Q. What do Jews believe about heaven and hell?
A. Judaism does not prefer the afterlife to this life. Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “The purpose of God’s rule does not consist in death and destruction, but in the advancement of life and having men develop and unfold to the greatest possible extent… It is not the dead and those who go down in silence that proclaim His power. It is life, growth and development that declare His greatness and might” (Commentary to Psalms, Eng. trans., p. 307).
How, then, can the Psalmist say, “Precious (yakar) in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who love Him” (Psalm 116:15)? It may be that the verse is saying that the death of the pious is too precious to be easily allowed.
According to another view, yakar is a euphemism and the meaning is not “precious” but “grievous” – i.e. the death of the pious is grievous in the sight of God. The Midrash puts into the mouth of God the words, “Grievous it is for Me to say to the righteous that they must die. Grievous was it for Me to say to Abraham that he must die, seeing that he proclaimed Me the Maker of heaven and earth, went down into the fiery furnace for My sake, and hallowed My name in My world”. But everyone dies, even the righteous.
According to the Midrash, God asks, “Had Abraham gone on living, how could Isaac have come into authority? And Jacob? Moses? Joshua? Samuel? David and Solomon?” The sages continue, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let these depart to make way for the others.”
What happens after we die? The World to Come, Olam HaBa, is where the soul basks in the radiance of God’s glory (Ber. 17a), where the scholars have no rest from their studies, and the intellect remains active. According to Pirkei Avot, “‘When you awake, it (the Torah) shall talk with you’ (Prov. 6:9): ‘when you awake’ means the future world” (Avot 6:9).
If this is heaven, what is hell? Most views believe it is the absence of heaven. But the Baal Shem Tov asks, “Do you think there is such a difference between heaven and hell? Not at all; they are one and the same. Heaven, for the righteous, is to bask in the radiance of God. This is their reward. And what is the punishment of the wicked? They too will be brought to heaven to behold the radiance of the Divine Presence, but they will not know what to make of it. To experience the Presence of God but at the same time to recognise how distant one is from its reality – there is no greater anguish for a soul”.