Jewish views of the afterlife

Authored by: Dan Cohn-Sherbok

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Until long after the exile (traditionally dated to 586 BCE), the Jewish people shared the view of the entire ancient world that the dead continue to exist in a shadowy realm of the nether world where they live a dull, ghostly existence. According to Kaufmann Kohler, “throughout the Biblical period no ethical idea yet permeated this conception, and no attempt was made to transform the nether world into a place of Divine judgment, of recompense for the good and evil deeds accomplished on earth” (Kohler, 1968, p. 279). This was so because Biblical Judaism stressed the importance of attaining a complete and blissful life with God during earthly life; there was no need to transfer the purpose of existence to the Hereafter. In the words of Robert Henry Charles, “So long indeed as Yahweh’s jurisdiction was conceived as limited to this life, a Yahwistic eschatology of the individual could not exist; but when at last Israel reached the great truth of monotheism, the way was prepared for the moralization of the future no less than that of the present” (Charles, 1913, p. 157). It was only then under social, economic, and political oppression that pious Jews looked beyond their bitter disappointment with this world to a future beyond the grave when virtue would receive its due reward and vice its befitting punishment (Kohler, 1968, p. 282). In the modern world, however, this traditional view has lost its hold on Jewish consciousness.

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