The Biblical Underworld
The term She'ol (the pit)- occurs 65 times in Tanakh, usually in the context of "grave" but also "underworld". It first appears in the story of Jacob, who invokes it four times in the context of grief and mourning, then in the story of Korach, then in Moses' final speech in Deuteronomy as a warning to the people. There are references to She'ol throughout the Prophets, Job, Psalms, and Proverbs.
She'ol is described as dark, underground and the realm of the dead/ghosts (rephaim, "weak ones"), without hierarchy or class differences. There's no indication that souls come back from She'ol, though it does seem possible to communicate with some, at least temporarily. Originally She'ol appears amoral, but by the era of the Prophets it becomes associated with punishment for the wicked and a temporary stop for the righteous.
Hints of Resurrection in Prophets
The Apocrypha: The Underworld Becomes Specialized
In the Apocryphal books such as Maccabees, Jubilees, Enoch and Ezra (written between 200 BCE and 200 CE), She'ol (now sometimes called Gehenna) becomes associated with fire, and at least some elements/areas of it are identified as being places of eternal punishment. We also see the appearance of Pardes (orchard), which previously had only been associated with Enoch and Elijah, which over time became associated with Gan Eden. Hints of resurrection continue to appear.
1 Enoch 61:5-13 http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/1enoch.html
[The dead] may return and stay themselves on the day of the Elect One; For none shall be destroyed before the Lord of Spirits, And none can be destroyed...the Lord of Spirits will place the Elect one on the throne of glory. And he shall judge all the works of the holy above in the heaven, And in the balance shall their deeds be weighed... All who sleep not above in heaven shall bless Him: All the holy ones who are in heaven shall bless Him, And all the elect who dwell in the garden of life.
1 Enoch 17-22
[Angels] brought me to the place of darkness, and to a mountain the point of whose summit reached to heaven. And I saw... in the uttermost depths, where were a fiery bow and arrows and their quiver, and a fiery sword and all the lightnings... I came to a river of fire in which the fire flows like water and discharges itself into the great sea ...to the place where no flesh walks.
... I saw a deep abyss, with columns of heavenly fire... Uriel showed me a mountain of hard rock [with] four hollow places, deep and wide and very smooth... Then Raphael... said to me: 'These hollow places have been created for this very purpose, that the spirits of the souls of the dead should assemble here... these places have been made to receive them until the day of their judgement... [There are divisions so] the spirits of the dead might be separated... the righteous [stay in a] bright spring of water. ...sinners [are] set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgement and punishment... their spirits shall not be slain in the day of judgement nor shall they be raised from there.'
Rabbinical Period: Creating the World To Come
The Mishnah (codified c. 200 CE) contains 30 references to the World to Come-- mostly focusing on which actions (or beliefs) grant or prevent access to it. This indicates that it was an established concept (at least among the rabbis), though the details were understandably fuzzy. The rabbis often connect the World to Come to the principle of reward and punishment.
There are almost zero references to the Messiah in the Mishnah, though later Talmudic commentators discuss the topic at length, identifying the Messiah's role as preparing humankind for the World to Come.
Josephus, Jewish War, 2-8:11-14 http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/#woj
[The Essenes believe] that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a... place... refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, that is perpetually blowing from the ocean; while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments...
[The Pharisees] ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice... they take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades.
Entering Olam Ha-Ba
Tosefta Sanhedrin 10:3 http://sacred-texts.com/jud/tsa/tsa37.htm
R. Eliezer holds: None of the goyim has any share in the world to come, for it is written: "The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the heathen that forget God." The wicked shall return to Sheol-- these are the wicked among the heathen. R. Joshua said to him, "If Scripture had said: 'the wicked shall return to Sheol, all the heathen' and then said no more, I [would agree with you]; but since Scripture says: 'who forget God', behold there must be righteous men among the goyim who have a share in the world to come."
Varied Descriptions of Olam Ha-Ba
Gehenna: More Consistent on Description, Less on Inhabitants
And the Messiah?
