When it comes to the subject of the existence of heaven and hell, most contemporary Jews – meaning Jews who have graduated college, who are essentially secular and who consider themselves progressive – know exactly where they stand: There is no heaven, and there is no hell.
Most Jews deem belief in heaven and hell highly unsophisticated, even primitive.
But like many other positions held by contemporary Jews, this one, too, demands an explanation.
On almost no level – the Jewish, the religious, the moral, the emotional, the intellectual – does denying heaven and hell make sense.
By heaven and hell, I mean reward and punishment in the afterlife. I am not referring to a hell of eternal fire or a heaven filled with harp-playing angels. Any attempt to describe either heaven or hell is likely to sound silly. I remember one of my yeshiva rabbis telling us students that heaven is eternal study of the Torah. Now this may well have sounded terrific to my rabbi, but all I recall is wondering what the alternative is like – and I actually liked studying the Torah.
This is surely one reason neither the Torah nor the rest of the Hebrew Bible describes heaven or hell. And the Talmud devotes much more time to details concerning temple sacrifices than it does to descriptions of heaven or hell.
The Torah, the biblical authors and the Talmudic rabbis wisely understood the dangers of describing heaven and hell. The widespread Islamic belief in a heaven where men are greeted by 72 virgins is a perfect example of a description that makes a mockery of the notion of reward in the afterlife.
For that is what heaven and hell are about. Heaven means there is reward after this life, and hell means there is punishment after this life.
One of my first columns for the Jewish Journal made the moral and intellectual case for an afterlife. So I will confine my comments here to ultimate reward and punishment.
It is impossible to affirm that there is a good God while denying that there is any ultimate reward and punishment. If there is a just God, there is ultimate justice. Conversely, if there is no ultimate justice, there is no just God – which is the same as saying there is no God (if anything, belief in an unjust god is even bleaker than belief in no god).
One can therefore understand why a confirmed atheist denies the existence of heaven and hell. But how does one explain Jews who believe there is a God and may even have some other traditional Jewish beliefs but deny the existence of heaven and hell?
I think there are two explanations for this.
One is that most Jews have been more influenced by secularism and the secular university than by Judaism. Heaven and hell are not only denied by the secular and intellectual worlds, they are mocked. And most people do not wish to hold beliefs that the sophisticated of their age mock.
The other is that Christianity strongly upholds belief in heaven and hell and is strongly identified with it. And most Jews find it anathema to uphold almost any belief that is identified with Christianity.
It is probably fair to say that in terms of beliefs, more Jews are interested in being not-Christian than in being Jewish. Take almost any issue identified with Christians and Christianity and most Jews hold the opposite. Prayer in school? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Abortions not performed to save the life of the mother are a sin? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Faith in God is morally necessary? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. People are born with sinful natures? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Heaven and hell? Christians in believe in that, not us Jews.
In every case listed here, traditional Judaism and Christianity are in agreement. But as few Jews hold traditional Jewish beliefs or even know what they are, they reject many of those beliefs because they are identified with Christians and Christianity.
Divine reward and punishment are so basic to Judaism that they are one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Judaism. Denying them provides a vivid example of how much more Jews have been influenced by secularism than by Judaism and how instinctual it is for most Jews to reject a normative Jewish belief because it is popularly associated with Christianity.
Take the examples of the Nazis and Raoul Wallenberg. The latter was the Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest who devoted his life to saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to Nazi death camps. If ever there was a saint, Raoul Wallenberg was one.
Yet, just as most Nazi murderers and torturers were never punished, Wallenberg was never rewarded. Indeed, he was undoubtedly murdered by the other twentieth monstrosity, Communism. The Soviets captured him when they captured Hungary and sent him to the Soviet Union where he died shortly after World War II.
For those who deny heaven and hell, Nazi and Communist mass murderers have the same fate as Raoul Wallenberg. Why would any Jew – or anyone who hates evil or loves goodness—want to believe that?
Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).