I am often asked whether or not Judaism believes in heaven and hell. Usually the question is framed in the following manner. “Rabbi, Judaism does not believe in heaven and hell, right?” The answer comes as a surprise to most. On the contrary, Judaism does believe in heaven, and even hell. Of course with all things Jewish the answer does not end there.
First of all our terminology is different. We call heaven, olam haba, the world to come and hell, gehinnom, or as it is sometimes rendered in common parlance, gehenna. These ideas developed during the rabbinic period, alongside their development within early Christianity. Our images for these otherworldly abodes, however, are different. Judaism hesitated to codify a description of olam haba and gehinnom. It left their details to rabbinic imaginations and preserved disagreements about its contours. Nonetheless it resolutely affirmed these ideas.
Judaism believes that if God is all-powerful and just, then the only way that the inequities we observe in this world can be rectified is through the belief in the world to come. There the scales are re-balanced. Olam haba can be an extraordinarily comforting idea. It offers healing to believe that in heaven God cares for the souls of our beloved dead.
Still I recognize that there are difficulties with these ideas. Too often the reward of heaven, and the punishment of hell, is used to instill fear. I would prefer that people do good for its own sake. Even more troubling is the fact that too often heaven becomes the focus of people’s faith and action. The more fervently they hold on to the other world the more they appear to let go of their engagement with this world. The here and now becomes a mere gateway to a better, future place. In extreme instances there even grows a desire to rush to get this other world. Then our fragile world becomes victimized by this belief. Focus on today rather than tomorrow!
This week’s Torah portion alludes to this question in raising the issue of reward and punishment. The medieval commentator, Rashi, notices an unusual word in the opening of the portion. “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant…He will favor you and bless you and multiply you…” (Deuteronomy 7-12-13) The second word literally means, “On the heels of” meaning as a consequence of and thus Rashi writes: “If you will heed the minor commandments which one usually tramples with his heels, i.e. which a person treats as being of minor importance then God will keep His promise to you.” Even the smallest of mitzvot can accumulate for good.
The 19th century chief rabbi of St. Petersburg and a leader of the Mussar ethical movement, Yitzhak Blazer, adds: “A person must realize that sometimes a negligible action on his part can decide his fate in this world and in the World to Come. Imagine a man who comes to a train station and finds that he has only enough money to take the train to the station before the one where he wishes to go. Because he is missing those few pennies, he will be forced to get off the train at the station before his, and will never reach his destination. The same is true in heavenly matters: sometimes a person does not take a small action, and because of that he will lack sufficient good deeds to tip the scales in his favor.”
Whether or not one believes in heaven, or even hell, a reminder that even the smallest of actions has lasting impact is always required. This can be enough to transform the here and now.