Does Judaism Believe in an Afterlife?
The question about a Jewish afterlife is one that many people are interested in, though the answer may seem surprising. In short, the answer is that the afterlife is almost entirely irrelevant in Judaism. Why is a Jewish afterlife irrelevant? For the simple reason that Judaism was not founded as an instruction booklet for how get into heaven. Judaism was founded as an instruction booklet for how exactly to live on Earth and achieve the goal of connecting God with His creation.
In Jewish law, the Torah, and the Five Book of Moses, there is no explicit mention of heaven or an afterlife at all. There are only very vague hints to the concept of a Jewish afterlife. The Torah does not talk about heaven. What it does talk about is the development and life of a nation that began with Abraham. He was instructed to follow certain laws in a land that God gave them to use towards the end of inspiring the whole planet to connect with their creator while on Earth, not in heaven. This was the original goal of Judaism in that it had a national side to it. A national angle by nature cannot focus on the intricacies of an individual and how that individual achieves entrance into the afterlife. Therefore, it can be surmised that Judaism, before its exile from Israel, did not focus on the Jewish afterlife belief at all.
The hints towards the existence of a Jewish afterlife in the Torah are few and far between. The most information that can be dredged is from the phrase the Torah uses for death. That phrase is, “Gathered to your people.” It is the phrase that is used for the deaths of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as Moses and Aaron. The question is, who are these people and where are they located? The implicit answer is, in the afterlife. Are they reincarnated? Another example is the phrase, “Taken by God,” the primary example being Hanoch early in the book of Genesis, who was apparently taken up by God while alive. Where did he go? Probably the afterlife. Nothing much else is said about the afterlife belief.
The rest of the Bible rarely mentions the Jewish afterlife, only secondarily raising the fact that it exists. For example, take the story of when Elijah the prophet is taken up in a fiery chariot. Again, where did he go? Was he reincarnated? The Bible does not say, but probably the afterlife.
It was only with the exile that the national perspective of Judaism became blurred and focus on the Jewish afterlife became more intense. Without a land, the Jewish people could no longer function as a nation and therefore became a religion. Religions, as opposed to nations, focus on the individual more than they focus on the collective. Indeed, religions do focus on the collective, though generally only insofar as treating the collective correctly can lead to the improvement of the individual. The end goal is the same: live correctly and treat the collective correctly in order to be the best individual, thereby achieving the afterlife. Judaism never became completely afterlife-focused. The Jewish people always prayed to have their national status restored in a return to the land of Israel. Judaism never became a full-fledged individualistic religion, and therefore to this day does not focus on the Jewish afterlife all that much.
In the exile spread out over the face of the globe and unable to function as a nation, Judaism became partly focused on individual perfection and its literature adapted accordingly. In contrast with the Torah and even the rest of the Bible, the Talmud (redacted around 500 CE) contains many references to the Jewish afterlife. The term for heaven, Olam HaBah, is itself a Rabbinic, Mishnaic and Talmudic term and cannot be found in the Bible. The Talmud talks about the concept of the afterlife, but it does not discuss specific afterlife beliefs.
Fast forward 800 years to the period of the Rishonim. These are the Rabbinic leaders between 1000-1500 CE, generally speaking. The primary argument about the nature of the Jewish afterlife is between Maimonides and Nachmanides. The former believes that the afterlife is a nonphysical place where only the intellect remains to “bask in the Glow of the Divine Presence.” Nobody is quite sure what this means, but what Maimonides was clear about is that there is no physicality to the place. It is not even a reward, but rather a natural consequence of living the correct life on Earth. The logic goes that if the afterlife is only intellectual, only those who used their intellect would want to be there in the first place. Otherwise, they will simply cease to exist, which is Maimonides’ equivalent of hell.
Nachmanides, on the other hand, holds that heaven is actually right here on Earth, and will take place during the resurrection of the dead. What is reincarnation? People who have died in the meantime are waiting to return in suspended animation.
Nobody knows who is correct, but one thing is for sure. If you go to heaven, you’ll only be going to one of them.