June 23rd, 2013


on hell and stuff

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

speed_datingOver at Love Joy Feminism, Libby Anne hosted a really fascinating panel discussion about Gehenna. As usual, the Judaism 101 panel was awesome and thought-provoking in the best sort of ways, and left me wishing I could participate in a similar Christianity 101 forum.

According to two of her participants (Hilary + Ki Sarita), Gehanna is a sort of purgatory. You go there for a certain length of times and go through some really visceral but time-limited tortures to expunge your sins, and after that you either enter into Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come) or else you get obliterated. One participant actually gives two descriptions of the world to come: either a sexual afterglow that lasts forever or getting to study Torah with your ancestors. Both sound kind of awesome to me, actually. :-) And if you’re a Hitler or a bin-Laden or whatever, no orgasmic scholarly sessions for you. But also no eternity in the Lake of Fire where your pain is beyond intense and never lets up.

What really interested me, though, was Hilary’s discussion of Jewish vs. Muslim and Christian views on the  afterlife. You can find this about halfway down in the comment beginning Rachel, that does kind of sum things up, doesn’t it?, if you’re interested. To be fair, she makes it explicitly clear that her intent isn’t to denigrate Christianity (or Islam, for that matter) and her case really is more positive. She’s talking about the idea that world to come isn’t just for Jews but is for Gentiles as well, particularly the righteous of all nations. I’ll just include the quotes she gives from the book Wisdom of the Talmud (by Rabbi Ben Zion Bosker), as they explain this belief pretty well:

“Probing into the implications of the verse ‘Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, which if a man do he shall live by them’ (Lev 18:5) one teacher asked: ‘Whence may it be demonstrated that a pagan, when he conforms to the moral law of the Torah, becomes the equal of a High Priest in Israel?’ From the words, ‘which if a man do he shall live by them,’ the term man being universal and referring equally to Jew and Pagan.’


“Similarly it is said ‘This is the law of mankind, Lord God’ (2 Samuel 7:19, a possible rendition of the original Hebrew) – it is not stated, ‘This is the law of priests, Levites, and Israelites, but the more inclusive term the law of mankind.” In similar manner, too, Scripture does not say, ‘Open the gates, that priests, Levites, and Israelites may enter,’ but ‘Open the gates that a righteous goy keeping faithfulness may enter’ (Is 26:2) – goy means a people or nation generally, Jewish or pagan.”

So the Jewish idea of the world to come is one that’s open to righteous people whether they’re Jews or not. It’s explicitly opened up to non-Jews. And as Hilary later makes explicit, this doesn’t mean that non-Jews have to become Jews to be righteous. She points to the seven Noahide laws, which were given to humanity in early Genesis (completed by the time of Noah, hence the name). This concept that God revealed certain moral precepts to all people and not just the Jews is woven through the Tanakh and the Christian New Testament, but to my knowledge the specifics of this covenant really only come out in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a: “The descendants of Noah were commanded with seven precepts: to establish laws, and the prohibitions of blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, shedding blood, theft, and eating the blood of a live animal.” If you’re a Gentile and you follow these laws, that’s enough to be considered righteous and be guaranteed a place in the world to come.

I find this fascinating because it’s so different from the view of heaven and hell I was taught growing up. In some ways it’s so much more loving. No eternal hell for the unrighteous. (No heaven, either, but nonexistence sounds a bit better than neverending torture.) There’s also no dividing the world between us and them, no teaching that you have to become Jewish to get a spot in heaven. There’s a sense that righteousness is attainable. Christians on the other hand seem to fight very hard this idea that heaven is tied to our actions. It’s not something we earn by being good, nor is hell a just punishment for being bad. Moreover, the Jewish world-to-come doesn’t involve the compulsion to get the whole world converted to Judaism the way the Christian heaven/hell distinction does.

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