Continuing the themes from the prophets, the rabbis discuss and defend resurrection far more often in the Talmud than the World to Come, often playing on Hebrew verbs such as "rise." The underlying assumption seems to be that God can do anything and it is blasphemous to doubt God's powers.
Leah Leila Bronner, Journey to Heaven
...[the rabbis speculate] about the state in which the dead will arise. If there is to be actual physical resurrection, what shape will bodies be in? It is concluded that bodies are resurrected in the state in which they died, though it is possible for healting to take place after that. For example, a person identified as Queen Cleopatra asks Rabbi Meir whether the dead will be naked or clothed. Rabbi Meir answers that in the same way that wheat rises "clothed" [in its outer covering, the chaff], so will the dead (Sanhedrin 90b). Similarly, Resh Lakish and Rava both allege that people will be revived with the defects they had when they died, but will subsequently be healed. (Sanhedrin 91a)
Medieval Philosophers: Please, let's be Rational!
In the medieval period (880s- 1400s) thinkers such as Saadia Gaon, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides, Judah Halevi, Nachmanides and Joseph Albo attempted to systematize Jewish beliefs, including regarding the afterlife. These mainly focused on reinforcing the belief in the World to Come and the soul's immortality, with some debate over resurrection and reincarnation.
Saadia Gaon, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, ix, 5 (c. 933 CE) http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/starrz/Book%20of%20Doctrines%20and%20Beliefs.pdf
When the merits predonominate in the soul, the latter is thereby purified and rendered luminous... [On] the other hand, when the demerits are in the majority in it, the soul becomes... darkened... [God] keeps a record of these merits and demerits for all His servants.
...reward and punishment [of the soul] will take the form of two... substances that our Master... will create at the time of the retribution... They will both consist of the same essence... resembling... burning, luminous fire, that will shine for the righteous but not for the sinful, while it will burn the sinful but not the righteous.
[Further on, Saadia asserts that the light of the righteous is Gan Eden, the fire of the wicked, Gehenna.- Simcha Paull Raphael]
Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection (c. 1191)
iv. 21-24: the resurrection of the dead... is widely known and accepted among our people... [and] means that the soul will return to its body after its separation... it cannot be interpreted allegorically... [The Talmud implies] that those individuals whose souls return to their bodies (after death) will eat and drink... and sire children and die after an extremely long life like the life which will exist during the days of the Messiah... [however] in the world to come souls without bodies will exist like angels.
[Written in response to accusations in Yemen and Iraq that Maimonides denied bodily resurrection.]
Neil Gilman, The Death of Death
Ibn Ezra... anticipates Maimonides' notion of the double dying , but is more circumspect about the nature of the ultimate reward to come. He seems to suggest that the ultimate afterife would be bodiless as Maimonides claimed, but... is not nearly as explicit...
[By contrast,] Nahmanides... insisted that after the resurrection, the body and soul will live for eternity... [He wrote that,] since bodies are needed in this world, they will be present in the future world as well... [however,] our bodies in the Age to Come will be spiritually refined and will not experience physical need.
Leila Leah Bronner, Journey To Heaven
Unlike Maimonides, Nahmanides presents Gehenna as an actual place, with punishment directed against bodies as well as souls... drawing on scattered references in the Talmud... he creates a mosaic of ideas and images... [Gan Eden is also a real place, as well as] a training ground where the soul learns how to cleave to the higher world and how to enjoy spiritual pleasure.
...[Nahmanides discusses] two levels of existence in the World to Come. One will be for less evolved souls, who require [physical] sustenance of some kind... The second is for more evolved souls, who will exist like angels, with wings, and roam over the face of the waters.
...In his commentary on the book of Job, [Nahmanides] suggests that [his] suffering may be atonement for the sins of a past life... [Unlike many of his peers,] Nahmanides is willing to consider the possibility of transmigration and reincarnation.
Saadiah Gaon, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, vi. 8
I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of ... ‘transmigration’ of souls. What they mean thereby is that the spirit of Reuben is transferred to Simeon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah. [These names are generic.] Many of them would even go so far as to assert that the spirit of a human being might enter into the body of a beast or that of a beast into the body of a human being, and other such nonsense and stupidities.
