Over 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.
There are some things I like about the Christian version of heaven and hell more, though. Christianity teaches you don’t get in to heaven because you’re righteous, but it also says you don’t have to be perfectly righteous, at least not on this point. I’m actually a little unclear what righteousness means in Judaism, whether it’s just a tendency to do these things or a commitment to at least try to do them, or if it means actually doing them the majority or all of the time. And because it’s so specific and focused on certain acts, you get what I’d consider some pretty unjust consequences. Having gay sex is enough to damn you to hell where (Westboro Baptist notwithstanding) that’s not the case in Christianity. Things like theft, which are almost certainly more a problem for the poor than the rich, also might push you over the line.
I’m also concerned that there seems less room for grace and mercy and forgiveness, the things I love most about the Christian version of heaven. Maybe this is because I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games (yes, again), but I find myself thinking about the story of Cato. The large, brutal tribute from District 2 who is so vicious, so hateful even by Arena standards but in the end comes to realize he’s as much a piece in the Capitol’s games as much as anyone else. And in the end?
The next hours are the worst in my life, which if you think about it, is saying something. The cold would be torture enough, but the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him. After a very short time, I don’t care who he is or what he’s done, all I want is for his suffering to end.
And then, after a rather tortuous night that threatens to push Katniss into insanity, and waiting that very nearly kills Peeta:
It takes a few moments to find Cato in the dim light, in the blood. The raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where the mouth is. And I think the word he’s trying to say is please.
Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull. Peeta pulls me back up, bow in hand, quiver empty.
“Did you get him?” he whispers.
The cannon fires in answer.
“Then we won, Katniss,” he says hollowly.
“Hurray or us,” I get out, but there’s no joy of victory in my voice.
Killing Cato is the best Katniss can manage in the circumstances, really the only choice open to her. But you can tell that having to kill him hurt her, that she would have liked at this point to save him if she could. Later, on her victory tour, she’s genuinely remorseful for having had to kill him. And I can’t help thinking about this as a parallel for heaven and hell. It’s not Cato’s deeds or even character that make his death something worth mourning and regretting. If Katniss was religious (and any religion, let alone Christianity, is wholly absent from Panem), I can see her hoping he’d have another shot at a better life through heaven. I certainly can’t see her hoping he’d go to hell or even do a stint in purgatory and then stop existing. I think that, as a Tolkien fan, it’s this hope for forgiveness that is so moving about Boromir’s death, particularly the way he has his moment of repentance and redemption (through Aragorn’s new direction). When I think about heaven and hell, it’s not about justice, though I know some Christians turn it into that. It’s about hope and mercy, I think. And maybe if I was Jewish and had seen this belief explained more often and in more detail I wouldn’t have this belief. But when your focus is on the righteous rather than the redeemed, I think you miss something important.
I think Hilary makes a really good point that the Jewish heaven is much more inclusive than the one envisioned by many Christians and Muslims. This always strikes me as ironic, because the context of the John 14 passage she quotes (“I am the truth, the life, and the way”) has been at my own struggle to make sense of this belief – and it’s a big part of what let me believe in a heaven full of non-Christians. (It’s the many mansions bit just a few verses up, coupled with the fact that Jesus and His work, not belief in Jesus or tribal identity as a follower of Jesus, that is the way. Very briefly, my current thought is the Resurrection is necessary for reconciliation to take place, but this reconciliation is open to people who accept the need for that work and try to draw near God, though they don’t recognize the exact nature of said bridge. So people working through Islam, Buddhism, the “spiritual but not religious” line, and the like may find themselves in heaven or the world to come or whatever it is. I definitely think Christian is the best, surest path, but I also think that if there is such a place as heaven, we’ll find many people who never would have labeled themselves a Christian (and find many folks who were in Church every Sunday noticeably missing).
I’m still researching and thinking on this subject. But my point is, while most Christians definitely read that as saying if you don’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer or whatever it’s straight to hell , do not pass go, do not collect $200 – for me, that verse is at the heart of why I find that picture so unbiblical. But I get that’s not the most common interpretation and I can’t fault a non-Christian for thinking this was the standard schtick. (In fact, Hilary goes to great lengths to say she recognizes not all Christians approach hell this way.)
What’s more, I grew up thinking about Christianity as universalizing something that in the 1st century AD really wasn’t available to non-Jews unless they became Jews. This was the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 – you can have that covenantal relationship with God, not just the general Noachide Covenant (which is perfectly good but always struck me as, well, general) without being circumcised and accepting the kosher laws and all that. I still think this is the great promise of Christianity: that you can become a follower of God without that meaning you have to leave your own culture and history and customs behind. But again, I can’t blame Hilary from looking at Christians and seeing an emphasis on becoming like “us” or risking hellfire. Because that’s precisely what so many Christians have said, both in my own life and historically.
Which is a shame and more than a little ironic. Hilary’s not wrong in her impressions of what many Christians actually say, and I can’t fault her at the descriptive level. I guess it just struck me as ironic and somehow at odds with the account of heaven and hell I see as I study the Bible. (To really get into details, I’d need another post or three. Plus, as I said, I’m still trying to work all of that out for myself.) Which only means that a large number of Christians aren’t living up to Biblical ideals when we talk about heaven and hell, when we focus on justice and rules and certainty to the exclusion of grace and mercy. I wish I could say that was a surprise, but when it comes to human history and religion, we’re actually in good company on that mark.
All of that aside – this post was a really interesting look at some common Jewish views on the afterlife. Do read it if you’re interested. Even though it’s not exactly my view, I found thinking through the differences between it and my own thoughts quite refreshing. Enjoy!