlife.

Regarding the second part of your question, in the earliest rabbinical literature, we find the idea that gentiles, just like Jews, are judged according to their deeds: They can be punished but they also can be saved. Many later texts indeed assume the punishment of non-Jews by definition. That idea appears alongside the dominant idea, originating in the biblical prophets, that in the world to come gentiles will worship the same God as the Jews in a harmonious existence.

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