The Messianic Age
We see continued connection between the Days of the Messiah and the World-to-Come. Sometimes the terms appear to be used interchangeably.
Early Kabbalah (1200s- 1600s) continued exploring themes of reward and punishment after death but its primary focus was the fate of the soul. Kabbalah, especially through the students of the Zohar and Isaac Luria, was largely responsible for legitimizing the belief in reincarnation (gilgul). Initially reincarnation was seen as specific a mechanism used to purify a flawed soul that had committed specific sins, but gradually it became applied to "middling" people and then eventually even the righteous. These themes were further popularized by the Hasidic movement.
Leah Leila Bronner, Journey to Heaven
[Kabbalists taught that] after death, the nefesh [bodily life force] stays with the body in the grave. Then, in a process that lasts from three to seven days, the soul extricates itself from the body. The more attached the nefesh was to the physical world, the more difficult and painful this separation [known as Hibbut Ha-Kever, the pains of the grave]... The nefesh shuttles between the grave and its previous home, mourning the death of its body... while the body resolves itself into dust...
The ruah [spirit, associated with intellect and morals]... is consigned to Gehenna after death... [Some teachings] suggest that the ruhot of [ethical and spiritual individuals] are spared the ordeal of Gehenna entirely... The stint in Gehenna is finite [usually twelve months] unless one was terribly wicked... [After purification the ruah] ascends to the Lower Garden of Eden, [where it is cleansed and clothed in a heavenly "vestment" and is] able to enjoy... the divine emanation.
...The neshamah [the highest spiritual element of the soul, focused on Torah and divinity], being wholly good, does not need to be punished. It ascends directly to the Higher Garden of Eden, which is believed to be... [where] it came from originally. It never comes down to earth again... The Higher Garden is organized into study circles in which the soul delights itself with learning about the nature of God.
...There is one final destination for the soul.... [known as] tzeror ha-hayim [the bundle of life], .... a place superior to the Higher Garden as well as a kind of divine clearinghouse for souls where they are assigned their next incarnations.
...The number of reincarnations for the purpose of purging sin is generally limited to three, based on a kabbalistic reading of Job... [Some] believed that if the soul [continued] its evil ways after three reincarnations, it would be condemned to Gehenna. Others... thought that a soul could not migrate to a new incarnation until it had been... purified... Those who believed that righteous souls also were reincarnated assigned those souls to Gan Eden for reward before they found new homes.
Simcha Paull Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife
[Eventually] kabbalistic teachings on gilgul harmonized with the spirit of rabbinic theology... [The Zohar taught that] the extent of one's obedience with the precepts of Jewish law [while alive] directly determined whether... one had to undergo gilgul... since there were 613 commandments... it was necessary to reincarnate to assure that... each would be completed... At the level of religious practice, gilgul would allow for a deeper involvement in... [fulfilling] mitzvot... At a spiritual level, the successive reincarnations of gilgul enable a soul to evolve and to open to deeper dimensions of divine perception.
...According to Chaim Vital... each... level... of the soul must be perfected. If there is a level of the soul not fully actualized during one's lifetime, there must be a gilgul to continue the process of the soul's evolution... Thus, the individual continually reincarnates and ultimately guarantees the complete purification and evolution of the soul.
...The kabbalists reaffirmed the rabbinic belief in resurrection of the dead... [but] added a spiritual context.... understanding the resurrection as being a materialization of the fully awakened spiritual body.
So Why Don't More People Know About This?
Leah Leila Bronner, Journey to Heaven
The most dramatic result of the Enlightenment on European (and, soon after, North American) Jewry was the establishment of different religious trends of denominations within Judaism...
By the 1840s, the Reform movement in Germany was beginning to pull away from the idea of resurrection in favor of an emphasis on the immortality of the soul... in 1844, a group of German rabbis... [under Abraham Geiger] began to move Reform Judaism toward a [more modern] liturgy... [At a rabbinical conference, Geiger reframed various concepts as having] "spiritual" rather than literal meaning. Geiger gave the example of the hope for an afterlife... [which he connected purely with] "the immortality of the human soul." In his 1854 prayer book, Geiger retained the traditional Hebrew in the... Amidah for the phrase mehayeh ha-metim ("God... who revives the dead, an expression usually taken as a reference to resurrection) but he translated the passage in German as "who bestows life here and there."
In the United States, the Reform liturgy went through the most radical changes. [The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform read:] "We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenenna and Eden (Hell and Heaven) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward."
...As early as 1856... Rabbi David Einhorn, leader of the "radical" wing of the Reform movement, had produced a prayer book that replaced references to resurrection with praise to God, in Hebrew and German, for "implanting within us eternal life." [This same wording was used in the English translations of the 1895 Union Prayer Book]... In 1975, the new Reform prayer book, Gates of Prayer, replaced ... mehayeh ha-metim... with mehayeh ha-kol ("who gives life to all". [Reconstructionist prayerbooks beginning in 1945 used similar wording.]
...The Conservative movement... has consistently maintained the traditional Hebrew phrase... but, as Rabbi Neil Gillian says, "shades the English translation to effect a more modern sensibility." .... [The] 1985 prayer book Siddur Sim Shalom, translates mehayeh ha-metim as "master of life and death." Its predecessor... translated the same phrase as "who calmest the dead to life everlasting."
In its  statement of principles... titled Emet v'Emunah... [the Conservative movement] affirmed the doctrine of bodily resurrection... [while allowing multiple ways to] understand traditional teachings... [ranging from] literal truth [to] mere metaphor...No such shading is used in vernacular translations of siddurim... used by Orthodox Jews which to this day praise the Eternal as the One who "revives the dead," "resurrects the dead," "resuscitates the dead," or "quickens the dead."
...In recent years, Jewish scholars and theologians across the ideological spectrum have explored such topics as resurrection and reincarnation... in some cases, claiming traditions that formerly had been pushed aside... with its  prayer book, Mishkan T'filah, the Reform movement, has come full circle, printing the traditional... mehayeh ha-metim alongside the version that ends mehayeh ha-kol.... presenting the worshiper with both options.
Which descriptions/formulations of the afterlife resonate with, surprise, or trouble you?
What values or beliefs do you see highlighted in the various permutations of the afterlife, or alternately, the relative de-emphasis on it compared to the present-world?
Do you think it's important that more Jews know about these afterlife beliefs? Should this be pushed as more of a priority in Jewish education?
Do you agree with some of the 19th and 20th century views that Judaism should focus exclusively on its rational and ethical principles? If so, is there any room for learning about and discussing more mystical or non-rational beliefs such as the afterlife?
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading
- What Happens After I Die?, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme
- With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief, by J. David Bleich
- The Death of Death, by Neil Gilman
- Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Paull Raphael
- Journey To Heaven, by Leila Leah Bronner
- After One-Hundred-And-Twenty, by Hillel Halkin
- The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, by Geoffrey W. Dennis
"What Is the Jewish Afterlife Like?", by Elon Gilad http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.638100
"Principle 13- Resurrection of the Dead"- Adam Mintz http://www.rabbimintz.com/audio/
"What Our Rabbis Tell Us About The World To Come" David Kraemer http://podcast.foundjs.org/
- "What Judaism Teaches about Death, Dying and the Afterlife" Steven Carr Reuben http://ourki.org/podcast/
- "Exploring Jewish Views on the Afterlife" Simcha Paull Raphael http://www.valleybeitmidrash.org/podcast/
- "Jewish Views of the Afterlife: Does the Soul Survive" Elie Kaplan Spitz http://www.valleybeitmidrash.org/podcast/
- Which descriptions/formulations of the afterlife resonate with, surprise, or trouble you?
- What values or beliefs do you see highlighted in the various permutations of the afterlife, or alternately, the relative de-emphasis on it compared to the present-world?
- Do you think it's important that more Jews know about these afterlife beliefs? Should this be pushed as more of a priority in Jewish education? Is anything lost by excluding or minimizing these views?
- Do you agree with some of the 19th and 20th century views that Judaism should focus exclusively on its rational and ethical principles? If so, is there any room for learning about and discussing more mystical or non-rational beliefs such as the afterlife?